Besides skin colour, retired judge George Carter has something else in common with the late Leonard Braithwaite and Lincoln Alexander. They were the only Blacks in their class when they attended Osgoode Law School nearly six decades ago.
Fast forward to 1989 when Ontario Court of Appeal judge, Michael Tulloch, was among three African-Canadian students in his graduating class at the same institution.
The numbers have risen exponentially in the last two decades to the point where this year’s graduating class – there are 24 Blacks in the program – promises to be the largest at any Canadian law school since 1995 when 16 Black students – including Ontario MPP Margarett Best, sole practitioner Verlyn Francis, Aon Canada chief counsel Terrie-Lynne Devonish and Public Service Alliance of Canada-Ontario regional co-ordinator Christopher Wilson – successfully completed law studies at Osgoode.
This progression was not lost on Tulloch when he accepted the inaugural Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award – a bronze bust – at Osgoode’s Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) Black History Month celebration last week.
“Your presence here is evidence of progress,” he told the students. “I am honoured to be receiving an award in the name of Lincoln Alexander because many of us here in this room – myself included – stand on his shoulders.”
The first Black to sit on the top law-making provincial court since its establishment 146 years ago, Tulloch proudly reflected on his time at Osgoode.
“It was very memorable,” he said. “To a large extent, the friendships and acquaintances that I developed most definitely helped shape my legal career, my passion for the law, my commitment to human rights and my adherence to the rule of law. It’s always good to come back here. It’s a place that’s dear to my heart as it was in these halls and seminar rooms that my legal career began. Although it has been more than 20 years since I graduated from this school, it still – in many ways – feels like yesterday.
“Those of us who had the good fortune to have been admitted to this law school have had an intellectually enriched and invigorating educational experience which has prepared us well for life outside of law school. This is a tradition of excellence and we see that with the trailblazers who have all graduated from this great institution. Each of them has changed the landscape of this country and they have made Canada a better place not only for us but for the world.”
Tulloch shared the spotlight with Carter, Braithwaite and Alexander, whose lives were celebrated at the event.
A 1948 graduate, Carter emerged from a humble background to serve in the Infantry Corps during World War II, work as a railway porter and become the first Canadian-born Black judge in 1980. He retired from the Bench in 1996.
Alexander, who graduated in 1953, was Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and federal minister and the province’s first Black Lieutenant Governor, while Braithwaite was the first Black elected to a Canadian parliament and the first Black member on the powerful Law Society of Canada’s governing council. He was also the first Black to serve on the Etobicoke Board of Education and on the since dissolved municipality’s city council as an alderman.
Braithwaite and Alexander passed away last year.
“We remember their courage, perseverance and strength,” said BLSA secretary, Jacquie Kiggundu. “I found myself wondering what it must have been like for them as the only Black students in their class at a time when the climate of intolerance went far beyond the walls of the law school and manifested itself in the decisions of the court and society at large.
“These men found the courage to carve out a space in the halls of Osgoode and in the legal profession so that my colleagues and I would stand where we are today. Not only did they grace the halls of the law society, but they were willing to enter into a profession alongside others who were prepared to defend and explicitly uphold racist laws.”
The BLSA presented a memorial book to Alexander’s granddaughter, Erika Alexander.
Linda Carter represented her nonagenarian father at the event.
By RON FANFAIR