Caribbean Canadians lose two icons
By Raynier Maharaj in Toronto
The Caribbean Canadian community recently lost two of its most prominent icons.
Human rights activist Charles Roach and former Member of Parliament Lincoln Alexander both passed within weeks of each other in October.
Roach’s legacy is huge.
He moved to Canada from Trinidad in the 1950s, with the plan of pursuing a degree in theology.
However, while at the University of Saskatchewan, he became caught up in the civil rights movement and its inherent drama being played out in the neighbouring US, which he later said was what “politicised me. This was the spirit of the times… I am really from the civil rights era.”
He was motivated enough to leave his plans of becoming a priest behind to pursue a degree in law instead at the University of Toronto.
His decision had an impact many lives over several generations.
Called to the Bar in 1963, Roach began working as a lawyer with the City of Toronto.
Interestingly, he worked for government while, at the same time, organising protest marches and demonstrations for equal rights against that same government in the city.
No doubt this led to some uneasy times in his workplace, and in 1968, he decided to hang up his shingle and open his own law practice.
One of his first clients was the Black Panthers, the radical black American group which was purportedly involved in a series of killings and bombings in the name of “freedom” in the US.
The Panthers were accused of terrorising ordinary Americans - and the US justice system began methodically rounding up its members.
Several Black Panther members fled across the border to Canada to seek refuge, claiming political persecution in their homeland.
According to Canadian immigration laws, political persecution is one of the qualifying factors in determining who is accepted as a refugee, but the Canadian government at the time would have none of it.
As far as the Canadians were concerned, the Panthers were terrorists.
Roach, however, took up the celebrated case and defended them.
As a result, he is still fondly remembered by members of the group who are still alive, with one, Jonathan Davis, keeping in constant touch right up to Roach’s death on 2 October.
Roach also took up the cause of domestic workers in Canada.
Many of these women were from the Caribbean, and would arrive on Canadian shores in the 1960s and 70s to work for white families.
Many were ill-treated, and when they complained, were arbitrarily deported.
Roach would have none of that.
He took up their case for nothing, in most instances, and fought for their rights to become legal Canadian residents and citizens all the way to the highest court in the land.
Among the domestics who benefitted from Roach’s intervention is a lady named Jean Augustine, originally from Grenada.
Augustine would later educate herself to obtain a Master of Education degree from the University of Toronto, becoming one of the few black faces on many organisations and boards in the city at the time.
From there, she ventured into politics, becoming a Member of Parliament in 1993, and eventually was named the first black woman Cabinet member in Canada in 1996 when she was appointed as Minister for State for Multiculturalism by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
But back to Roach.
In the 1990s, there was serious tension between the black community and the police in Toronto, which resulted in several incidents where young black men were shot and killed by police during supposed altercations.
Roach, however, suspected that the real reason behind the poor relations between the two groups was systemic racism, and set out to fight it.
He, together with another activist, Dudley Laws, formed the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), which would stage demonstrations and marches to hold the police’s feet to the fire each time a confrontation led to death or serious injury of a black person.
BADC’s advocacy against systemic racism in the police service eventually led to the province of Ontario establishing the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian body, to probe any incidents between police and civilians that lead to injury or death.
Roach called for such a unit because, he said, justice was not served when police were charged with investigating themselves in any incident.
Today, the SIU remains one of his legacies.
Another is Caribana, the annual Caribbean carnival staged on the streets of Toronto.
Roach was the group’s first chair in 1967, and, interestingly, was also its last chair.
He remained a committed member of the Caribana board for years and tirelessly fought for more funding and more freedom for participants in the carnival on the city’s streets.
Roach’s most memorable, fight, though, was against Queen Elizabeth II.
As a member of the executive committee of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, he fought tirelessly to end the Canadian monarchy.
As a permanent resident of Canada, Roach had qualified for citizenship since the late 1950’s, but he refused to swear the Oath of Citizenship, because it contains a promise to bear allegiance to the Queen.
In 1992, he took his fight against the oath to court, saying that it was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He also said that as a black man, he could not bring himself to swear allegiance to a monarchy that had benefited so greatly from slavery.
The Federal Court of Canada ruled against his motion to have the oath struck down, and he took the matter to the Supreme Court, which also rejected him.
He wasn’t fazed, and in 1997 he launched another attack on the Queen, taking his matter as a class action lawsuit before the Ontario Superior Court. But this matter, too, was dismissed in 2009.
This past May, dying from brain cancer, Roach once again launched another attack, declaring the oath to be unconstitutional. Judgement was reserved in the matter, and Roach died without knowing the result.
He also died without fulfilling his greatest wish to become a Canadian citizen.
Charles Roach, from Belmont in Trinidad, also made his mark on the international circuit when he went to Rwanda in 1999 to represent a Hutu journalist against human rights abuse charges.
Because of his passion for human rights and pan-Africanism, he was eventually appointed to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Roach was cremated following a private ceremony on 6 October in Toronto.
He leaves a wife, June, and three daughters.
Lincoln Alexander died on October 19 in Hamilton, Ontario at age 90.
A Queen’s Counsel, he also trod an unbeaten path as a black man in Canada, paving the way for many others to follow.
The son of a Jamaican father and a Vincentian mother, Alexander was born and brought up in Canada.
He first got noticed when he served with distinction in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.
After leaving the Air Force, he studied law at the University of Toronto and graduated in 1953.
In 1968, he did something unthinkable as a black man: he threw his hat into the ring as a candidate on a federal election.
He won that election and became the country’s first black Member of Parliament.
He also went on to become the first black Cabinet Minister when he was appointed Minister of Labour in 1979 by then Prime Minister Joe Clark.
He quit politics in 1980 and took up a position as chairman of the Ontario Workers Compensation Board, where he remained in the public eye.
His was a past, however, that got him noticed, and in 1985, Alexander was named as the Lt Governor of Ontario, becoming the first black person to serve in a vice-regal position in Canada.
A humble and likeable person, “Linc”, as he was fondly called, never allowed his many positions to get to his head. Instead, he made himself accessible to all, especially black youths who needed guidance, and involved himself in Canada’s black community to an extent way beyond what was expected of someone in his position.
Education and youth issues were his passion, so it was no surprise when he was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Guelph in 1991, a post he held until 2007, making him the longest serving chancellor in the university’s history.
In 2006, his passion for education and young black people once again came to the fore when he wrote Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy: The Honourable Lincoln M Alexander, a Memoir.
On 19 October, at the age of 90, Alexander died in his sleep with his new wife, Marni Beal, whom he married just last year, at his side.
His body lay in state at the Ontario Provincial Legislature for a week and he was buried following a state funeral in his hometown of Hamilton.
He leaves Marni and his son Keith, his child from his first marriage to wife Yvonne, who predeceased him in 1999.