Being the first can easily make you a target. No one knows this more than Leonard Braithwaite who, in 1963, ushered in a new era in Canadian politics when he won a provincial parliamentary seat in Etobicoke and became the first African-Canadian to do so. He went on to win two subsequent elections before being defeated in the 1975 polls.
Following his defeat in the provincial elections, Braithwaite returned to his roots and was elected to the Board of Control in Etobicoke, which later became part of the City of Toronto following amalgamation.
Braithwaite began his political life in Etobicoke when he was elected to the board of education in 1960 following a stint as president of the local ratepayers association. He later ran successfully as an alderman on Etobicoke council.
Braithwaite, who was also the first Black to be elected to the powerful Law Society of Upper Canada’s governing council, feels the challenges he faced in the corridors of power pale in comparison to the hurdles that Toronto’s first Black councillor, William Hubbard, had to overcome. Hubbard successfully ran for public office at age 51 in the late 1890s and served as deputy and acting mayor.
“I have read about Hubbard and I have thought about him a lot,” said 88-year-old Braithwaite who last week was recognized with the William Hubbard Race Relations award at the City of Toronto’s annual Access, Equity and Human Rights event which is held to celebrate Human Rights Day.
“When he was a member of city council, there were very few people of colour in Toronto and for him to be able to be elected and eventually be able to sit in the mayor’s chair, if only for a while, was quite an accomplishment. You also have to remember, when he got elected, there wasn’t any place in this city he could get enough votes to depend on people from his own community. It meant he had to be somebody who appealed to the rainbow, and he did.”
The product of a Barbadian father and Jamaican mother, Braithwaite dedicated the award to African-Canadian pioneers. In his acceptance speech, he also recognized the large presence of women on city council.
A total of 15 women were elected in the last municipal elections which is 50 per cent more than the previous council and one-third of the new council, which is a record.
“When I was here, there weren’t many women,” said Braithwaite, who fought for gender equality when he was a council member and led the call for the addition of female pages in the provincial legislature. “I am glad to see that women are taking over.”
A sole legal practitioner for the past 53 years, Braithwaite attended Ryerson Public School and Harbord Collegiate Institute and served in Canada and England with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II.
He was discharged on his return home and transferred to the RCAF Reserve in 1946. That year, he enrolled in the University of Toronto and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree four years later. He also graduated with an MBA from Harvard University and a law degree from Osgoode Law School where he was president of the student body in his final year.
Councillor Michael Thompson presented the award to Braithwaite who is a member of both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.
“The recipients of this award come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common and that’s their activism,” said Thompson, who is the only African-Canadian on city council. “This year’s winner is committed to the elimination of racism, prejudice, discrimination and to creating a climate which values and respects diversity.”
Pinch hitting for Mayor Rob Ford, Thompson also read proclamations declaring December 3 as International Day of People with Disabilities, December 6 as National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women and December 10 as Human Rights Day.
The city established the William Hubbard award in 1989 to honour the visionary who led the charge for publicly-owned water supply and electric power that resulted in the establishment of Ontario and Toronto Hydro. He also persuaded the city to acquire Toronto Islands.
Last week marked the first time that the awards ceremony was held under the Office of Equity, Diversity and Human Rights, which is a new division in the city manager’s office.
“The awards that we are here tonight to celebrate were created to honour the continuing work of people who seek equality, access and equity,” said deputy city manager, Brenda Patterson. “Some of these struggles are longstanding and others are relatively new.”