SEIU Healthcare will be profiling many of our incredible members throughout Black History Month. Please keep an eye on this page for more profiles during the month of February.
When Stephaney Williams was a young girl in Grenada, her father got a job as a school professor in Canada. Once he was set up in his new country, Stephaney, now 10 years old, joined her father, along with her four siblings and her mother.
As a new Canadian resident, Stephaney struggled to fit in right away.
“When I first came to Canada in the 1970s, I had an accent and was the only Black person in my classes. I suffered a lot of verbal abuse and racism because of this. Comparing back then to now, it’s so much better in 2018. When I first came to Canada, you wouldn’t see a Black woman dating a White man, or a White woman dating a Black guy, but now, people don’t look twice when they see that. Racism still exists today, but we’ve come a long way since I first came to this country.”
Stephaney has been a personal support worker at Sienna Altamont Care Community for the past 30 years and also currently serves as the chief steward of her workplace and as the Region 4 representative on SEIU Healthcare’s executive board.
One of Stephaney’s biggest passions is Caribana, a festival of Caribbean culture and traditions held each summer in Toronto. She’s attended the festival each year since she was a young child. As an adult, Stephaney now designs and makes costumes for the festival.
“By creating costumes for Caribana, it allows me to get involved in something that has meant so much to me over the years. Each year, I also donate some of my costumes to families in need who would like to participate but cannot afford to do so.”
With February being Black History Month, Stephaney sees this as a perfect time to educate others on the history and culture they may not be aware of.
“It’s important that we all are aware of where we came from. Our heritage and culture are very important and need to be remembered and celebrated. Canada is such a diverse country that allows everyone to embrace their own culture and show it off to others. We need to take advantage of that.”
Despite her struggles with racism as a child, Stephaney wouldn’t change any part of her own personal history.
“I am a proud Black woman. I am proud of my culture, my skin colour, and who I am as a person. To be a Black woman in Canada, you have to be a strong person, because things will be harder for you than others, but despite that, you can still achieve anything you put your mind to.”
Carmen Barnwell was born and raised in Jamaica and started her career there as an accountant. When she was 22, she visited Canada, where she met her husband. This led to her permanent move to the country.
“Canada was always somewhere I dreamed of living. If I was going to leave Jamaica, Canada was the only other option for me.”
One of the main motivations for Carmen’s move to Canada was her own upbringing. She grew up poor and did without a lot of the time. It was important that Carmen’s future children would have a better growing-up experience than she did.
Upon her arrival, Carmen worked as a cashier at a hotel. After that, she went back into accounting, but after struggling to find an employer she wanted to stay with, she realized that she no longer wanted to be an accountant.
“As I entered my 40s, I decided to get into healthcare. I wanted a job where I could make a difference and help others. Making people happy and healthy was something I knew would be very rewarding for me.”
Over 20 years later, Carmen continues to work in the healthcare sector as a personal support worker for the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) in Peel Region. She also serves as the chief steward in her workplace.
As a proud Black Canadian, Carmen looks forward to Black History Month each year and the celebrations that come along with it.
“It’s very important that we continue to celebrate Black History Month each year because so many people, especially the younger generations, are not as educated about their history as they should be. Black people invented so many things that we use today, and most people have no idea about that. We need to take pride in our ancestors and show off their achievements.”
While it’s important to Carmen to educate others about Black history, it’s also important for her to bring some of her own history to the 21st century.
“When I was young, I always felt like a princess born into royalty. I didn’t have a lot growing up, but whatever I did have, I displayed it; it was part of who I am and my culture. I still do this today with my clothes and jewelry. I am proud to bring my culture to Canada and show it off.”
Gloria Small was born in Trinidad and Tobago, where she completed her nursing studies and raised two daughters. While in Trinidad and Tobago, she worked as a mental health nurse at the St. James Medical Complex.
When her daughters were seven and eight, Gloria started looking ahead to their futures and decided that moving to Canada was in her family’s best interest.
