Profile of Lillie Johnson with gray background

U of T Nursing alum and public health advocate appointed to Order of Canada

19 January 2024

Lillie Johnson a graduate of the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BScN 1969) was named a member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Mary Simon on December 28, alongside 78 other accomplished Canadians.

Johnson who recently celebrated her 102nd birthday, was born in Jamaica in 1922. Prior to emigrating to Canada in 1960, Johnson worked as a teacher in Jamaica where she taught elementary school before deciding to train and work as a nurse in the U.K. When she arrived in Toronto in 1960, Johnson began working for the Victorian Order of Nurses, before following her passion for education and nursing with a degree from the University of Toronto. Her love of working in the community is something she says was inspired by her parents and her upbringing, and was one of the driving forces behind her decision to pursue a career in public health nursing.

“We are very proud to have Lillie Johnson as one of our esteemed alumni and congratulate her on her prestigious appointment to the Order of Canada,” says Robyn Stremler, Acting Dean of the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. “Her incredible and lifelong work to improve public health and the quality of life of many patients and populations is an example of true nursing leadership.”

Throughout her career, Johnson has achieved significant milestones including as the first Black Director of Public Health in Ontario, where she oversaw the Leeds, Grenville, and Lanark districts and her continued advocacy for family health and education as an instructor of Child and Maternal Health courses at Humber College’s nursing program.

Her time as a nurse in the 60’s and 70’s was not without its challenges, and Johnson can easily recall the racism she experienced as a Black nurse, including being passed over for promotions despite her long hours and hard work. This did not deter her willpower nor her goal of helping those in the community where she could, and in 1981, Johnson founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO).

The SCAO advocates for the needs of individuals with Sickle Cell disease, recognizing the health impact on members of the public. In 2005, the SCAO with Johnson at the helm, successfully lobbied for Sick Cell disease to be included in newborn screenings across Ontario.

Though symptoms of Sickle Cell disease can vary from person to person, determining whether someone has the disease early on is important not only for treatment, but also as a means of improving their quality of life. The SCAO under Johnson has been instrumental in raising awareness of the disease particularly among nursing students and through their yearly education conference which seeks to provide health care professionals and the public with knowledge about the treatment and care of Sickle Cell disease.

In addition to her public health achievements Johnson has been recognized by a variety of organizations for her impact on the health care system and community. In 2010 she received the Order of Ontario, and in 2015 was the torch bearer for the PanAmerican Games hosted in Toronto. In 2016 she was named a 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women Honoree, and received the Long-term Care Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Long-term Care Association.

In late 2014, Johnson published her memoir entitled “My Dream,” which details her motivations and journey as a Black nursing leader and advocate for the health of all.