|Charles Roach, pictured at his Toronto home on June 27, 2012, died Tuesday at age 79|
.MICHELLE SIU/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
By Jeff Green
Charlie Roach was a human rights activist and lawyer who fought for migrant rights, battled systemic racism and advocated for equality in community halls, on the streets and in court.
A leader in Toronto’s black community, he died of brain cancer Tuesday, still fighting to gain Canadian citizenship without swearing an oath to the Queen. He was 79.
One of the founders of the original Caribana festival, Roach played an important role in creating civilian oversight of the Toronto police force. He also encouraged non-whites to run for public office.
He did this as a landed immigrant of more than 50 years because he refused to take the oath to the Queen as part of Canada’s citizenship ceremony. He began a fight to have the oath removed in 1988, a cause he continued until his death.
It’s an unlikely legacy for a man who started as a man of the cloth, an immigrant who arrived to study at the University of Saskatchewan, his eyes on the priesthood.
Roach was born the son of a trade union worker in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago, on September 18, 1931.
“He was very much inspired by the civil rights movement in the States,” said Peter Rosenthal, his friend, colleague and lawyer in his bid for citizenship.
Drifting away from theology and influenced by the civil rights movement, Roach went on to study law at the University of Toronto, was called to the bar in 1963 and opened his own practice in 1968. In the 1970s, Roach fought for people seeking refugee status, as well as the rights of migrant workers.
When Buddy Evans, 24, was shot dead by a police officer in 1978 during a brawl at a Toronto disco — an event that led to an 11-week inquest — it mobilized the black community. The government responded by creating a civilian complaints commission pilot project in the 1980s.
During that time, Roach co-founded the Black Action Defence Committee with Dudley Laws, Sherona Hall and Lennox Farrell. Questioning whether police were able to properly police themselves, the group fought for civilian control of policing. In 1990, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was launched to investigate civilian deaths and injuries involving police officers.
Roach was one of the founders of the Caribana festival in 1967, which would become an internationally known event celebrating island culture, now called the Scotiabank Carribean Carnival. He helped set up the Movement of Minority Electors in 1978 to encourage non-whites to run for public office, and he was appointed lead defence counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, from 1998 to 2005.
His final fight, for the right to gain citizenship without making the oath to the Queen, began in 1988.
“He wanted to be a Canadian citizen very badly,” Rosenthal said. “On the other hand, he was extremely principled and felt that he could not take an oath to allegiance to someone else, in a situation indicating that there was not an equality with somebody by virtue of birth.”
On Tuesday, before Roach’s death, his wife, June Thorne-Roach, pleaded for him to granted honorary citizenship.
“He is fading away pretty quickly now. I know that it was his life dream to be a citizen of Canada,” Thorne-Roach told the Star. He died later that night.
In Wednesday’s session of Parliament, MP Andrew Cash (NDP-Davenport) asked the Speaker to award Roach posthumous citizenship.
“Over his 57 years in Canada, Charles proved himself to be an exemplary Canadian citizen — in every way but name,” Cash said.
In his final days, Rosenthal said, Roach kept in good spirits, singing some of his favourite songs (including the refrain, “diddly diddly diddly dee /free the land from bigotry”) and staying optimistic.
“He wasn’t just teaching us how to live, he taught us how to die,” Rosenthal said.
Roach is survived by June, his wife of 10 years, and four children. Arrangements are still to be finalized for a public memorial.