By RON FANFAIR
Though weak and seriously ill in hospital, Dudley Laws’ strength of character, courage and unyielding commitment to social justice and equality were fondly remembered at a community celebration last Sunday at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) centre.
With the aid of Skype, an alert Laws watched from his hospital bed with family at his bedside as community leaders, colleagues, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Opposition leader Portia Simpson-Miller paid tribute to his selfless and lengthy body of community service.
Jamaica’s Consul General George Ramocan read messages from Golding, Simpson-Miller and High Commissioner Sheila Monteith-Sealy.
“The life of Dudley Laws can best be described as one which represents strong advocacy, determination and love for one’s fellow brothers and sisters,” said Golding. “His is a life that truly mirrors that old adage, ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world’.”
Simpson-Miller said little did Laws, who came from a small Jamaican parish, know that he would live his life as a hero while Ramocan noted that Laws comes from a family that’s deeply rooted in community activism.
“He has a brother in England who has done the same work he has been doing in Canada,” Ramocan said. “It’s a family tradition and it’s in his bones. Dudley is a man of great courage, a man who stood up where no one else dared to stand and a man who dared to make a difference.”
Laws’ activism began shortly after he moved to England at age 21 in 1955 at a time when immigrants from the Caribbean faced intense racism and discrimination. He founded the Brixton Neighbourhood Association and was a member of the West Indian Standing Conference formed in 1958 to promote the interests of Blacks in England following the Notting Hill riots.
He arrived in Toronto in 1966 and joined the JCA the following year and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1968 of which he later became president and executive director. The organization eventually changed its name to the Universal African Improvement Association.
“I have known Dudley since I was eight years old because he and my father have been friends since 1969,” said JCA president Audrey Campbell. “Growing up, I knew him as Uncle Dudley and I have observed over the years as be became an anchor, a Canadian civil rights activist and someone who is larger than life. He has made a difference and it’s because of his struggle and sacrifice that we are enjoying civil liberties.”
Former JCA president Valarie Steele described Laws as a thoroughbred while fellow activist Numvoyo Hyman remarked that Laws’ tireless community advocacy is priceless.
“The debt owed by this community to Dudley Laws is not one that can easily be repaid,” she said. “It’s not one that you could attach a price to.”
Ontario Liberal MPP Mike Colle said Laws does not only speak for disenfranchised Black Canadians but also for people of all colours who have had challenges and are without a voice.
“He was always worried about someone else even though he was facing health challenges,” said Colle. “He was also always trying to improve things for others. His battles were not easy. In fact, some of them were frightening. He’s a warrior and a real transformational figure. And we are going to dedicate ourselves to his causes so his work is not in vain.
“On my way to this event, I saw a billboard of Drake on Eglinton Ave. W. Maybe, we should have a billboard of Dudley thanking him for all he has done.”
Scarborough Centre councillor and Toronto Police Service Board member Michael Thompson said he consulted Laws before running for city council eight years ago.
“He has touched the soul and consciousness of all people in this country with his desire to work hard to ensure that fairness, accountability and justice for all prevailed,” Thompson said. “Dudley is and will always be a champion for all the people that are suffering injustice and those without a voice to express their concerns and the challenges they face in life.
“The history of Toronto, Ontario and Canada will judge Dudley extremely well, saying there goes a great Canadian hero of Jamaican heritage, but a man of the world who seeks to ensure fairness, equality and justice. I join those who say Dudley speaks for me.”
Retired teacher Lennox Farrell and businessman Denham Jolly, both community activists, recalled the many demonstrations and protests in which they and Laws participated.
“If ministers in our society are supposed to be our moral and spiritual compass, I would have to say Dudley is our judicial compass,” said Jolly.
YWCA Canada’s chief executive officer Paulette Senior said she and many others benefitted from Laws’ wisdom and his enduring passion for advocacy.
“If it wasn’t for Dudley, I think a few of us can say that we would not be doing what we are doing,” she said. “We owe our success in life to his work. I am a ‘Dudleyite’, mentored, trained and developed by the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and Dudley.”
Laws co-founded BADC in 1988 in response to the police shooting of Lester Donaldson.
A critic of the Toronto Police Service for many years, Laws and BADC developed a relationship with the TPS in recent times, mainly due to the service’s demonstrated leadership in building healthy relationships with the communities it serves and its efforts to become more inclusive.
The service’s first Black deputy chief Keith Forde attended the event.
“What Dudley was doing publicly, I was doing privately in the police service, trying to effect social change and make the organization more inclusive,” said Forde who retired last year.
In the past, Chief Bill Blair has lauded Laws for his outspoken advocacy against senseless gun violence and pledged that his service would work with BADC and other African-Canadian groups to send a strong message that youth- and gang-related firearm aggression is totally unacceptable.
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader John Tory and former Ontario minister Mary Anne Chambers also paid tribute to Laws at the community celebration that attracted more than 600 people, including Laws’ long-time friends and supporters Dari Meade, Peter Paul, Dr. Akua Benjamin, Miguel San Vicente and event co-organizer Hewitt “Logie” Loague.
“I was determined to demonstrate the best way I could that I respected Dudley’s consistency, courage and commitment to young people,” said Chambers, a former Minister of Training, Colleges & Universities and Children & Youth Services. “And I thought the best way I could do that was to ensure that BADC would receive some of the funding from the Youth Opportunities Strategy.
“What I wanted Dudley and BADC to do was something that a young man enlightened me about when he told me it’s not good enough to fund programs for youth where they go to some organization for some specified program. He told me you have to go where the young people are and what I had observed from Dudley was that he was always where the young people were. As a result of that, I was pleased to direct my ministry to fund youth outreach workers for BADC.”
The day before Laws was hospitalized a few weeks ago, he spent a few hours celebrating Black History Month with inmates at Joyceville Correctional Institution.