“I wanted my daughters to have the best education possible, but that wasn’t affordable in Trinidad and Tobago. At that time, it would have cost me $300,000 to send them to school there, which would have meant selling my house and not giving my family a complete life.”
Gloria moved to Canada in 1989 and she’s been making an impact ever since. She’s been a mental health nurse at Toronto East General for the past 20 years, but that only scratches the surface of what she’s accomplished.
From her early days in Trinidad and Tobago, Gloria has been a fierce supporter of the Labour movement and a strong advocate for worker’s rights. She is currently a steward in her workplace and a supporter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Gloria’s labour activism paved the way for her role as a social justice advocate in other areas.
As a resident of Durham region, she’s been very active in her community, advocating for African-Canadian youth who are often at a disadvantage.
“So many young Black-Canadians are being unjustly suspended and expelled from school, which is the wrong approach. We need to keep our children in school because it’s their best chance at finding jobs, which is also a challenge for them. Black youth in Canada face a lot of obstacles and we need to give them hope that they can be whatever they want to be and have bright futures.”
Gloria is a former chair and current board member of the African-Canadian Legal Clinic and is currently the vice-chair of the Durham Action Committee. In these positions, she’s able to work towards finding solutions to the obstacles that Black-Canadian youth face.
In recognition of her work, Gloria was recently selected as one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women for 2018.
“It’s an honour to be recognized, but I still have so much more to accomplish. I feel a lot of sadness and pain that I can’t do more, which is my motivation to keep going and continue making a difference.”
Black History Month is important to Gloria and a time for her to reflect on where she’s come from, where she is now, and where she’s going.
“When I came to Canada, I brought my culture and my faith with me and have blended it with my Canadian experience over the years. As a Black-Canadian woman, I want to be a role model for the younger generation and give them hope for the future. A lot of my speaking out is for the people who are unable to speak for themselves. I want to be a voice for the people who don’t have one, the ears for the deaf and the vision for those who can’t see. As individuals, we can all do something to make the world better.”
Luisa Dourado is a Personal Support Worker (PSW) at Cedarvale Terrace Long Term Care Home in Toronto, where she also serves as a union steward and on the Health and Safety Committee. She has also been a member of SEIU Healthcare’s executive board since 2017, representing persons with disabilities.
Luisa was born in Mozambique, Africa. She remembers the 20+ years she lived there as a mixture of good and bad.
“I was raised in a good family that took care of me. Unfortunately, when Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal, the transition wasn’t smooth; I was stripped of my beliefs.”
Luisa joined a women’s movement and would take part in actions fighting for her rights and freedoms. This led the government to take notice of her and putting her safety in jeopardy.
In 1975, now in her mid-20s, Luisa had no choice but to leave Mozambique and move to Portugal, which she chose because it was a country that offered her aid and because she spoke Portuguese. She lived there for a few years, got married, and then was on the move again.
After stops in Nigeria, Brazil and the United States, Luisa arrived in Ottawa. After a long journey, she finally was in a place where her voice was given a space.
“In Ottawa, I joined the Canadian African Women’s Organization. This was a space where I could express myself and women could embrace each other and move forward. Through the organization, I helped set up educational experiences like ESL courses, cooking classes and other crucial things that immigrants to this country really needed.”
After three years in Ottawa, where she became a mother, Luisa moved to Toronto. With another human being to take care of, she knew she had to make a steady income, so she made the decision to take a personal support workers course at Centennial College. 15 years later, she remains a hard-working PSW.
Through her work with her union and in her community, Luisa uses her passions for women’s issues, human rights, dignity and respect, along with the experiences she has gone through, to make a difference.
“Being a person of colour, an immigrant, a woman and a single mother, I have been at a disadvantage for most of my life. I have suffered discrimination when it comes to finding a job and I have had to work two or three times as hard to get what I want in life. It’s been a struggle, but I have persevered, and I want others to know they can too. I want future generations to have an easier path than I did.”
With February being Black History Month, Luisa sees this as a time to reflect on the past and learn from it.
