By PHILIP MASCOLL
Dudley Laws, community activist, founder of the famed Black Action Defense Committee and the man whose relentless campaigning helped forced a change in the way Ontario investigates its police services has died. He was 76 years old.
Mr. Laws passed away at Humber River Regional Hospital Church Street site, off Jane Street, in the heart of the Black and Caribbean community he so loved and for which he worked so tirelessly.
He had been confined to the hospital for the last month as he valiantly battled a litany of medical problems.
His death from complications of kidney disease ended more than 50 years of unbroken service to immigrant communities in England between 1955 and 1965 when he came to Toronto.
His son Robert, one of five children, said his father’s commitment to equal rights and justice was grounded in a simple belief that society benefits from the full engagement of its citizens in a “society free of racial prejudice and discrimination”.
“His commitment to social justice led to a life’s work marked by courage, passion and an unyielding belief that people working together, united in a cause, can make a difference,” Robert Laws said.
“In that spirit, he dedicated his life to the betterment of all members of society. While being best known as an iconic figure in the Black community, he has worked with individuals and groups of all backgrounds.
“As a father, he will be remembered for his gentle spirit, warmth and kindness. Most importantly, he taught that one’s talents should be fully developed and used not for self-gain but to assist those around us.
“In his last moments, he showed his unbounded commitment, selflessness and love of humankind. He wished to see the fight for justice and equity of all peoples continued.”
A strong follower of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Mr. Laws dedicated his life to the struggles for social justice and equality.
He tirelessly worked against and protested police killings in Toronto and, with a handful of other activists, founded the Black Action Defense Committee in 1988. He was the committee’s first chair and was its executive director at his death.
In an interview some years ago, Mr. Laws spoke of the genesis of his community work.
“One of the first lessons that I learned and that was very clear to me, was that a community must be organized if that community hopes to achieve and sustain progress, justice and respect.
“Because of this view, and the historic philosophic teachings of the Honourable Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, I have joined and co-founded many organizations in England and in Canada.
“The need for community-based organizations, national, and international groups of cultural and political organization cannot be overstated.
“Soon after my arrival in Canada, I became a member of the Jamaican-Canadian Association, of which I am still a member. Soon after I joined the Universal African Improvement Association (the Garvey movement), and became its president in 1972.
“Some of the organizations that I co-founded were: (in England), The Brixton Neighbourhood Association and the Standing Conference of the West Indies. (In Canada), Black Youth Community Action Project (BYCAP), Black Inmates & Friends Assembly (BIFA), the Black Action Defense Committee (of which I am now executive director), and the various other committees that were formed in support of victims and their families because of police use of deadly force.
“In continuation of my community involvement, I am always inspired by the teachings of the Honourable Marcus Garvey. In his Philosophy and Opinions, he tells us: ‘Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people; action, self reliance, the vision of self, and the future has been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the hope of their own freedom’.”
A lightweight in physicality, Mr. Laws was a heavyweight when it came to serving the Black community. He never wavered and would take on any authority when there was a wrong to be righted.
This service went far beyond just activism over wrongs done by the police in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario.
He struggled against violence among young people with the same vigour that he took on police brutality and racial profiling.
He worked extensively and unceasingly with young people. He was at the scene of every shooting in his community, whether by the police or otherwise. He comforted families torn with grief by the death of a son or daughter. He reached out to Black people in the prisons; assisted those entangled in Canada’s maze of immigration laws and would put his hand in his pocket for those in financial distress.
Valarie Steele, the chair of the collective that organized the event “Honouring Dudley Laws” at the Jamaican Canadian Association on March 20, said: “Our community has just lost a true champion and a voice has been silenced that can never be replaced.
“Dudley Laws was a man that made sure that the Canadian institutions that are so brutal to us paused and took note that there was someone looking out for the best interest of the African Canadian communities,” said the former president of the Jamaican Canadian Association.
“We owe him so much gratitude and respect for the decades he spent fighting on our behalf. What a Man!
