By RON FANFAIR
While many were jumping up on Lakeshore Boulevard last Saturday celebrating Caribana, a small group of folks were assembled in the historic south-western Ontario town of Dresden to honour late human rights activist Hugh Burnett, the descendant of escaped American slaves.
Nearly two decades before the annual carnival was launched in the city in 1967, Blacks were refused service in Dresden’s restaurants, stores and barber shops. On his return from World War II, a passionate Burnett challenged the status quo in his hometown, forming the National Unity Association (NUA) that led to the passage of Ontario’s Fair Employment Practices Act in 1951 and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act three years later.
Burnett and the NUA also laid the groundwork for subsequent human rights legislation in the province and across Canada. A carpenter by profession, the human rights pioneer paid for his beliefs and bravery, dying penniless in 1991 at the age of 73.
Last Saturday, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a bilingual plaque at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site to commemorate Burnett and the NUA.
“This is long, long overdue,” said labour and human rights activist Bromley Armstrong who attended the event which was held to coincide with the annual Emancipation Day celebrations marking the end of slavery in the British Empire. “He made a huge sacrifice, resulting in him not getting any work in the city that he lived in.”
University of Waterloo professor, Dr. James Walker said Burnett was unpretentious, unrewarded and, until now, largely unrecognized.
“That’s how we treat our heroes in Canada, not just Blacks and other minorities,” said Walker, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. “All of us have had our rights defined and protected because of what began right here in Dresden.”
In spite of the fact that the Fair Accommodation Practices Act – enacted under then Ontario Premier Leslie Frost – clearly stated that “no one can deny to any person or class of persons, the accommodation, services or facilities usually available to members of the public”, some Dresden businesses brazenly flouted the law.
Armstrong was among members of the Toronto-based Joint Labour Committee for Human Rights that joined forces with Burnett and his movement in Dresden’s test cases hatched by British-born freelance writer Gord Donaldson who took a cameraman with him to record the events.
“Gord heard about what was happening after the CBC did a documentary and he became very interested,” said Armstrong. “The first restaurant we went into was McKay’s. Myself and Ruth Lor (a Chinese student attending the University of Toronto at the time) sat in a booth for several minutes without getting served and when I approached the waitress telling her we would like to have something to eat, she looked at me as if I was not standing there.
“When I asked to see the manager, she used her eyes to point me in the direction of the kitchen where there was this big guy with an apron (owner Morley McKay) standing with a meat cleaver at a chopping block.”
Armstrong said his request for service was met with a menacing stare from McKay.
“The more I talked to him, the faster the cleaver was going on the block,” remembers Armstrong who came to Canada from Jamaica in 1947. “Telling him that I came from Toronto and was hungry and thirsty seemed to mean nothing to him. He was getting angrier and I figured that he might harm me with the cleaver so Ruth and myself left the booth we were sitting in and Donaldson and his White cameraman came in and were promptly served.
“When McKay realized what was going on and that he had been set up, he locked his front door, closed the blinds and turned off the lights. He also called other nearby restaurants to tell them what was happening.”
The event made the Toronto Telegram’s front page the next day and McKay and the wife of the owner of Emerson’s Soda Bar restaurant, which had also refused Blacks service, were prosecuted and found guilty under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act.
They appealed and a judge overturned the decision citing that a restaurant owner could not be held responsible if their staff refused to serve clients. Another test case led to McKay’s successful prosecution and he lost his appeal before a different judge. He was fined $50 on two counts and ordered to pay $600 in costs.
McKay did not go through with an Ontario Supreme Court decision to hear his appeal, instead choosing to serve Blacks at his restaurant in 1956 which was 11 years before Caribana was launched.”
“It’s funny, but many people are not aware of this history and the sacrifice that people made so that we can do things now that we take for granted,” said Armstrong. “We can walk into any restaurant and get service now, but that was not the case just over 50 years ago in some parts of this country.”
Historian and curator Dr. Sheldon Taylor said Burnett bore the brunt of wrath because he was a Dresden resident.
“He was at ground zero,” said Taylor. “Whereas others went there to protest and left to come back to Toronto, he did not have anywhere to go and he suffered economically.”
Patricia Burnett-Patzalad led the campaign for her father to be honoured.
“I remember at his wake listening to Professor Walker and realizing for the first time just how important what he did was and that he had never received any recognition,” she said. “So I am very glad this is happening today.”
The Ontario Heritage Trust’s provincial plaque program recognizes significant people, places and events in the province’s history. Approximately 1,200 provincial plaques have been unveiled since the program began in 1953.