“Black History Month is always very important to me because it reminds me of what I went through in Mozambique. We must revisit our history and learn from it. We must remember the struggles and sacrifices of our ancestors, because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Marlene Hemmings was born in Jamaica, where she was raised by her grandmother until her teenage years, when she moved to Montreal to join her mother.
Marlene attended Mount Royal High School and then Vanier College, where she took a secretarial studies course. Upon graduation, she got a job at Jewish General Hospital, where she spent some time in admittance before moving onto the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research.
After some time there, the program she was working in closed, leaving Marlene with some tough decisions. After much thought, she decided she wanted to go into nursing, so she took at gerontology course at Dawson College. This led her to getting a job as a nursing aide at Jewish General Hospital.
Over the next several years, Marlene got married and had three kids, all of whom were born at the hospital in which she worked. It was also in that same hospital that her husband tragically passed away from cancer in January 1991.
With the memories of her husband’s battle with cancer fresh in her mind, her workplace became somewhere she had trouble spending time. This led her to transfer to Vigi Santé Hospital, ending her 17 years at Jewish General Hospital.
In 2002, Marlene’s youngest daughter, who was already in Ontario attending high school, decided she wanted to attend university there as well. Marlene agreed to this request and decided to join her daughter in Ontario.
It didn’t take long for Marlene to have two different job offers at long-term care homes in her new province. She decided to take the offer from Sherwood Court in Vaughn, where 15 years later, she not only continues to work, but also serves as the chief steward.
As a passionate member of SEIU Healthcare, Marlene strives to make an impact for her coworkers and her community.
“I have a passion for justice. If I see something is wrong, I’m not going to sit back and let it happen. When I became active in my union, it gave me the drive to be the way I am, both in my workplace and in my community. Being a union member and a steward gives me the platform to speak out for those who do not have a voice.”
In addition to her union work, Marleen has also been very active in her community. She has worked on federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s campaign twice and has participated in several political actions in Brampton. She uses her own experiences as motivation to make a difference for others.
“As a Black Canadian growing up in Quebec, I encountered a lot of racism, whether it was at school, at work or just out in public. The way I was treated gave me the motivation to achieve fairness and justice, which everyone deserves. Some people might have more education or money than others, but nobody has the right to talk down to anyone or take away someone’s justice.”
Sophia Bent was born in Jamaica and moved to Canada with her mother at the age of six. With Sophia being the only child of a single mother, the two had a very close relationship.
Upon arriving in Canada, Sophia and her mother lived in Montreal for a few years. Sophia's mother worked as a housekeeper and a maid in order to put a roof over their heads and food on their table.
"Being Black women in Canada, it was a struggle for both my mom and I. She worked long hours so that we could survive, and not only did we survive, but we flourished."
Sophia has been a dietary aide at Gibson Long Term Care in Toronto for the past 30 years. She is an extremely active union member, participating in every activity she can find. One of the activities Sophia looks forward to each year is SEIU Healthcare's Black History Month Celebration.
"I am very proud to be a Black Canadian. We live in such a beautiful country that gives so many people opportunities that others don't have. It's important to learn about other places around the world and see how they live. In Canada, we wake up in the morning, turn on a tap, and clean water comes out. In less fortunate countries, they don't have simple things like clean water, clean air and education."
As the mother of two daughters, Sophia feels it's important to always remember where she came from and to share her culture with others. Recently, she travelled back to Jamaica for her father's funeral, and while it was under sad circumstances, she was able to show her children where she grew up and how the people of Jamaica live.
"It meant a lot to me to show my children the Jamaican culture. Where I'm from, you don't just go down the street to No Frills and buy your groceries, you actually live off the land. A lot of people come to Canada and forget where they came from, but it's so important to always remember your past and hold onto your culture."
Millicent Hall was born in St. Ann, Jamaica. She attended St. Hilda’s High School before moving on to Jamaica Business College. Upon graduation, she worked several jobs in the food industry, including a manager’s job at a restaurant called G’s Place and an assistant manager’s position at Morales Health Food Store.
