Though weak and confined to a wheelchair because of illness, Charles Roach’s was buoyant and his message very strong and clear as he addressed family, friends and supporters last Sunday at an event in his honour at the University of Toronto Medical Science Building.
The lawyer and civil rights activist, who is battling a malignant brain tumour, does not plan to retire soon and he intends to become a Canadian citizen before he dies. The Trinidad & Tobago-born permanent Canadian resident refuses to pledge allegiance to the Queen which is a requirement for all citizenship candidates over the age of 14.
“I am not retired and I will not be retiring voluntarily because I have a mission and that is to become a citizen in this country in which I have lived for the past 58 years,” said the Black Action Defence Committee and Caribana co-founder. “I am trying to do that without swearing an oath and giving up my conscience and true belief as that pertains to the monarchy.”
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 month granted him and three other individuals the right to continue to argue that the oath to the Queen is unconstitutional. They have until September 21 to file individual actions to the court.
Meanwhile, a petition has been launched requesting the Canadian Cabinet direct the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & Multiculturalism to award Roach citizenship without him having to swear the oath.
“This can be done in order to alleviate cases of special and unusual hardship or to reward services of an exceptional value to Canada,” said close friend and lawyer, Peter Rosenthal. “He has given services of an exceptional value to Canada as a human rights lawyer representing the poor and disenfranchised for over 50 years and also by convening the group that founded Caribana. The unusual hardship part applies to Charlie because he has cancer and may not live to see that case completed.”
In 1993, Roach launched the Alliance for 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.
“The injustice of monarchial rule has been opposed by courageous Canadian reformers since before Confederation and Charles Roach is the ideological heir of such reformers, championing the democratic and egalitarian ideal as they did,” said republican activist, Ashok Charles. “I consider the legal action he has taken to be one of the most significant republican initiatives which has been undertaken in Canada. I say this because the challenge which points out that the oath requirement violates our charter right and freedom denies the government their preferred option of simply ignoring republican arguments. Charles has forced the government to defend or at least try to defend their unjust and undemocratic protocol.
“His republican activism has gone beyond drawing attention to just and democratic alternatives. He has steadfastly refused to take the oath despite the personal cost and liabilities of living in Canada without Canadian citizenship. His resilience and brave legal activism are both inspiring demonstrations of the maxim that says principle must be matched by action.”
Roach lost out on an opportunity to become a provincial court judge because it required the oath which he opposes. He also does not have a Canadian passport and he has been unable to vote despite living here since 1955.
Councillor Michael Thompson presented a proclamation to Roach for his outstanding and extraordinary contributions to the city.
“It’s as a result of his efforts that many lives have been made much easier in this city,” said Thompson. “In addition, he’s someone I can always call on for an opinion and he has always been there for me. This is an opportunity for me to say thanks for all that he has done and all the lives he has touched.”
Part of the proclamation read: “Your work reflects the belief that building relationships is integral to creating communities that embrace differences, change, diversity and partnerships that build strong foundations, promotes dialogue and fosters a sense of community activism that unifies, inspires and builds strong communities of which we are all proud.”
Several lawyers and judges, including Justice Dr. Irving Andre, Central East Regional senior judge Gregory Regis and retired judge Vibert Rosemay attended the event.
Andre said it was imperative he showed up at the event to honour Roach who he considers a legal pioneer.
“He practiced law at a time when there was very few of us doing that,” he said. “He was in the vanguard of the struggle to let persons in our community realize that we need to be represented in the courts of this country. It’s because of him that I was able to practice law in this country and achieve a modest amount of success.”
Nearly 30 speakers, including lawyer Michael Smith who has known Roach for over four decades, paid tribute to the ailing activist. The program was also filled with cultural performances and a video tribute.
“He’s a remarkable and outstanding lawyer, advocate and defender of the poor and oppressed,” Smith said.
Roach was a staff lawyer for the City of Toronto before opening his own legal practice in 1968. His clients included members of the U.S. Black Panther Party seeking refuge in Canada from prosecution in the United States and domestic workers facing deportation.
The community activist is receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the brain lesion.
“I have received an assortment of treatment in the last few weeks, but that cannot compare with this kind of therapy with all my friends and supporters here,” said Roach, who is also a poet, artist and musician.
In light of Roach’s illness, the National Conference of Black Lawyers will host its 44th annual convention in Toronto from October 4-8. It was originally scheduled to be held in Memphis. Roach has never missed a convention since its inception.
By RON FANFAIR