By RON FANFAIR
The most powerful militant voice of Toronto’s African-Canadian community for the past four decades has been silenced.
Dudley Laws, who embodied the warrior spirit of selfless service until the end, leaving an uncompromising legacy of activism, died early last Thursday morning a few hours after convening a hospital bedside meeting of some of his loyal supporters.
He was 74 at the time of his death as a result of kidney disease complications.
Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) president Hewitt “Logie” Loague along with former Jamaica Canadian Association (JCA) president Valarie Steele and activists Miguel San Vicente, Nzinga Walker and Owen Leach were part of a small group that was with Laws just before he passed away.
“There were also some family members there and it was about 15 of us,” recalled Loague. “He had on a black shirt and pants and he was very clear and precise, even though his speech was slow, about where he wanted BADC to go. One of the things he was most concerned about was an outstanding debt the organization owes, but we assured him most of it had been taken care of and that brought a big smile from him. A pastor came in later in the evening and we held hands and prayed with him before I left at around 11 p.m.”
Laws, who led police protests and vigorously advocated on behalf of youth and the disenfranchised, died about four hours later.
Though he was associated with many organizations, some of which he helped establish, BADC was very close to his heart. He was among 17 community activists that started the association in 1988 in response to the police shooting of Lester Donaldson.
Co-founder Dari Meade spoke glowingly of Laws and his enormous contributions.
“Dudley stood taller than most of us and he saw farther than many of us,” said Meade. “He had a great ability to shake everything down and come to the right conclusion that benefitted the majority. He was also absolutely selfless with no ego and if his ego ever got in the way, he knew he was on the wrong path.
“What really impressed me about the man was that he believed that society had to be changed from the bottom up and he understood how well society worked that he started with prisons and those whose liberty was taken away. He lived most of his life visiting the incarcerated and when that wasn’t enough, he turned to domestics and illegal immigrants coming into the country and he took up their cause. And when that wasn’t enough, he took up the cause of the most essential element to the development of Black people and that was education.
“And when that wasn’t enough, anytime the police got in the way, he was on that train too. He was one of the most gifted and courageous among us. And even in his last days, he didn’t come home to count his blessings and to introspect. Instead, he was on a bus going to visit prisoners. This is what great people who are selfless do. He will be missed because he took a street movement for Black freedom and developed it into a movement for all oppressed people.”
After spending 10 years in England where his activism emerged, Laws came to Toronto in 1966 and joined the JCA the following year and the United Negro Improvement Association in 1968 where he met lawyer and good friend Charles Roach.
“He was a client of mine in a matter involving an injury he suffered in a car accident,” Roach said. “Later on, my law firm became sort of the official legal arm of BADC. Even though Dudley did not have much formal education, he was very wise and he – as just an ordinary person — had a lot of power because he used the community to bring about change. I found that really astonishing. He was very determined, fearless and always committed to the principles of equality for all.”
Community worker Margaret Gittens remembers Laws as a consistent fighter who was always there to take up a cause for the voiceless and even those who, because of circumstances, could not voice their concerns while longtime friend Peter Paul said Laws was a close ally who never compromised his loyalty.
“I remember when he was having his legal problems in the early 1990s and being deeply hurt watching the way in which he was being humiliated in that courtroom,” Paul said. “I could bear it no longer at one stage, so I left the room, went into my car and just cried.”
In 1994, a jury found Laws guilty of smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canada-United States border. Ontario’s highest court however quashed the convictions and nine-month jail term, ruling that important decisions affecting the trial were made in Laws’ absence following three closed-door meetings between the judge and prosecutors.
The Court of Appeal ordered another trial, but the Crown stayed the charges.
Laws’ legal team included University of Toronto math professor Peter Rosenthal who acted as counsel for BADC.
“Dudley was a very courageous man who had a huge impact on improving policing in this city,” said Rosenthal who articled with Roach and was called to the Bar in 1992. “He has taught a lot people not to be afraid to stand up for their rights and for the rights of all human beings.”
Former JCA president Herman Stewart holds Laws in high esteem for deflecting every curve ball tossed his way.
“He had to fend off those who denied that he spoke for them in addition to those that needed his voice,” he said. “Most people would have thrown in the towel because you have to remember that Dudley was not being paid for all the aggravation he went through. He just did what he had to do to effect change and we should all be proud of him for that.”
Stewart attended his first Laws-led demonstration in downtown Toronto shortly after becoming president in 1996.
“I went against the wishes of the JCA executive and some of the organization’s elders who advised me that I should be careful about what I was doing,” said Stewart. “At the time, the JCA believed it was best to agitate behind the scene. Coming from a union background, that was not my style and I chose to participate in the protest with Dudley.”
United Mothers Opposing Violence Everywhere (UMOVE) founding member Marilyn Ortega was riding the subway reading a Metro newspaper when she saw her son’s name among a group of young Black youth who were murdered from 1996 to 2002.
Ruddin Greaves, who was 22 at the time, and Michelle Gonsalves – they did not know each other – were fatally gunned down in a hail of bullets fired indiscriminately into a crowd outside the Calypso Hut 3 Restaurant in July 1997. The club’s bouncer was also injured in the shooting.
“There was an accompanying story that mentioned a town hall meeting to address gun violence in the city,” recounted the social worker and bereavement counsellor. “I attended and met Dudley for the first time. Without being judgmental, he stood up for me and the other mothers who had lost their sons to gun violence.
“All he wanted was the senseless violence to stop. He always told us that he could not bring back our sons but the least he could do was walk with us to try to put an end to the violence. His is a voice that cannot be replaced and it’s because of him that I became involved in community work.”
Laws is survived by his wife Monica and five children.
Visitation will be held at McDougall & Brown Funeral Home, 1812 Eglinton Ave. W. from 6-8 p.m. tonight (Thursday). A wake for the deceased takes place tomorrow night at the JCA, 995 Arrow Rd. and the funeral will be held on Saturday at Revivaltime Tabernacle Ministries, 4340 Dufferin St. (between Sheppard & Finch Ave. W.), starting at 10 a.m.
Revivaltime’s founding pastor Bishop Dr. Audley James promised that part of his message will reflect Laws’ passion for young people.
“I have only 10 minutes, but I will speak to the youth,” said James who visited Laws in hospital. “I prayed with him and he made his peace with God.”
James expects close to 3,000 mourners will attend the funeral.
“We had about 2,400 for Miss Lou in 2006 and that’s our largest funeral so far,” he added. “It looks like the attendance for Dudley’s funeral could surpass that, but we are prepared.”
Roach will deliver the eulogy while several will pay tribute, including former Toronto Police Service deputy chief Keith Forde and ex-provincial Minister Mary Anne Chambers.