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Matriarch of Jamaican women’s league a model of determination

webmainThe suggestion for this story appeared one morning in The Senior Times email inbox, simple yet eloquent: “I would like to recommend that your paper do any article on Miss Ivyline Fleming, who is a community worker, still active at 88 years old, president of the Jamaican Canadian Community Women’s League of Montreal Inc. And my mentor.”

The request by Brian Smith was made without Miss Fleming’s knowledge. But she was at the office of the Jamaican Canadian Community Women’s League of Montreal, an organization she founded in 1996, when the reporter showed up.

“She’s here all the time,” says Smith, who works as project co-ordinator here and at Carrefour Jeunesse-Emploi de C.D.N. “If she wasn’t here, the door would be closed.”

Upon meeting Fleming, one is struck by her regal countenance, which forever negates the notion that age and beauty are separate. With her straight carriage and crown of luxurious snow-white hair, she conveys at once a quiet dignity, serenity and a bottomless pit of determination.

Her organization’s mandate is to encourage the participation of women from visible minorities into everyday Canadian society. Celebrating its 13th anniversary next month, it provides direct services and referrals to community partners.

Fleming immigrated to Canada under the country’s Domestic Scheme in 1957 and worked briefly as a nanny. Within a year, she was looking for something more challenging.

“I knew my abilities,” she says. She found a job as a housekeeper—more like a house-manager—in Westmount. She remained there for 13 years.

“In the second year I was no longer comfortable ‘living in’,” she said. Her employer found her an apartment of her own. In those days, a black person getting an appointment to see a prospective apartment was easy. “But when they saw you, they would not give it to you. You found you weren’t accepted, you had to fight so much.”

Montreal was going through the Sir George Williams crisis where black students rose up against the alleged prejudice of certain professors. “Discrimination here was not like in the States. It was hidden, but you could see it, you could feel it,” Fleming said, adding that black men were not allowed to drive taxis.

Within two years of her arrival in Canada, she became a member of the Negro Citizenship Association, a social justice organization founded in 1951. It targeted discriminatory immigrant policies of the day that prioritized former enemy aliens over West Indians. Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, Quebec’s first black judge and Canada’s first black dean of a law school, was also part of the organization at the time.

The next 50-plus years were spent in service to the community, beginning with joining the Jamaica Association of Montreal in 1962, where she was not the treasurer, nor the secretary, but “everything else.”

Having come from a political family, Fleming felt that it was essential that women help themselves, that they should not depend on others. “I had this idea that we should be responsible for ourselves.”

In 1983, she founded the Women’s Auxiliary of the Jamaica Association of Montreal and in 1996 she created her own association, the JCCWL of Montreal. “This time I was looking at community. I always like to work with younger people, to encourage them.”

This independent move began in Fleming’s apartment, in the spare room, where she created a program to encourage women to continue their education, join the work force and raise their self-esteem.

She approached then-premier Jean Charest. “I said I did not come to beg. I need assistance for my people.”

She obtained funding to open an office and started a scholarship program for first-year nursing students at local CEGEPs. The only requirement was that their marks had to be over 80 per cent. By 2012, 12 scholarships of $12,000 had been awarded.

Now the organization awards bursaries and funds programs in partnership with Carrefour Jeunesse-Emploi. “It’s a natural partnership, a sharing of resources,” says Smith, who has been there from the beginning.

When asked why he wanted to see a story on Fleming, Smith, in his early 40s answered, “She needs to be recognized. People in community work need someone to look up to.”

Though rewarding, both agree that community work is tough. With Smith’s knack for writing the programs and Fleming’s wisdom and experience, the organization provides a range of services for people of all ages, including seniors, such as financial literacy workshops, computer/social media courses and other information and skills necessary for financial independence.

In Miss Fleming, Brian finds inspiration. “She pays attention to details, makes sure the job gets done. There is a very genuine caring about the community.” To Miss Fleming, Brian is like a son. “We travel together,” she says.

The JCCWL annual banquet will take place Saturday, June 8. 514-486-5704.

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