“It was a real privilege for me to be in the audience at the Jamaican Canadian Centre recently to honour him for his decades of service to us. It should be noted that Mr. Law’s resistance benefited not only the African Canadian Community, it benefited everyone.
“His fight for immigrants changed immigration laws and policies and his fight for police accountability has changed the face of policing throughout Canada and brought changes to many other areas too numerous to mention.”
“He was a joyful, cheerful and delightful person to be around, however, when he was fighting for us, he was consistent, relentless, focused and determined and for that we are forever indebted to him. I am happy that I had the privilege to know him and proud that I could have called him friend.”
Audrey Campbell, current President of the Jamaican Canadian Association, knew Dudley Laws as a family friend and as a community activist.
“The passing of Dudley Laws has left a void in our community as well as in our hearts,” she said. “His commitment to championing the fight against the injustices within our system was unwavering. His legacy will live on in Canadian history and in the hearts of the many people that he has touched.”
Mr. Laws was an incredibly tireless worker who allowed nothing to stop him. Even illness.
When the loss of function in his kidneys about a decade ago forced him into three times a week dialysis, he did not slow his work.
He travelled and worked on despite his condition. He went to Jamaica twice as a member of the Jamaican Diaspora Canada delegation to the biennial Diaspora conference, making arrangements to do dialysis at facilities on his native island.
Nothing stopped his work with the African Canadian and Caribbean Canadian communities.
In fact, he was admitted to hospital for the last time in late February, the day after making the long and tiresome trip to Joyceville Penitentiary in Kingston, where he took part in the Black Inmates and Friends Black History Month celebrations.
“Dudley Speaks For Me,” became a catch phrase in the Black and Caribbean community.
He was an advisor, a mentor and an elder statesman to his community.
He was so loved that as he lay on his sickbed, the flow of visitors to his room on the fourth floor of the hospital was almost constant.
His beloved community also showed its love on Sunday March 20, when an event organized by the community to honour him was attended by close to 1,000 people.
Messages of love and affection and praise for his life of work came from the Prime Minister of Jamaica the Honourable Bruce Golding, as well as the Leader of the Opposition in Jamaica the Honourable Portia Simpson Miller and from Jamaica’s High Commissioner in Canada Her Excellency Sheila Sealy Monteith and the function was attended by Jamaica’s Consul General in Toronto Seth George Ramocan, who read the messages from the politicians and High Commissioner.
Community activist and chair of the committee that organized the event Valarie Steele also gave a tribute, along with Lennox Farrell former Toronto teacher who, along with Mr. Laws was a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC); Denham Jolly, a founding member of BADC and until recently owner of FLOW Radio; Mary Anne Chambers, former MPP and Ontario government minister; Toronto Councillor Michael Thompson; MPP for Eglinton Lawrence, Mike Colle; John Tory, former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, now radio host on AM 1010; Keith Forde, former Deputy Chief of Toronto Police Service; Avvy Go of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, Numvoyo Hyman, a founding member of BADC; Akua Benjamin, university professor and co-founder of BADC, and many other people.
Community activist Hewitt Loague who has worked for more than 20 years beside the man he calls Brother Dudley said “a giant has passed from our midst.
“He was the kindest and most humanitarian person I have ever known. His passing leaves a huge void in the fabric of our lives.
“He was a brother, a friend, and more like a father to me.
“The work he did has benefitted not only the Black community, but the broader community of Ontario and Canada in the same way the Honourable Marcus Garvey did more than 100 years ago.
“Brother Dudley’s work will continue through the people he has taught and through the hundreds he has convinced to educate themselves and to have pride and love for their race and for the betterment of all humanity.”
Denham Jolly, community activist and former owner of FLOW 93.5 Radio said Dudley Laws was “a huge and irreplaceable asset to this community.
“He was a champion of all Black and all underprivileged people and a fearless warrior until the final curtain.”
Dudley Laws was born in the Parish of St. Thomas in Eastern Jamaica on the May 7, 1934. He was the fourth of six children born to Ezekiel and Agatha Laws.
