It’s easy to tell that Ms. Thelma Johnson is a giant, just look at the amount of people who’ve been standing on her shoulders.
From the hundreds of students in Canada and Jamaica whose educational journey has been made easier by the bursaries and scholarships that she helped to facilitate to the community of women who has been empowered by her activism and advocacy, Ms. Thelma stands tall among us.
More than that, so many of those who are infirm, marginalized and shut-in can still depend on her for a visit and a caring hand.
But don’t expect a thunderous pounding of the chest from this community behemoth.
“It’s just the way I am,” she told a roomful of us, her acolytes, at the Pioneer Women Tea Party at the Centre de Loisir in St. Laurent on Sunday, June 3. “I make it my duty to help when I can, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I can.”
Ms. Johnson will soon be 90-years-old. She doesn’t look it, whatever it looks like, nor does she act like a 90-year-old.
But this year, members of the Caribbean Pioneer Women of Canada, the organization she founded, decided to sit her down at the annual Tea Party and shine a light on the work that she has been doing as well as her un-ending contributions to Montreal, Quebec and Canada.
So one after the other, friends, acquaintances and those who have worked with her over 60 years, including dignitaries from as far as Boston, and Mayor Allan DeSouza of St. Laurent, took to the stage and helped paint a picture of Ms. Johnson’s lifelong determination to help others.
When in 2017, The Montreal Community CONTACT identified her as a Community Builder, she stood out in her capacity as a pioneering entrepreneur who opened one of the first hairdressing shops in the community, Thelma House of Beauty, and kept it open for more than 37 years.
The establishment distinguished itself not only for hiring many young professionals but also offering Montreal’s first work-study program in hairdressing, recognized by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal on June 3, 1987.
It was a fantastic achievement for Ms. Johnson who came here as part of the Canada Domestic Scheme in the late 1950s.
In 1985 she banded those women together under the banner of the Caribbean Pioneer Women of Canada, offering them bonds of sisterhood and empowerment through their togetherness and activities, and built the organization into a force for good in our community.
Over the decades, the Pioneer Women have handed out or facilitated close to $60,000 in scholarships and bursaries to Canadian students, mainly through the Rev. Charles Este Scholarship Fund at Union United Church and some in partnership with Kane and Fetterley Funeral Home.
And they have donated hundreds of thousands of Jamaican dollars to educational initiatives in Ms. Johnson’s country of birth.
Over the years, Ms Johnson has been recognized for the stalwart that she is.
In 2005 at the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Labor Market Agreement between the government of Canada and Jamaica, Ms. Johnson was honored in the House of Commons at Parliament Hill, Ottawa, and received a standing ovation from members of both sides of the House.
In 2013, she was awarded The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award by former Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion for her contributions to Canadian society.