Noted civil rights attorney, community leader and activist, Charles Roach, has died.
Ailing for several months with a malignant brain tumour, the co-founder of the Caribana festival and the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) passed away peacefully at home on Tuesday night. He was 79.
“He was the most wonderful of human beings,” said close friend, adjunct law professor and professor emeritus of math at the University of Toronto, Peter Rosenthal, who was with Roach a few hours before he died. “He had so many great attributes among which were his complete honesty, integrity and courage.”
Rosenthal, who met Roach in the early 1970s, was part of a group that launched a petition requesting the Canadian Cabinet direct the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & Multiculturalism to award Roach citizenship without him having to take the oath.
A permanent Canadian resident, Roach vehemently refused to pledge allegiance to the Queen which is a requirement for all citizenship candidates over the age of 14.
After unsuccessfully filing a class action lawsuit, Roach took his case to the Federal Court of Canada which ruled against his motion. An appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed and the case went before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice which last June granted him and three other individuals the right to continue to argue that the oath to the Queen is unconstitutional.
In 1993, Roach launched the Alliance for a Canadian Republic and nine years later was at the forefront of the establishment of Citizens for a Canadian Republic which is the republican movement’s principal voice. He also co-founded Republic Now which employs a collaborative strategy in advancing the republican cause.
Roach lost out on an opportunity to become a provincial court judge because it required the oath which he opposed. He also did not possess a Canadian passport and he was unable to vote despite living here for 57 years.
BADC co-founder, Dr. Akua Benjamin, said Roach has left an indelible mark and lasting legacy.
“When you think about it, he was perhaps among just a handful of Black civil rights lawyers in Canada,” she said. “He took leadership on critical issues affecting our community and he was never afraid to go against what was popular and stand up for what he believed was right, regardless of the consequences. He was a man with lots of courage and someone who was also compassionate.
“What a vacuum has been created in our community with him and Dudley Laws (who died in March 2011) gone!”
Retired Ontario Federation of Labour’s Director of Human Rights, June Veecock, concurred with Benjamin.
“Charley was fearless and very resolute on the things he believed in,” said the founding president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (Toronto chapter). “At times, we differed on process, but not on issues that were paramount to us in the community. He was a fighter and I will remember him for the many marches, protests and demonstrations that we were part of.”
In 1978, Roach established the Movement of Minority Electors to increase the presence of Blacks in the political process. He also chaired the Pan African Movement (Canadian chapter), unsuccessfully lobbied for a national holiday here to observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined hands with educator and activist, Lennox Farrell, to form the Freedom Ride Against Apartheid to protest racial segregation in South Africa.
Born in Belmont, Trinidad to a trade unionist father and a spiritual development mother, Roach came to Canada in 1955 to study Philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan and Law at the University of Toronto. As part of the process to be called to the Bar in 1963, Roach swore allegiance to the Queen for the last time.
A staff lawyer for the City of Toronto before opening his own legal practice in 1968, Roach’s clients included Black Panther Party members seeking refuge in Canada from prosecution in the United States and domestic workers facing deportation. His law firm was also BADC’s official legal arm.
Versed in criminal, civil litigation and administrative law, Roach appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1999 as lead defence counsel for a Hutu journalist subjected to human rights abuse.
Roach’s contributions were not only confined to the legal arena and community activism. He was a published poet, painter and social club operator who worked as a musician and bandleader in the city in the late 1950 and early 1960s.
“Charley also organized events and exhibits to create an awareness of the works of other art creators,” said Caribana Arts Group chair, Henry Gomez. “He was a renaissance man.”
The National Conference of Black Lawyers will pay tribute to Roach at its 44th annual convention in Toronto this weekend. Originally scheduled to be held in Memphis, organizers moved the event to this city to facilitate Roach who was unable to travel because of illness. Roach had never missed a convention since its inception.
Roach is survived by his wife June and his three daughters, Dawn, Sunset, Kike.
Funeral arrangements had not been announced at press time.
BY RON FANFAIR