When he was six years old, his family moved from St. Thomas to the parish of St. Andrew which surrounds the capital city Kingston. He attended Rollington Town School in Kingston and then did a five-year apprenticeship as a welder and machinist at Standard Engineering Works.
Like so many other Jamaicans of that era, Mr. Laws left in 1955 for London, England where he attended Kensington College. At the same time, he worked at Cox Watford Limited as a welder.
And his desire to work for his community came to full bloom.
He began by helping new immigrants from Jamaica and other parts of the world to settle in England. For example: Finding them a place to live and finding work for them.
During his time in England, he was a member of the Standing Conference of the West Indies, and a founding member of the Brixton Neighborhood Association. These two organizations were founded to combat racism and discrimination against people of African descent. Between 1955 and 1965, thousands of people of Caribbean and African descent immigrated to England and these two organizations and others helped newcomers to settle in the new country.
He was involved in the maintenance of the cultural heritage of Jamaica, the Caribbean and African countries. He helped organize events included welcoming parties, and the celebration of independence of various African countries. These events were organized and promoted to give newcomers a sense of welcome and belonging and help them retain their cultural heritage.
Mr. Laws came to Canada in 1965, landed at Toronto Airport, traveled by bus to College and Bay, and stayed at the YMCA for a few days.
Two days after his arrival, he began working with Dufferin Material and Construction as a welder.
Within a month he began to seek out various organizations, clubs and churches where Jamaicans, people from the remainder of the Caribbean and other people of African descent met.
The Black and Caribbean community organizations in Toronto at that time were the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Jamaican-Canadian Association (JCA), the WIFT Social Club and the Latin Quarter.
At these organizations and clubs, people from the Caribbean and African countries gathered on evenings and weekends.
He joined the JCA in 1967 and the UNIA in 1968. Mr. Laws became President of the UNIA in 1972. He later became Executive Director of the UNIA, and was instrumental in changing the name to the Universal African Improvement Association (UAIA).
Some of the programs that were organized and implemented by him were sewing and typing classes for women that were in Canada as domestic workers.
He is the founding member of various organizations that work in the community, including the Black Inmates and Friends Assembly (BIFA) and in federal prisons such as Millhaven, Warkworth, Joyceville, Collins Bay and Kingston penitentiaries.
Some of the programs included visitations by different groups, ministers of religion, community and social workers, artists and performers.
Mr. Laws founded or co-founded other groups including Immican Youth for Skilled Organization, the Committee for Due Process, the Albert Johnson Committee in 1979, the Lester Donaldson Committee in 1988, Black Youth Community Action Project, the Michael Wade Lawson Committee also in 1988 and the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) in 1988.
Dudley Laws’ 50 years of community involvement covers a large spectrum of activities, which includes: policing, immigration, education, the criminal justice system and other social issues.
On behalf of the various organizations that he represented he made many appearances before government commissions on racism and on independent investigations of the police.
These included the Clare Lewis Commission, the Steven Lewis Commission, the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System co-chaired by the Honorable Justice David Cole and Margaret Gittens; the Ontario Human Rights Commission into Racism in Ontario and the Honorable Justice Patrick LaSage’s Commission into the establishment of an Independent Civilian Review of policing.
The final report of the LaSage Commission, presented to the Attorney General in 2005, contained 27 recommendations aimed at creating a new and independent police review body that would be both equitable and effective for all, something for which Mr. Laws had long called.
Over the years, Dudley Laws has received many community awards, including: the Marcus Garvey Memorial Award, The Pan African Award, the Canadian Black Achievement Award, Spirit Of The Community Award, Bob Marley Memorial Award, The Lion’s Club Memorial Award for Advocacy, The Jamaican-Canadian Community Award, The Dunhill Alumni Association Spirit of the Community Award and The Mannings High School Past Student Association Award.
Funeral arrangements and arrangements for a community celebration of his life will be announced.