By LENNOX FARRELL
“His disposition, not his position”, was what you recall most about him.
This was Ed Clarke. Described further by a colleague, Cleveland Moulton, Clarke was congenial, unassuming and intrepid.
Clarke remains among those unsung heroes and heroines who despite the bleak early years, set out to “lift every voice and sing” Black History Toronto celebrations. Its mainstream acceptance today belies its uncertain beginnings and the vast hostilities, official and unofficial, ranged against it and its defenders. Souls like Clarke midwifed and breastfed the birthing and cradling of a then nascent Black History Toronto.
There are many others, including Mr. and Mrs. Danny Braithwaite, Cikiah Thomas, Dari and Akila Meade, Margaret Gittens, Mitch Holder, Akua Benjamin, Lester and Marlene Green, Otis Richmond, Peter Paul, Selwyn Henry, Pat Hayes, Brian and Nomvuyu Hyman, Owen Leach, June Ward…a roll call would take days!
Back then, most activities were held outdoors, as in public demonstrations, because the same brave souls who nurtured Black History Toronto were also among those who mounted vigorous public critiques on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Green Paper on Immigration (1973).
Within the context of better understanding an Ed Clarke and his times, and the paper’s impact then and now, some explaining of this official document is useful. It was part of a continuum addressing historic Canadian immigration practices: “keeping Canada White”. Then, anyone entering Canada did so at the sole discretion of an immigration officer.
Visitors admitted were primarily European and White. Trudeau’s Federal Liberals are usually credited with ending these discriminatory policies. However, “to give Jack his Jacket, Jim his Jimboots and Dief his Diefenbaker”, it was this Tory Prime Minister who years earlier had put the kibosh on this racism in immigration.
In fact, in 1967, shortly after Canadian immigration operations were upgraded in Asia and the Caribbean, fewer than 15 per cent of immigrants to Canada were of African or Asian background. By 1975, as debate over the Green Paper raged, these percentages had more than doubled. Unlike the U.S. which, at the time, was then sleep-walking its “melting pot” approach to fighting racism, Trudeau’s Canada was awakening to “bilingual multiculturalism”.
Toronto’s Black community welcomed the positive aspects of the Green Paper, but with grave concerns otherwise. For example, according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while as ethno-cultural communities we were all set at the starting gate of opportunity, yet, some communities – Black and First Nations – would nonetheless remain hobbled by the iniquitous consequences of institutional racism.
Specifically, if institutional discrimination against Black Canadians continued unchallenged, systemic dysfunctions already endemic in employment, housing, policing, political options, etc., would metastasize. Unfortunately, our conclusions proved prescient and prophetic.
Clarke was front and centre during these community mobilizations. Also, so stiff and effective were the clarifying assessments by Black Toronto and so unanswerable our queries raised, Trudeau, in a pique, referred to “some Canadians with features, novel and distinct”.
Uniquely, Clarke was the kind of individual you rarely saw behind a podium. He’d be stacking chairs. No ideologue, he nonetheless had collections of artifacts, news clippings and other material on slavery, beyond any had by the Toronto Public Library. He was not only making history, but diligent and faithful, was also preserving it.
For example, one individual seeking information on the railroad’s Sleeping Car Porters, the Canadian version of America’s Pullman Porters, asked him if he had anything. Shortly after, Clarke showed up with two boxes of photocopied material.
“I hope that’s O.K.,” he said, laughing.
Clarke was a considerate man who would knock on your door in downtown Toronto with paper bags of groceries. He walked resolute, his right shoulder leaning into the wind, whether or not there was a wind. His was a smile engaging and spontaneous as he asked about your children and spouse by name.
Unfazed at taking public leadership positions on injustice, he was there organizing against the Police killings – and acquittals – of Buddy Evans, shot outside the Flying Disco night club in 1978. He was there for Albert Johnson, who was shot in his home in 1979 after being harassed for months, and for Lester Donaldson, a schizophrenic, who was shot in his home in 1988.
Three days after the killing of Donaldson, Clarke was there, a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee. Despite the limitations of the Special Investigative Unit, established under pressure in 1990 from BADC’s militant street actions, the SIU’s formation was the first such victory for African-Canadians – post Emancipation! BADC had forced the Canadian state to publicly admit to institutional racism – the same concerns raised in our 1973 response to the Green Paper – a systemic problem that required institutional reform.
Clarke missed later shootings and acquittals. His passing and burial from natural causes was quiet with no fanfare. Born of Jamaicans emigrating in the early 50s, and nurturing Black History Toronto, he had passed as he’d lived, nobly.
Equally diligent and indefatigable in things great and small, he thereby reminds us of a Greek myth: that of Sisyphus; who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down and repeat this process forever.
In the chronicles of Black communities repeatedly battling historic injustices, Ed Clarke would be among those doughty souls who would diligently shove that boulder up the hill…but unlike Sisyphus, justifiably dumping it over!