With the unfortunate passing of Charles Roach on October 2, several attempts have been made to summarize his legacy. Countless tributes have showered down in print, on the public airwaves, and through personal testimonials by individuals looking to define the essence of brother Charley.
Many have used the spectrum of anti-racist advocacy, international human rights campaigns, social justice issues, civil rights law, or the expression of progressive art and culture. While all perspectives capture elements of Charles Roach, few are able to capture the full breadth of this wonderful human being and champion of the African-Canadian community.
The task becomes even more daunting when one examines the full body of work meshed with the complexity of character. In fact, it proves to be an exercise in futility. Charles Roach, aka Mende, was a true Renaissance man whose expertise, experience and expressions were revolutionary and transformative.
In the same way that Charles Roach worked tirelessly to eradicate all limitations imposed on the people by dominant systems of power, he also refused to be pigeon-holed in his approach to life. He fused politics, law, community, arts, culture and social justice to bring a fresh and engaging approach to the serious issues of the day. In doing so, he left an indelible mark for all to emulate.
Charles arrived in Canada in 1955 from Trinidad & Tobago with the intent of entering the priesthood by enrolling at the University of Saskatchewan. The backdrop of the civil rights movement halted his spiritual journey and ushered in his politicization. He credited the uncompromising stance taken by Rosa Parks in the 1950s as an important event in the awakening of his consciousness. Ironically, it has been said that we as a people stood up as a result of a woman sitting down.
Roach went on to study law at the University of Toronto and was called to the bar in 1963. Along with his first wife, Hetty, the Roaches dedicated themselves to a life of public service on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized, wherever this struggle would present itself.
This meant taking difficult and unpopular stances over the years in defending those branded as domestic or international “threats”, or “terrorists” in today’s language. This involved everyone from Black Panthers in the U.S., members of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, the indomitable Dudley Laws in Toronto, First Nations of Canada, the issues of Palestinians in the Middle East or, most recently, the Libyan invasion by western nations in Africa.
Often overlooked, Hetty Roach played a seminal role in the legacy of her late husband. She worked at the burgeoning law firm, managing its finances and administration, was involved in political work such as Cuban solidarity, anti-apartheid and peace campaigns, and helped to raise three daughters, who remain grounded in community and social justice today.
Hetty served as a bail bond agent for Dudley Laws, who was prosecuted on five separate occasions for a variety of charges as part of a systematic attempt to quell political dissent and rid the Black community of any form of identifiable leadership.
Brother Dudley would emerge victorious each time, thanks to the mass support he enjoyed in the Black community, and as a result of the moral, material and legal support of the Roaches.
Charles and Hetty Roach believed that charity began at home, often opening up their home on Humewood Drive in Toronto to community receptions, meetings and gatherings where the pressing issues of the day would be passionately discussed and deliberated, always concluding in the spirit of unity.
Charley Roach was a true visionary and one of the greatest propagators of African culture in this community. He began by making his rounds as a Calypso artist and guitarist, helping to pay his way through law school. With Hetty, he went on to run the Little Trinidad Club, an after-hours club at 237 Yonge Street in Toronto, directly across the street from the present-day Eaton Centre.
The club would host all the popular Calypsonians of the day – the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Ryner, Lord Kitchener, Calypso Rose and Lord Superior. In 1967, the Caribbean community resolved to celebrate Canada’s centennial with the first Caribana celebration. The event was founded by the Caribbean Cultural Committee, of which Brother Charley was the first chair.
As contentious and politicized as Caribana has become today, it has blossomed into one of the largest festivals in the world of its type, generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the local and national economy.
Brother Charley was also the principal organizer of Nakumbuka (held in parallel with Remembrance Day). This celebration observed the sacrifices of African ancestors at the hands of the heinous institutions of slavery and imperialism. He recognized that we as a people have been systematically excluded from the historical narrative in Canada and Nakumbuka would serve as a reminder of our ancestors’ sacrifices and contributions to Canadian society and the world.
Brother Charley and his family also founded and organized Martinsday, an annual celebration in commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He unsuccessfully lobbied the Canadian government to declare a national holiday in Dr. King’s honour.
Charles Roach used every opportunity to make a cultural statement though poetry, paintings, word, song and attire. Wearing the most regal of African clothing, he would gracefully appear at numerous community events with the Roach choir, comprised of his loving daughters, Kike, Sunset and Dawn Roach. They would entertain and educate through brilliant compositions in English and Kiswahili that were equally melodious and political, effectively using culture as a tool for liberation.
After the untimely passing of Hetty Roach, Brother Charley would find new vigour and happiness with his second wife, June Thorne-Roach, an accomplished classical pianist and music teacher. Charles was very proud that his grandchildren were developing artistic talents. June Roach was very much a part of this, instructing the children in music, and her talents have been passed on to a third generation. She played an important role in the final phase of Brother Charley’s life, a companion constantly at his side through his difficult illness.
Charles Roach continued to focus on international alliances which would only enhance his body of work to unparalleled heights. He worked with progressive elements of the Latin American community, organized the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance, and was one of the few voices on the left who was very vocal about his opposition to the invasion of Libya earlier this year.
Brother Charley fostered unity among all communities and did not subscribe to micro-nationalism or ethnocentrism. Wherever a just struggle would present itself, he was there with a legal analysis and a clever Rapso rhyme.
Brother Charley’s final campaign was his opposition to swearing allegiance to the Queen of England in order to attain Canadian citizenship. Roach would take a similar stance as one of his “sheroes”, Rosa Parks who, decades earlier, also refused to compromise her principles, identity and humanity. In doing so, he was denied Canadian citizenship and promotion to the Bench.
Cognizant of the historical role played by the British monarchy during the heinous crimes of slavery and imperialism, he equated swearing allegiance to the monarchy as the equivalent of “wearing a dog license around one’s neck” and stated “no loyalty to royalty”. It is a testament to his strength that even through his terminal illness, Brother Charley continued in his steadfast campaign.
Despite an appeal to Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, to fulfil Roach’s dying wish to become a Canadian citizen by pledging allegiance to Canada instead of the Queen, the Federal Conservatives refused to comply, despite the contributions of Charles Roach to Canadian society. (The New Democrats are now advocating in Ottawa to grant citizenship posthumously).
Charley Roach was a true giant of this community. What he taught us in addition to seeking one’s own voice, identity and inalienable rights, is that life itself is indeed a beautiful thing to be lived to the fullest, without ceilings or parameters.
Love of justice is very powerful and the onward progress of humanity is inevitable. His message is that we should all be involved in one capacity or another so we leave a better legacy for those who follow us. We can see through his life example that he has made this world a better place for us.
Asante Sana Brother Roach! Rest in peace knowing that you are loved and missed, but we will continue to celebrate your spirit for a long time to come.
Mesfin Aman is a member of the Black Action Defense Committee and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
By MESFIN AMAN