Walked the Walk
The cruel irony of Karen Willsey’s death was lost on no one — no one, including her husband Ivan Willsey.
“She was so full of life and energy,” says Willsey, “that she should fall victim to cancer is unbelievable, she put so much effort and compassion into helping other victims of the disease.”
Karen died of cancer June 30, 2005. For the past six years she worked tirelessly to win Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits for victims of Holmes Foundry in Sarnia, where so many workers died of asbestos-related diseases. Her efforts helped secure $20 million in compensation payouts — the largest in Ontario’s history for a single workplace. She accomplished all this while still president of her local union, the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) Local 1268.
Last year Willsey received the Bud Jimmerfield Award. The award is named after Bud Jimmerfield, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union Local 89, who died of cancer of the esophagus caused by exposure to metalworking fluids.
Nick De Carlo, CAW national representative responsible for workers’ compensation and the environment, worked closely with Willsey on the Holmes Foundry project. He says Willsey put her heart and soul into each case, often working 14-hour days. He says, she was determined to ensure Holmes workers were fairly compensated. “She found innovative ways of finding evidence to support claims — like the time she suggested going to Cancer Care Ontario for proof of a diagnosis when old records were lost or destroyed.” De Carlo says Willsey also showed immense compassion and understanding to workers and their survivors. “She visited them in their homes,” he says, “listened to their concerns, consoled them and answered their questions.”
About her work and activism, Ivan Willsey says her professional ethics did not allow her to talk about it at home. “I knew what she did was important and I supported her 100 per cent, but she believed she did not have the right to discuss people’s personal information. She would only say from time-to-time, ‘I made a woman happy today, she received her compensation payout for the loss of her husband to a workplace disease,’” he says.
Willsey’s husband adds she was effective because, “Nothing got in her way; she was knowledgeable and if she did not know enough about an issue she would take the time to research and read about it until she could go up against the best.” He says, “She was one of the ones who walked-the-walk, not just talked-the-talk.”
Cathy Walker, national health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers, says, “Willsey is one of the outstanding activists in our union. She worked tirelessly for workers and their families who are victims of occupational disease; she was always there showing great compassion and dedication.” Walker says Willsey delivered many Ontario Federation of Labour training programs. “She was one of their best instructors. We will miss her.”