Former Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president and Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) founder, Clifford Pilkey was recently awarded one of our country’s most distinguished honours—the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Cliff’s was one of 600 medals handed out at a gala on June 18, 2012. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, the specially-minted commemorative medals were awarded to distinguished Ontario residents who had already been invested with the Order of Ontario. Other Canadian citizens who have distinguished themselves in service to their community, province or country have also been nominated for a medal. Cliff was invested with the Order of Ontario on April 11, 1990.
The gala, which took place at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, was hosted by the Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Also in attendance was the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. In a written message, the Governor General describes the Diamond Jubilee as a “celebration of a lifetime of committed service, steadfast loyalty and true dedication.”
Gord Wilson, also a past OFL president and WHSC president emeritus believes the Governor General’s statement to be an apt description of Cliff’s contribution. “I have known Cliff Pilkey for almost 50 years. In his local, as an MLA, as President of the OFL and the WHSC no one has been more passionate about workers’ health and safety than Cliff Pilkey,” says Gord.
He adds, “It is because of Cliff's vision and determination the WHSC exists today. Long ago, he realized worker health and safety training could only be effective if designed and delivered by workers and in the interest of workers, free from employer or government influence and interference. It was Cliff's insistence the WHSC remain autonomous and reflective of worker priorities and principles. Nationally and internationally, the WHSC has been recognized as the model to duplicate. Countless workers and their families are alive today because of Cliff Pilkey.”
Cliff started his public life as president of Local 222, of the then-United Auto Workers union. From there he became involved in local politics and was elected to Queen’s Park as the Ontario New Democratic Party MPP for Oshawa in 1967. In 1976, Cliff was elected president of the OFL, a position he held until 1986 when he retired.
Over the years, Cliff also provided steadfast stewardship for the WHSC. With the passage of Bill 70, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act Cliff understood workers and workplace representatives would require proper training in order to exercise their rights and live up to their responsibilities as enshrined in the Act. Resolute in purpose, Cliff went on to negotiate with the government of the day, and indeed with his fellow labour leaders, the provision of grants centrally pooled to support an OFL health and safety training project that would seek to benefit all Ontario workers.
On the strength of this project’s performance, Cliff would later convince the then-Workers’ Compensation Board to provide sustained funding. Thus, an important voice for workers was created within the province’s health and safety system—the WHSC.
Cliff went on to serve as president of the WHSC Board from 1985 to 2000 and president emeritus from 2000 to 2009. During his tenure, WHSC funding grew approximately 10-fold. As Gord Wilson observes, more important, WHSC’s role as an autonomous health and safety training organization for Ontario workers has grown immeasurably.
Recently hospitalized, Cliff was unable to attend the Jubilee event. However, his son Allan Pilkey and daughter Jackie Zaika were on hand to accept the medal on his behalf. Allan later delivered the medal to his father in hospital.