The saga of the Marcus Garvey Centre – Pt. 2

Toronto’s Black community, for all intents and purposes, has lost the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise. The property, which was provided to the Black community by the old city of North York when Mel Lastman was the mayor, had fallen on hard times and the City of Toronto, which now includes the old city of North York, has moved to reclaim it.

This is the second of a three-part article by retired educator, activists and former Caribana chair, Lennox Farrell, who was a key player in the acquisition of this property for the community.

In the same way that William Shakespeare is revered in English literature, so is the 19th century poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, in Russian literature. Therefore, when the Russians compared the 20th Century poet, Claude McKay, with Pushkin, they were ascribing to McKay a supreme distinction. But who was McKay and who was Pushkin, and why the comparison?

Both were Black men. Pushkin, creator of a new Russian genre with his work, Eugene Onegin, combining poetry, prose and satire, was born of a slave woman and a White Russian officer. Claude McKay, author of the poem, If We Must Die, was a Jamaican who, during World War II when the British, suffering greatly under bombardment by the Nazis, was quoted in a phrase now attributed to Churchill, “Blood, Sweat and Tears”.

To segue to the 1990s, the Marcus Garvey Centre, named after another esteemed Jamaican, is the second building so named to be lost to Toronto’s Black community in the last four decades. Both were acquired by the community under conditions of blood, sweat and tears.

The first building lost was located downtown Toronto at College and Spadina. The second was acquired following game-changing events in Toronto’s Black community. One of these was a police raid years earlier on the Lawrence Heights Community Centre. Everyone Black – including staff – was spread-eagled on the ground behind locked doors and frisked. One of the young men then affected, would later graduate from high school, university and, employed, would help to form an association to advocate on behalf of Black law enforcement officers. David Mitchell, the first president of the Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) is now superintendent of the Mimico Corrections Centre, one of a few African-Canadians to have held such a post in the province.

In hindsight, and in a personal sense, my opposition to and agitation against this raid changed the trajectory, both of my life and that of my family. Among these events was a high-ranking officer in Jane-Finch waving a document I’d written and saying, “Farrell believes he is a ballerina”. Previously, I’d be stopped by police – nine times in one year – usually for resembling someone who’d “robbed a bank in Montreal” etc.

However, what finally got my attention was when, three weeks after I’d been part of a community press conference called against the raid on Lawrence Heights, my spouse, Joan, was arrested in the Jane-Finch mall, charged with “shoplifting” in another mall in Scarborough.

As she later described the humiliating experience of being handcuffed and shoved into the back seat of a police cruiser, the only other occasion on which she had wept as bitterly was on the death years earlier in Trinidad of her father. Despite later winning, with the legal support of Charles Roach, compensation from the police, memory of what Joan experienced still rankles like hell.

Regarding my options, I consulted with Howard Moscoe, the city councillor then with oversight responsibilities for the police. Why not run in the up-coming 1990 provincial elections for the New Democratic Party, and on my election material state unequivocally my position against the use of illegal drugs, etc? 

After I came close to winning the riding of Oriole, and later as Chair of Caribana, I was able, with the support of other members, to successfully negotiate with then Metro councillor, Bev Salmon, acquisition of a property for Caribana’s use. It was lost by a later board of directors for the same reason the Garvey Centre is now lost: non-payment of agreed-on taxes.

Four years later, in 1994, on the opposite side of then North York mayor, Mel Lastman re: Apartheid South Africa and the staging of Show Boat, a racist musical, I ran against him for mayor of North York. Four years later, when he would run to be the first mayor of the newly amalgamated City of Toronto, I endorsed him. What’d happened between ’94 and ’98?

For decades, our community had sought to obtain a community center, a place where we could hold our own events, arrive as we wished, and leave likewise, instead of perennially having to rent from others, arriving and leaving as they willed.

After the 1990 election, we’d redoubled our efforts to obtain a building through an NDP government which enjoyed overwhelming Black support. We failed. Hope died in 1998 with the Tory government of Mike Harris, incoming and hostile, whose first act at Queen’s Park was to kill a Bill advocating for employment equity.

Back to 1994. Running against Lastman, I’d got some unusual insights from others about him. Not that his politics and policies and mine were now convergent, but of how well he knew and was liked by immigrant and other disadvantaged groups. In one reported instance, he’d paid the costs, including airfare, for a city employee – a Black South African – to return home to bury a family member. He also requested with me a possible meeting after the election.

His office subsequently called on several occasions. It took me two years to respond. At our second meeting we sealed the deal to take ownership of a building larger than North York City Hall. I signed the lease for what I agreed would be the Marcus Garvey Centre. It had taken the community more than three decades to acquire another such building. Moreover, during his 1998 campaign for mayor of Toronto, he promised to obtain for us other properties, including a six-story apartment building at Dufferin and Eglinton. Also, the first donation received by the centre was from him: $5,000.

However, within weeks of my 1996 meeting with him, I’d left the centre, disillusioned with the hostilities, politics and personalities emerging from among some whom I had invited along with me to meet with Lastman. I was also over-tired, physically and emotionally, and urgently needing to save our eldest son, Tous, now stricken with bi-polar mood disorder.

To be continued next week.

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