At age 13, Herman Stewart penned a letter to Jamaica’s first governor general, Sir Clifford Campbell, requesting financial assistance to purchase equipment for a youth cricket team he was about to launch in his Westmoreland neighbourhood.
Raised in the same community, Campbell responded, saying he received similar appeals frequently and was unable to support Stewart’s request.
Instead of being discouraged, Stewart encouraged his friends to ask their parents for bananas and coconuts to sell with the intention of using the funds accrued to buy the gear.
“Looking back, I would definitely say that was when my passion for organizing and mobilizing started,” said Stewart, who was presented with the Bromley Armstrong Award at the 10th annual Toronto & York Region Labour Council’s (TYRLC) equity committee banquet in Don Mills.
Arriving in the Greater Toronto Area in 1969, Stewart was a clerk with the Ministry of Revenue until 1974, when he embraced the trade union movement.
“I had a friend who was a steelworker and he would go back to Jamaica every year for vacation,” said Stewart. “I couldn’t do that with the salary I was earning and when I asked him how he was able to afford annual vacations, he told me he was in a union environment making good money. I quit my white collar job and went to work in a warehouse where, after about eight weeks, I organized nearly 500 workers to start a union there.”
The first Black to serve on the Ontario Federation of Labour executive and hold a senior position in the union movement in the province when he was elected to head the 4,000-member International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Stewart subsequently became an Ontario Ministry of Labour mediator before retiring last December.
He said he was honoured to be recognized with an award bearing Armstrong’s name.
“Bromley is someone I have looked up to over the years,” said Stewart. “I have received many awards, but this one is extremely special for me because of him. Everything I have done in the labour movement and the community is as a result of his encouragement. When I started out in the union, you could count on one hand the number of union representatives. Bromley took me aside and let me know there were only a few of us and that we should get together and know each other. He has done a lot for me personally and I am extremely proud to be accepting this award from him.”
Armstrong also encouraged Stewart to join the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) in 1980.
He served as chair of the education, fundraising, general purposes and building committees, first vice-president and president for six years up until 2001.
A former president of Ebony Co-op Homes Inc., Stewart is doing private mediation since retiring.
The TYRLC established the Bromley Armstrong Award a decade ago to honour the outstanding contributions of the octogenarian who fought for civil and human rights long before Canada had a legislative and constitutional framework to defend human rights and collective agreements that included human rights language.
While employed in his first job in Toronto at Massey Harris, Armstrong was an active leader in the United Auto Workers Local 439 and the Toronto & District Labour Council.
The first Black to be appointed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board in 1980 after serving five years as Ontario Human Rights Commission commissioner, Armstrong – who conducted test cases in Toronto and Dresden – co-authored Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes, that was published in 2000.
Welcome to Dresden, a new film featuring Armstrong’s struggle for justice and equality, was screened at the banquet.
In addition to his activism, Armstrong published a community newspaper – The Islander – in the early 1970s and helped establish several organizations, including the Caribbean Soccer Club that competed in the Toronto & District Soccer League, the Negro Citizenship Committee, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Jamaican Canadian Association, the Jamaican Canadian Credit Union, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the National Black Coalition of Canada and the National Council of Jamaican & Supportive Organizations in Canada.
Previous Bromley Armstrong Award winners are Fred Upshaw, June Veecock, Clarence Forde, Nicole Ma, Marie-Clarke Walker, Pura Velasco, Janice Gairey, Jojo Geronimo and recently-elected Canadian Labour Congress president, Hassan Yussuff.