In life, he selflessly devoted much of his energy and focus to helping those whose voices were routinely dismissed. In death, he was honoured for being a force for change and a tireless advocate for justice.
About 2,500 mourners – many of them dressed in black ‘Dudley Speaks for Me’ t-shirts and his trademark black beret – packed into Revivaltime Tabernacle Ministry last Saturday to pay their last respects to community leader and activist Dudley Laws.
It was ironic that Laws, the Toronto Police Service’s harshest critic in the 1970s and 80s, was lauded for his vast contributions to social change in the city by none other than a former deputy police chief.
“I knew how Dudley felt because, as a member of the community and as a police officer, I felt the same way,” said former deputy chief, Keith Forde, who retired seven months ago. “The 70s and 80s were a rough time for all of us…My superiors did not want me to be associated with Dudley because, in their opinion, it would hamper my career. I guess it didn’t. Our discussions typically ended with me informing them that I decided who I associated with and that my conscience would be my guide.”
The first Black to be appointed deputy chief in August 2005, Forde said Laws lived by his own code which was practical and simple and he praised his commitment, passion and dedication to social change which Forde noted was unquestionable.
“Dudley was often described by many as radical, but what did that mean?” asked Forde. “Radical because he chose to speak on issues, radical because he would not be intimidated, radical because he dared to say publicly what many of us were unable or unwilling to do? If only more of us were so-called radicals, we would reap more of the change that Dudley fought so hard for.”
Forde said that many of the positive changes in the police service in the past two decades can be attributed to the public outcry for change spearheaded by Laws.
“True to his selfless nature, the doors he opened were not for himself, but for others,” Forde said. “I stand before you this morning as one who proudly walked through one of those doors…By his distinguished deeds, the pages of Canadian history shall know his name for influencing change to the justice system, especially in law enforcement, by holding police managers accountable.
“His name will forever be attached to the change in policing use-of-force models where officers are taught and given more options when using force and the many oversight bodies…The ink that writes his name shall take its colour from his courage, strength, determination, unswerving commitment and selflessness…His best was ours and did not die with him.”
Longtime friend and lawyer Charles Roach flew back from Trinidad & Tobago where he was on business to deliver the eulogy. They met at the now defunct Universal Negro Improvement Association at 355 College St. shortly after Laws moved to Toronto in 1965 from England, where he had lived for a decade.
“I just cannot believe you are not here,” said Roach. “You walked us out into the sunlight of dignity and you were prepared to lead us out of that strange land of Albert Johnson, Lester Donaldson, Wade Lawson and all the other friends of Africa and oppressed people. You organized for us, you marched and marched for us and you spoke words of hope to us…You were prepared to pay the price of persecution and to go to jail and to go to jail again and again to go to jail. You were never bitter.
“You were there to confront reality and now in death, you have left for us an example. You life is our model…You taught us that you don’t have to be a president, politician or pope to inspire the lot of all and to make this a better world. You showed us that you don’t have to be learned or to have gone to university to stand up for equal rights and equal dignity. We want to be like you Brother Dudley, defying unjust laws to make a better world.”
Former Jamaica Canadian Association (JCA) president and community worker Valarie Steele paid tribute to her colleague and friend on behalf of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), which Laws and 17 other activists founded in 1988 in response to the police shooting of Lester Donaldson.
She said the he has had an indelible impact on Canada’s tapestry for which he’s owed a debt of gratitude.
“Regardless of your relationship with Dudley when he was alive, you cannot deny that his tireless fight meant that we could send a clear signal that we were absolutely certain that what was happening to us was racist and exclusionary,” said Steele. “When he was our watchman, you could rest assured that something was going to be done. The fruits of his labour touched every single community in this country.”
Bishop Dr. Audley James, who delivered the sermon, said Laws was a freedom fighter.
Archbishop Dr. Delores Seivright and Rev. Gary Hibbert also officiated at the funeral service.
Laws spent the first 20 years of his life in Jamaica before migrating to England in 1955 when racial discrimination was rife and the British economy was in decline which meant that Blacks were the first to lose their jobs. He co-founded the Brixton Neighbourhood Association of which his brother, Courtnay, was a director.
That was the first of many organizations Laws founded or co-founded during nearly 55 years of intense activism.
Jamaica’s Consul in Toronto, Nigel Smith, read messages from Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Opposition leader Portia Simpson-Miller.
“The life of Dudley Laws can best be described as one which represented strong advocacy, determination and love for one’s fellow brothers and sisters,” said Golding. “His life’s journey has been one characterized by many challenges and accomplishments…He stood as a sterling example for others to emulate and was a success story that will be read for generations to come.”
Simpson-Miller noted that Laws was a hero who lived his life constantly defending the rights of the victimized.
“Marked by courage, passion and a firm belief in unity, he was committed to human rights and justice for all and believed that the sustained progress of a society depended on the eradication of racial injustice, prejudice and discrimination,” said the former Jamaican prime minister.”
Laws’ body was interred at Glenview Memorial Gardens in Woodbridge following a three-and-a-half hour service filled with oratorical and musical tributes.
Son Don Laws, multi-talented singer/pianist Tiki Mercury-Clarke, vocalist Jay Douglas, the African Drumming Collective, the duet of Ashley Thomas and Jelani Laws and Africentric Alternative School principal Thando Hyman-Aman paid musical tributes to Laws who enjoyed listening to music.
“Uncle Dudley, as I knew him growing up, has left an indelible legacy,” Hyman-Aman said while choking back tears. “He taught us how to stand up and be courageous and he was one of the biggest champions for our children.”
Ryerson University associate professor Dr. Grace Edward-Galabuzi said Laws has left his mark on Canadian society.
“We would not have the police complaints and public accountability infrastructure in this city and province were it not for Dudley and the work he did to organize, mobilize and speak for a community under siege,” he said. “He was our voice and our manhood. Other leaders are going to emerge, not necessarily to take his place, but to assume their own responsibilities. Dudley assumed his responsibility at a critical time in the history of our people and now he has gone to take his place among our ancestors.”
Activist Owen Leach says he’s going to miss his longtime friend of more than four decades.
“He was a Garveyite who was completely dedicated to his community and its development,” said Leach. “The sacrifices he made were done at great expense and risk, but that did not matter to him.”
Laws, who was 76 at the time of his death, leaves to mourn his wife Monica and five children.