As a teenager nearly four decades ago, Malvern Collegiate Institute student council president, Fred Upshaw, started a revolt when his high school imposed mandatory uniforms.
Feeling that the council should have been consulted before making it compulsory for girls and boys to wear blue tunics and grey flannel pants respectively, Upshaw urged students to remain outside their classrooms to show their disapproval.
The students adhered and the school administration backed down.
“That was just one of those things, but it was what got the ball rolling in terms of my human rights and labour activism,” said Upshaw, who was suspended from school for a day for his radical actions.
Upshaw, who went on to become the first Black trade unionist to lead a major Canadian union, was the recipient of the Bromley Armstrong Award presented last Friday night.
“I am honoured to be even considered for this recognition,” said the former Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) head. “It means a lot to get this award because I faced the same challenges that confronted Bromley in terms of fighting for human and civil rights.”
The eldest of six children raised by their mother who brought the family to Toronto from Halifax in 1941, Upshaw sang in the Kingston Road United Church choir and landed his first job with a downtown customs brokerage firm after graduating from high school.
After losing his job and with a wife and five children to support, Upshaw pursued nursing at Durham College while working as an attendant at the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, where he was a volunteer.
Upshaw’s union links started in 1972 with the Civic Service Association of Ontario that had just won limited bargaining rights with the provincial government. When OPSEU emerged three years later, he was elected chief steward and then OPSEU Local 331 president, representing nearly 1,000 hospital staff.
Elected to the union’s executive board in 1980 and first-vice president & treasurer four years later, Upshaw made history in 1990 when he succeeded James Clancy as OPSEU’s president.
During his five-year reign, the trailblazer secured public employees wage increases and helped win unit reform and human rights language in OPSEU contracts. He also negotiated broad scale equity settlements to ensure that human rights and equity were embedded in collective agreement provisions, adopted the union’s first employment equity policy and hired its first human rights officer.
“Fred’s leadership and activism are inspiring in so many ways,” said recently elected OPSEU board member, Ibrahim Bozai. “He has set an example for all of us, including me. He has demonstrated that diverse voices can and will be heard. This is evident in the trade union movement just as it is an important part of being Canadian.”
The OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus nominated Upshaw for the award.
The first recipient of the OPSEU Human Rights Award in 1999, Upshaw is still active in the union’s Region Three retiree division.
Armstrong presented the award to Upshaw at the Toronto & York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) annual banquet at Spirales Banquet Centre.
“Fred has been around a long time and it’s good that he’s getting this award,” said Armstrong. “When somebody of colour, particularly a Black person, becomes the leader of a major trade union organization, that person has a lot of responsibility and a lot of people are looking up to them. He devoted a lot of his time to human rights and social justice as you have to when you are the head of a trade union movement.”
The TYRLC established the Bromley Armstrong Award nine years 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. In 1954, he led a delegation to Ottawa to protest the federal government’s restrictive immigration policy that shut out Blacks and other visible minorities.
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.
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 June Veecock, Clarence Forde, Nicole Ma, Hassan Yussuff, Marie-Clarke Walker, Pura Velasco, Janice Gairey and Jojo Geronimo.