OFL Human Rights Director Janice Gairey Retires
The OFL said goodbye and good luck to lifelong union and equity activist, Janice Gairey, who retired this January. While her tenure as an OFL Director was only 11 years long, Janice’s career as a labour activist and union organizer spans four decades. However, her ongoing work as the Ontario Chapter President Emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and her new position on the Executive of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) guarantee that Janice’s labour activism is far from over.
“Janice has been a torchbearer and a fearless fighter for human rights,” said OFL President Sid Ryan. “Janice has kept our movement honest and demanded that we practice the principles that we preach.”
With a family with a history of civil rights activism dating back to her great, great grandfather’s escape from slavery through the Underground Railroad, Janice’s activism is in her blood.
She started her career as an Educational Assistant working with students with developmental delays at the William J. McCordic School in Toronto and quickly moved up the ranks in her own union, becoming Vice-President of CUPE 1874. Janice went on to work as a Project Coordinator for the Toronto & York Labour Council before settling into her first position with the OFL, as a Regional Coordinator of the Basic Education for Skills Training (BEST) Program.
[Centre Spread: Click here to read the full OFL President’s Report]
After funding for the workplace literacy program was cancelled by Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s, Janice worked her way through a series of positions in a variety of unions, including SEIU, CUPE, HERE, ACTWU and the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Labour-Community Services, before she landed back with the OFL in 2003 as the Education Director.
In 2007, Janice became the OFL’s Human Rights Director to replace the recently retired June Veecock and, like June before her, Janice amplified the OFL’s human rights work through her work with the CBTU. As the longest-serving president of the CBTU’s Ontario Chapter, Janice earned a reputation within the CBTU International for bringing the largest delegations in the Chapter’s history and for bringing forward some of the hardest-hitting resolutions.
However, Janice’s equity activism reached far beyond her own community. Under her leadership, the CBTU formed a formal alliance with the Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC) and the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) that is sure to long outlast her tenure. She also became a champion of Aboriginal issues and worked closely with the First Nations, Inuit and Metis community.
As a proud mother of five and grandmother of 18, family was an important focal point to Janice’s activism and it was the essence of “people first” leadership style. She devoted her attention to developing other activists and supporting them to become the next generation of leaders.
A very humble leader, Janice often avoided the limelight. However, on the occasion of her receipt of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Bromley Armstrong Human Rights Award in 2012, Janice was asked to deliver some remarks from the podium. Her words spoke volumes about her leadership and added further justification for her receipt of the award. She said, “At this stage of my life, I am doing this work for my grandchildren and for my community and no one in any position of power or privilege is going to stop me.”
WHAT DO LABOUR ACTIVISTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT JANICE?
“Before Janice came along, the CBTU was walking tall, but when she left, it was jumping sky high. She didn’t just call upon labour to tackle racism and inequality in our society, she called for the leadership and staff of the labour movement to look like the membership. While mobilizing labour to fight against racism, she also called on unions to get their own houses in order.”
– June Veecock, Retired OFL Human Rights Director and Former President of the Ontario Branch of the CBTU
“I extend to Janice my sincere congratulations and best wishes on her retirement. I have known Janice for years and witnessed her commitment to bringing the community and labour movements together to fight for human rights. Janice is a formidable role model and her contributions to the trade union movement and her community shines as a beacon for others to follow.”
– Bromley Armstrong, Lifelong Labour Activist and Canadian Civil Rights Leader
Marie Clarke Walker
“For Janice, the movement is first and foremost about people. She has dedicated herself, above all else, to mentoring, supporting and inspiring others – young and old – to become activists and leaders in the labour movement. She is a wellspring from which so many of us draw our strength.”
– Marie Clarke Walker, CLC Executive Vice-President
Rev. Terrence Melvin
“Janice is as dedicated a friend as she is an organizer. She is an ear to advise, a hug to rejuvenate, and a kindred spirit in the struggle that at times seems so insurmountable. It is only because Janice understand the need to let young leaders emerge that we accept her resignation from titles, but we will never accept her resignation from the movement.”
– Rev. Terrence L Melvin, President of CBTU International
“Janice was a powerful leader who leads from behind. She has made an incredible contribution to the fight for equity through her work in building the Ontario Chapter of the CBTU, but the strongest testament to her legacy are the legions of racialized activists, particularly young workers of colour, who were elevated by her work. Janice was deeply committed to intertwining the work of the CBTU and the OFL. For Janice, a labour movement without equity and human rights is non-negotiable and we are going continue to champion that work in her honour.”
– Yolanda McClean, President of the Ontario Chapter of the CBTU
“Janice Gairey didn’t just clear a path for black workers, she blazed a trail for racialized workers from every community, and inspired equity seekers across the movement. In all of her work at the CBTU, she extended resources, support and solidarity to LATUC. Janice forged a bond between our organizations that lifted both communities and gave unprecedented voice to workers of colour in Ontario’s labour movement.”
– Edgar Godoy, President of the Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC)
Anna Liu & Chris Ramsaroop
“Janice has always been a strong advocate for equity issues and a long time friend, ally, comrade and contributor to ACLA’s success. Sister Gairey opened many doors for young workers and racialized workers in the labour movement. She has left a strong legacy that all of us must build upon.”
– Anna Liu and Chris Ramsaroop, Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA)
“Janice lived a giving life and it was reflected in all that she did. She helped to support and elevate the work of the Aboriginal Circle to the extent that she became more than OFL staff: she was a part of our circle. Janice put her heart and soul into learning and understanding our traditional ways and she became a true sister to all of us. We send her all our love and solidarity in retirement. We have no word for good-bye in Cree, so we say ‘Wha Chay’ (‘later’) and ‘Chi-Miigwech’ (‘Thank you very much’).”
– Joanne Webb, OFL Vice-President for Aboriginal Workers, Ogemuh a na Goke (Morning Star, Leader of Stars)
“Janice never asked what the community could do for the labour movement, she always asked, ‘How can Labour help the community?’ She recognized that the key to solidarity was to extend support, not to ask for it, and the role of the OFL was to use the strength and militancy of the labour movement to elevate the most marginalized communities. That was the kind of work that redefined the OFL as a true voice of labour.”
– Irwin Nanda, OFL Executive Vice-President
“Throughout Janice’s career, there has never been a point where she didn’t have to work, but she was never intimidated by power or privilege. Her values were very central to what is important to her – that included her family, her community and then the movement. In that order. Hers is an activism rooted in the deepest personal integrity.”
– Christopher Wilson, PSAC Regional Coordinator and CBTU Member