On the five occasions in the last three decades that York University professors invited human rights and union activist Bromley Armstrong to address their students, he willingly agreed.
His next appearance at the university – June 11 – will be for an esteemed honour for his lifetime commitment to equality and social justice.
Armstrong, 87, will receive his first honorary doctorate and address the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies graduates.
“Bromley has been a stalwart in African-Canadian life and politics for over 60 years, fiercely dedicated to the principles of self-determination and consciousness-raising,” said York University professor, Dr. Lorne Foster. “He has single-mindedly maintained the same impassioned commitment to social justice that he possessed when he arrived in Canada.
“Because he’s living history, I asked him to participate in a university human rights project conducted in my 2010-11 class in social justice studies. He graciously consented to be interviewed for the project and regaled the students with his first-hand and intimate knowledge of Canadian human rights history.”
The interview was videotaped and featured on the website, The Long Road to Justice: The History of the Human Rights Movement in Canada.
Receiving an honorary doctorate is quite an honour for Armstrong, who went straight into the workforce after completing high school.
“Our parents did not have a lot of money, so four of my siblings – two brothers and two sisters – went to the high profile St. George’s College and the Convent of Mercy Academy Alpha while I completed high school at Waltham,” said Armstrong, the fourth of seven children. “They just did not have enough funds to send me to those schools.”
After graduation, Armstrong worked at a foundry owned by a distant relative and at R. Hanna & Sons Ltd. selling children and ladies shoes.
“I was the welterweight boxing champion in Jamaica at the time and my dad used that as a selling point to get me that job,” said Armstrong. “He did not want me toiling at that foundry even though I felt then that the dirtier you look coming home from the job meant that you were a hard worker. He disagreed.”
It was while employed at the downtown Jamaica dry goods store that Armstrong became engaged in the union movement.
After migrating to Canada in 1947, he became an active leader in the United Auto Workers Local 439 and with the Toronto & District Labour Council while employed at Massey Harris.
In 1954, he led a delegation to Ottawa, protesting the federal government’s restrictive immigration policy that shut out Blacks and other visible minorities.
Armstrong is a founding member of numerous community organizations. They include the Caribbean Soccer Club in 1949 that participated in the Toronto & District Soccer League, the Negro Citizenship Committee in 1951, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1958, the Jamaican Canadian Association in 1962, the Jamaican Canadian Credit Union in 1963 and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in 1975. He’s also a founding member of the National Council of Jamaican and Supportive Organizations in Canada and the National Black Coalition of Canada.
An avid sportsman, illness prevented him from representing Jamaica as a welterweight in the 1946 Pan American Games in Colombia and he was a Toronto District Soccer League all-star in 1951.
In the early 1970s, Armstrong published The Islander newspaper, whose target audience was Toronto’s Black and West Indian community.
A protector of the rights of many ethnocultural groups in Canada, he has been honoured with the West Indian Federation Club award, the Order of Jamaica, the Order of Ontario, the Order of Canada, the Harry Jerome award for Community Service, the federal government’s Race Relations award, the Canada 125th anniversary medal and the Bahai National Race Unity award.
He was the first Black to join the Ontario Labour Relations Board in 1980 after serving five years as a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Armstrong, who conducted test cases in Toronto and Dresden, co-authored Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes, which was published in 2000.
York University president & vice-chancellor, Mamdouh Shoukri, said Armstrong’s dedication, passion and lifelong commitment to the battle against racism serves as a model worthy of emulation by the graduates.