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Claire fought injustice with pen, typewriter

Published: 
Sunday, July 1, 2018
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Claire Kathleen Harris Photo by:Suzanne Sheppard

The following is a tribute to educator and poet Claire Kathleen Harris, sister of Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris, who died in February in Canada after a long illness. A memorial service will take place in Port-of-Spain at Fatima College on July 15.

Peacefully, after a lengthy illness, Claire Kathleen Harris left us on February 5, 2018. Predeceased by her parents, Conrad Knowlton (1965) and Gladys Cardinal (1978), and by brother Lennox (2017), she is survived by siblings Conrad (Lottie), Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris, Sr Clare Harris SJC (born Ann Lyndsay), Margaret, and her beloved sister-in-law and caregiver, Rita.

She is also survived by nieces and nephews Tracey (Joseph), Wendy (Phillip), Derek (Jody), Kimberley (Matthew), Laurelle (Martin), and Azizi; great-nieces and great-nephews Keithen, Devin, Sydney, Alexander, Cheyenne, Skyler, Benjamin, Rhys, James, and Alivia; cousins George, Marguerite (deceased) Peter, Gerard and Mary-Ann Richards, the Harris cousins, Yeoland Moolchan and family. She will also be missed by friends Gretta Taylor, Rosemarie Meidinger, Nourbese Phillip, and Dionne Brand.

Born in 1937 as the second eldest of six, Claire taught English Language and Literature at St Joseph’s Convent School in St Joseph from 1956 to 1958 before departing for Ireland. She earned a BA Honours (English) from University College, Dublin, in 1961 and a post-graduate diploma in Education from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica in 1963. She returned home to Trinidad to teach again at her alma mater, St Joseph’s Convent School in Port-of-Spain, as well as the Catholic Women’s Teachers’ Training College from 1962 to 1966.

After emigrating to Canada in 1966, she taught English Language Arts and Drama to middle school students in the separate Catholic school system in Calgary. Dedicated to the education of young minds, she loved her work and continued to teach until her retirement in 1994.

Claire took a ten-month leave of absence to read for Mass Media and Communications at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, in 1975, and it was in there that she began to write poetry. She published seven works: Fables from the Women's Quarters (1984), Translation into Fiction (1984), Travelling to Find a Remedy (1986), The Conception of Winter (1989), Drawing Down a Daughter (1992), Dipped in Shadow (1996), and She (2000). Her work has been translated into several languages, including German and Hindi, and is considered one of the foremost contributors to Black Canadian Literature.

Claire won numerous awards for her poetry, including the Commonwealth Award for Poetry for the Americas Region (1985), the Writers' Guild of Alberta Award for poetry (1987), the Alberta Culture poetry prize (1988), and the Alberta Culture Special Award (1990). She was a finalist for the Governor General of Canada’s Award for Literature (Drawing Down a Daughter).

Committed to social justice and to her art

Claire read and lectured around the world, including India, Brazil, Germany, throughout the Caribbean, Canada, and the US, most notably at the United States Library of Congress. Her works appear in countless anthologies including the Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse, The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, and Grammar of Dissent: Poetry and Prose of Claire Harris, M Nourbese Phillip and Dionne Brand.

Her work has formed the subject matter of academic works, including at least two Ph D dissertations. In 2009, she was inducted into the Hall of Excellence at St Joseph’s Convent School in Port-of-Spain.

Claire will be remembered as one who dared to use pen and typewriter to combat injustice and to uplift the marginalized. She was driven by her commitment to social justice and to her art. Claire is remembered by her siblings as having a wonderful sense of humour and an engaging mind; she was admired by each of them even as they drew her into the most entertaining of polarized debates about current events.

Having chosen not to have children, she thrived as the cool, eccentric, well-travelled aunt who would always take telephone calls in the middle of the night. She passed on lessons about independence, justice, and how to thrive in a world too harsh in its colonialist treatment of racialized women and men. Most of all, Claire taught the next generation how to appreciate art, her chosen weapon of resistance to oppression.

She will be remembered by all who knew her as wry, loyal; regal, with resolve of steel; as a wandering spirit and adventurer, a woman utterly determined to live life well. Without qualification she was impassioned, brilliant, and loving beyond measure. She is and will always be missed.

A memorial mass led by Archbishop Emeritus Harris will be held at Fatima College, Port-of-Spain on Sunday, July 15, 2018, at 9 am. Her ashes will be interred in her mother’s grave at Paradise Cemetery, San Fernando.

Rest in peace, Claire: “Death is not extinguishing the flame, it is putting out the light because the dawn has come.” (Rabindranath Tagore).

As Claire would say, “End of story.”

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