CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province’s Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the 2023 Black Changemakers.
It’s been almost 60 years since a chance encounter in England with Canadian immigration officials handing out information brochures prompted Lillian Jackson and her sister to follow their gut instincts and make the move to Canada.
Their choice of city was all but random.
“We said, ‘We’ll come to Montreal,’ because we lived in Manchester. So we stuck with Ms,” said Jackson.
Plus, she said, they didn’t want to live anywhere rainy, like Manchester. So Vancouver was out.
That roll of the dice led to a lifelong relationship with Concordia University, where the Jamaican-born math nerd broke gender and racial barriers and went on to help shape the lives and careers of several generations of young scientists.
Jackson retired as the assistant principal of Concordia’s Science College in 2019, after 25 years.
Her official role was as advisor to the 20 or so students who enrol in the college each year — serious science students mulling research careers — helping them to register for courses, apply for scholarships and find overseas programs.
Unofficially, she was simply “Miss Lil” — confidante, taskmaster and den mother, all rolled into one.
“Lillian was, really, the beating heart of the college,” said Emma Despland, the principal at the Science College.
“That esprit du corps, that kind of solidarity and community among students is something that Lillian established.”
Breaking new ground
Soon after her arrival in Montreal in 1965, Jackson got a full-time job at CP Rail. A few years later, she signed up for evening classes in business and math at Loyola College, the school that merged with Sir George Williams University to become Concordia University in 1974.
As a Black woman and one of only two women in the commerce program in the early 1970s, Jackson stood out.
“They used to have some substitute teachers from the federal government, and all of these men sat there and they laughed at me,” recalls Jackson.
She remembers one professor bluntly asking her what she was doing there. The insult still stings.
“How dare he?” she asks. “I told him, ‘I am representing my sex, and I’m doing a damn good job of it.'”
In 1977, she completed the first of her three degrees, becoming one of the first Black commerce graduates at Concordia University. She went to earn a second undergraduate degree in economics in 1982, followed by a master’s in public administration in 1988.
But that condescending professor’s early remarks stayed with her. She said they played a role in how she interacted with Science College students once she became assistant principal.
“I was determined to assist anyone — any student who needed my help,”Jackson said. She remembers more than once running to catch the Concordia shuttle bus, having left work, only to have a student stop her to beg, “Miss Lillian, can you register me, please?”
“I would … jump off the shuttle bus and return to my office.”
She admits she monitored her students closely, fussing over them like a mother hen.
“I was more of a mother or a parent to most of them,” Jackson said. “Children, students are the future, and if they are not well-advised, encouraged, they will fall through the cracks. I did not want that to happen to any of the students I had.”
Helping students claim their space
Magali Merkx-Jacques studied at the Science College in the late 1990s, when women were still finding their footing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Jackson helped her feel like she belonged in her chosen field.
“She kind of helped remind me, especially as a woman of colour in a STEM environment, male-dominated, that this was my space and not someone else’s space,” said Merkx-Jacques, today a policy analyst with the federal National Research Council of Canada.
Jackson was “a formidable force,” said Merkx-Jacques — someone “you knew had your back,” but who was also firm and demanded that students strive to be the best version of themselves.
“She made it OK to be a geek,” said Merkx-Jacques, laughing.
When Jackson retired, Concordia established a bursary in her name, as a tribute to Jackson for the way she helped students forge their academic and career paths.
Jackson stays in touch with many of those students, attending weddings and graduations and following the progress of those she still remembers as wide-eyed first-year students.
“I love that. I see them grow,” she said. “That makes my life happy, and I love it.”
The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the changemakers here.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.