After some time working in the food industry, Millicent changed career paths and became a postal clerk at the General Post Office in Kingston, Jamaica, where she worked for several years.
In 1972, Millicent moved to Canada, where she would once again work as a postal clerk, in addition to working part-time at an insurance firm and as a cashier in a grocery store. From there, she decided to choose a career where she could help others. She went back to school and took a personal support worker course at Durham College in Oshawa.
In 1978, the same year Millicent became a proud Canadian citizen, she joined the nursing team at Extendicare Guildwood in Scarborough. 40 years later, Millicent continues to work there, also serving as chief steward and on the health and safety / workplace violence committee.
As a dedicated union member, Millicent is a leader, activist, motivator and positive example for her fellow coworkers. She served on SEIU Healthcare’s Human Rights Committee for many years and is a strong supporter for women who have experienced domestic violence.
In the Fall of 2017, Millicent and several of her coworkers ran a feminine hygiene product drive at their workplace. In order to maximize on the amount of donations they collected, they organized a free breakfast to encourage their coworkers to bring in a donation. In the end, they collected over 225 packages and other important items like clothes, pillows, shoes and purses.
As a strong, motivated and proud Black Canadian woman, Black History Month is something that Millicent looks forward to each year.
“Over the years, I have done projects on inspirational people such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks to bring awareness of the struggle that Black people have faced over the years,” said Millicent. “These are trailblazers who fought for freedom, democracy and social justice. I am empowered by their journeys and I try to set my own example in fighting against injustice.”
While Millicent continues to hold onto the Jamaican culture she was brought up in, she also embraces what it means to be Canadian.
“I love being Canadian and living in a free country that allows me to be proud of who I am and what I stand for. This country has given me the freedom to have a voice and use it to make a difference. It is my responsibility to use that opportunity to make the world better for my children and grandchildren.”
Eulalee Robinson was born as one of eight siblings In Jamaica. After graduating high school, she took a college-level typing/shorthand course, but it didn’t take her long to realize that this wasn’t how she wanted to make a living.
“In Jamaica, I used to pierce people’s ears. A lot of people would be uncomfortable doing this or be afraid of blood, but I wasn’t. Everyone always told me I’d make a great nurse, so that’s what I decided to pursue.”
At the age of 18, Eulalee moved to England where she attended Maidenhead Hospital, a small training hospital in the country. She was the first of her class to arrive, which was both lonely and scary.
After spending the first night alone, she was joined by a lady from India. Over the next few days, the rest of her nurses-in-training arrived.
“Everyone who arrived at Maidenhead Hospital was scared, lonely and wanted to go home. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stay, but one day a friend of mine from Ireland said to me, “Eulalee, we are going to make it through this. It’s going to be hard, but we are going to make it.”…and she was right, we made it.”
Going into this experience, Eulalee thought nursing was just caring for people and giving needles, but she quickly learned that it was so much more. This was no ordinary school; there were no classes or tests. Each nurse-in-training was mentored and thrown right into the fire, caring for real people in real situations as they learned.
One day, while with her mentor, Eulalee witnessed her first-ever death when one of the patients passed away. As they were cleaning the body, the dead patient turned towards Eulalee and let out a loud noise, much to her surprise.
“I ran right out of the room and into my dorm. I’ll never forget that. I’m thankful for my mentor, Margaret Sheldon, who helped me get through that. She had a similar path to mine, leaving her family to start a new life. I used her as motivation to succeed, and I did. I weathered the storm and I passed my four-year course.”
After graduation, Eulalee went to London, England and became a State Enrol Nurse (which is similar to an RPN in Canada) at Winchmore Hill. After four years, Eulalee, now a single mother, brought her kids back to Jamaica because she felt very alone.
In 1979, Eulalee made the tough decision to leave her kids with her mother and move to Canada. To be a nurse in Canada, she had to write a test, which she wrote, and unfortunately failed.
Unable to be a nurse in her new country, Eulalee got a job as a grad at Centenary Hospital in Scarborough. While there, she wrote the nursing test again, and once again, she wasn’t able to pass.
