Kay Blair understands what immigrant families need when they arrive

Toronto Sun
November 11, 2008


Statistics Canada predicts that by 2017, 95% of Canada’s visible minority population will be living in large cities.

Three-quarters of those people will set up residence in Vancouver (18%), Montreal (11%) and Toronto (45%).

Many of that 45% who will make up Toronto’s visible minority population will be new immigrants to the country. What makes Toronto such an attractive destination for many new immigrants is the ability to find large populations of people who speak their language, follow their customs and can help them with accommodations, education and employment.

Despite these advantages, many new visible minority immigrants still face many challenges while adapting to their new lives in this city.

“Besides struggling to socially integrate into the greater Toronto community, the biggest need for many new immigrants is finding meaningful employment and affordable housing,” says Kay Blair, executive director of Community MicroSkills Development Centre. “Many of the people we work with need to experience some level of economic security, and that includes finding a good job and having a roof over their heads for their families, before they can even begin to deal with some of the other challenges they may face.”

Based in Rexdale, MicroSkills provides settlement, training, employment and self-employment services to women, immigrants, visible minorities and youth. Blair has been the executive director at Microskills since 1988. Under her leadership, MicroSkills has grown from a staff of five and a budget of $300,000, to a staff of 50 with a $4.5 million budget.

Blair places a special emphasis on dealing with the needs of low-income women. This is an area near and dear to her heart because she understands their struggle on a personal level.

“I grew up in Jamaica where my mom raised nine children,” says Blair. “She never had a lot of money, but she had lots of compassion and she raised us on the principles of hard work and compassion for self and others. My mom also taught us not to fear anything and to be prepared to take some risks if you are going to be true to yourself as a person.”

Blair heeded her mother’s advice when in 1976 she immigrated to Toronto with her young family.

Her experiences of resettling and struggling to find a good job, resonates in her work with immigrant and visible minority women.

Blair has won numerous awards for the innovative programs she has created to help immigrant women improve their lives, including establishing the first self-employment program in Canada for low-income women to start their own businesses and starting The Women’s Technology Institute, which provides training for low-income women to access meaningful employment in the Information Technology sector.

Blair is equally committed to removing the barriers preventing at-risk youths in Toronto from finding success.

“Too many of our young people are not being invested in,” says Blair, who holds an MBA with a specialization in leadership from Royal Roads University and is currently working towards her doctorate in education at the University of Toronto.

“I believe if we invest in young people, regardless of race, and treat them with respect and care, a lot of good things can happen for them.”

Good things are about to happen for the young people from Jane-Finch and Jamestown who recently participated in MicroSkills’ Youth Express Project. Thirteen youths were taught the techniques of modern batik art. The artwork they created will be turned into a 2009 calendar. Their original batik artwork will be on display Nov. 16-19 at City Hall.

“Publicizing their work is a way of bringing the broader community together to see the great dividends of a small investment,” says Blair. “It also lets people see the work of a few young people that society has written off.”

Reference: Toronto Sun