At 92, after a lifetime of helping people, Ivyline Fleming has decided to take down her community leader’s shingle.
The much-decorated volunteer is proud of what she has accomplished, but she has had enough — and wants time now to travel, to read, to relax. Time for herself. Certainly, she has earned it.
Fleming came to Canada from Jamaica 59 years ago, as part of a federal government plan in which eligible black women could work in domestic service; after a year, they received landed immigrant status and, after five, could apply for citizenship. Almost from the outset, she became involved in community organizations — and that involvement has lasted nearly 60 years.
In 1959, she joined the Negro Citizenship Association, which met in the basement of Union United Church. There, she encountered Dorothy Wills, an academic, educator, social worker and community builder who would become a mentor.
Wills remembers “Miss Fleming,” as many knew her, as “a feisty lady who wouldn’t take no for an answer. And we were battling some terrible times.”
It was a time before human-rights legislation; discrimination against members of the black community was widespread in the fields of housing and employment other than domestic service. “We had no rights. It was a hard time,” Wills said.
Money was scarce. “And Miss Fleming would say, ‘I am going to hold a dance and I am going to feed the people and we will charge $5 to come in and dance and we will raise money.’ We looked at her as if she had four heads,” she recalled.
“Next thing you know, it is crowded and she would make $500, $800, and that paid for us to put out a newsletter, which we sent to members and their friends and it gave us money to do different things.”
One of those things was to fight discrimination — to do “pioneering civil rights work,” as Wills put it, if on a small scale.
A downtown hotel had advertised a part-time nursing job, for instance. A black nurse who applied was told the position was filled. Then she learned two of her roommates, both white, had applied and been given appointments for interviews — after she had been told the post was filled.
“She came to us at the Negro Citizenship Association and told us about the experience,” Wills recalled. “We decided to take a bold step and hire a lawyer.
“Enter Miss Fleming. … Miss Fleming said we should have a tea party (to raise money for the lawyer’s fee).” Which they did. The lawyer sued the hotel for discrimination in employment — and won.
There were other initiatives by Fleming, who was “quite the contributor to the Negro Citizenship Association,” Wills said. “She would use her common sense to help out the organization she belonged to and would come up with ideas.”
For instance, “it was her idea that we should visit black people who were sick in hospital,” Wills recalled. “We would go and see them and sit and read to them.” After working as a nanny, Fleming studied culinary arts and worked as a caterer; she also trained as a nurse’s aide and worked briefly at a long-term care centre. “She was always aiming for the top,” Wills said.
Meanwhile, community work remained a priority. When the Jamaica Association of Montreal was established in 1962, Fleming joined and rose through the ranks before becoming its first female president, she said with pride.
In the 1990s, she and four like-minded women founded the Jamaican Canadian Community Women’s League of Montreal; its mission was to encourage the full participation in society of women from visible-minority communities. The organization, which received its federal charter in 2001, gave seminars and workshops on topics including financial literacy and women starting their own businesses. It awarded 12 student scholarships worth a total of $12,000 to nursing students and, later, bursaries to CEGEP and university students.
“I was committed to enhancing the lives of women of all ages,” Fleming said. “Leadership is a big job and a challenging one. You are working for the community. … You have to be strong.” People who know her well say Fleming is such a person.
“She was always present and strong and honest and helpful … very organized, very active in planning,” said Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, a retired lawyer, judge and law-school dean who has known Fleming for years.
She called Fleming “a wonderful resource person in the African community here in Montreal among women who originated in Jamaica, but also black women in general. There are a lot of challenges when you are working in a community where you need to learn the code of another country.”
People who had arrived from elsewhere “were looking to make roots here in Montreal. She organized many courses for women to bring them together,” Westmoreland-Traoré recalled. “At that time, I was working as a lawyer. Sometimes she would refer people to me to whom I could provide advice and legal services: I did a lot of work in immigration, so I was able to assist some people in sponsorship application.”
Among honours Fleming has earned are the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), a medal of appreciation from the prime minister of Jamaica for her services to Jamaicans in Canada (2003), a medal from the Quebec government (2006) for services to the community and an outstanding citizen’s award (2012) from the borough of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce for volunteerism and social involvement.
But after 15 years as president of the Jamaican Canadian Community Women’s League of Montreal, Fleming was ready to step back. Unable to find someone to take over, she decided, not without regret, to dissolve the organization.
“Ivyline Fleming is somebody who has dedicated most of her life to the community,” said Brian Smith, a community worker and consultant who has worked with Fleming for nearly two decades and to whom she has been a mentor. “She would prefer that it be dissolved rather than not keep up to the standards she had for it.”
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