After that, she moved to Brooklyn, New York and worked in a retirement home for eight months as a Licensed Practical Nurse (similar to RPN).
Eulalee moved back to Canada following that experience and was able to move her kids here. She got a job at a nursing home, once again as a grad. After being transferred to Kennedy Lodge and spending eight years there, Eulalee was ready for a change.
“I went back to school and graduated from a four-year Data Entry program. This led me to get a job at the Royal Trust Company.”
But her time there would be short, as she was laid off following a merger after just two years. Once again, Eulalee was forced to start over.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I tried my nursing test again. Unfortunately, for a third time, I failed. But at this point, I was committed to working in healthcare and helping people, so I decided to back to school.”
Eulalee took a healthcare aide course at Centennial College, which she graduated from. It didn’t take her long to get hired as a personal support worker in Aurora. After three years at that job, her Director of Care accepted a transfer to Winbourne Park Long-Term Care Home in Ajax and encouraged Eulalee to come with her. She did, and 16 years of SEIU Healthcare activism later, that’s where she remains.
After serving on the union’s executive board for three terms, she now represents SEIU Healthcare as a trustee on the Nursing Homes and Related Industries Pension Plan (NHRIPP) board. Eulalee has also been extremely active when it comes to canvassing. She supported the Barack Obama campaign with her union and this past October, she hosted a Leadership Academy Community Outreach Day at her own house.
As a former member of SEIU Healthcare’s Black History Committee, the celebration of this month is something near and dear to Eulalee’s heart.
“Being a black woman in Canada hasn’t been an easy thing, especially when I emigrated here. Over the years, I have been able to appreciate who I am. SEIU Healthcare has given me some great opportunities to mentor members and educate others about Black history. I’m very thankful to be part of the SEIU Healthcare family.”
Susan Conliffe-Barker became a Canadian citizen in March 2017, but her journey to get there wasn’t easy.
On December 17, 1997, Susan came to Canada from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to visit her mother and three of her younger siblings. When her mother got sick, Susan made the tough decision to stay and help look after her, leaving her two sons back in her home country with her father. As a single mother, this was extremely hard for her.
Susan’s first six months in Canada were a struggle, as she was unable to work due to not having the proper paperwork. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Susan had earned a diploma in Business Studies, but in Canada, this was seen as no good, forcing her to start over. She was eventually able to find work as a housekeeper.
In 2006, while on her way to work, Susan was arrested by Canadian Immigration and kept in a holding cell for four days. She vividly recounts this moment feeling like a nightmare.
Following this incident, Susan filed a refugee claim and was able to obtain a temporary work permit. One year later, in 2007, her oldest son came to Canada, joining Susan and her youngest son, who came to the country three years earlier in 2004.
On August 18, 2008, Susan was hired as a Laundry Aide at Valleyview Residence in North York. It seemed like she was finally going to have the life in Canada that she desired, but once again, adversity struck.
In January 2009, Canadian Immigration decided that Susan and her youngest son must return to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, booking them one-way flights. After over 11 years in Canada, she seemed destined to leave the country.
With her time running out in the country she had called home for the past 11 years, Susan’s common-law partner sponsored her for permanent residency. This allowed January 2009 to come and go without her or her son leaving Canada. Two and a half years later, on November 30, 2011, Susan was finally approved for permanent resident status.
In 2012, with her status no longer in doubt, Susan expanded her training and became a personal support worker. She still works at Valleyview Residence as a laundry aide and also serves as a union steward.
Susan is an extremely active union member. She’s worked on and supported such campaigns and initiatives as the Fight for 15, Sweet 16 for PSWs and Equal Pay Day. She also participated in a flash mob to raise awareness for International Women’s Day.
When working alongside her union, she uses her journey as motivation to create change. Whether it’s being a leader in her workplace, taking part in a political action or getting involved in a union event, Susan is always ready to support the causes she believes in.
“People expect things to change on their own just because they pay union dues, but it doesn’t work that way. You need to get out there, demand change, volunteer, and do whatever you can to ensure your future is better than your past.”