Leonard Braithwaite had several firsts to his name including being the first Black elected to a Canadian parliament and the first Black bencher on the powerful Law Society of Canada’s governing council. He was also the first Black to serve on the Etobicoke Board of Education and on the since dissolved municipality’s city council as an alderman.
Braithwaite, who was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1971, passed away late last month after a brief illness. He was 88.
The son of a Barbadian father and Jamaica mother, Braithwaite grew up in the Kensington Market community at the height of the Great Depression era when life was extremely challenging for most Canadians, particularly Blacks. To support his family, he started selling newspapers in Grade 10 and by the time he graduated from high school, he had bought the newspaper selling rights and had seven employees.
The Ryerson Public School student and Harbord Collegiate Institute graduate served in Canada and in England with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II.
Discharged on his return home and transferred to the RCAF Reserves in 1946, Braithwaite enrolled at the University of Toronto where he obtained a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1950. That was quite a remarkable achievement at that time since very few Black men and even fewer Black women matriculated from high school. That meant Blacks were very scarce on university campuses.
“When he was accepted to the U of T, a group of women were walking near the campus and chatting among themselves about his acceptance when they spotted Len’s mother coming towards them,” recalled historian, Dr. Sheldon Taylor. “They surrounded her and started to scream loudly because this was a victory for Len’s family and his community. That had to be the first instance of a flash mob strike in this city.”
Braithwaite also graduated from Harvard University with a Master’s of Business Administration degree and from Osgoode Law School where he was a Gold Key Leadership recipient for all-round outstanding contribution to the student body and the school and president of the study body that year.
Prior to attending law school where he was elected class president in his first year in 1954, he was enrolled in General Cable Corporation’s executive training program in New Jersey and he was an instructor in the U of T Institute of Business Administration and a management systems analyst with Phillips Cable.
With law school behind him, Braithwaite set up a small law practice in Etobicoke and was the Royal Gardens Ratepayers president when he was approached by residents in 1960 to run for Ward 4 school trustee.
Elected an alderman in the 1962 municipal elections, the Liberal Party candidate ushered in a new era in Canadian politics a year later when he won a provincial seat in Etobicoke and became the first Black elected to a Canadian parliament.
“Len was comfortable among all groups of people and that allowed him to have an impact and impress many in the broader community,” Taylor said. “So when he decided to run for political office, he was able to get the support he needed to win. You have to remember that back in the early 1960s, there was not enough support in his community to get him elected.”
Braithwaite was instrumental in the revocation of a section of the Ontario Separate Schools act that had allowed for racial segregation in public schools when he asked the Legislature to “get rid of the old race law” during his maiden speech at Queen’s Park on February 4, 1964. His advocacy for gender equality also led to the admission of female legislative pages.
“He’s someone who raised the bar not only for persons of African descent, but many others,” said Ontario’s Consumer Services Minister, Margarett Best, who had lunch with the pioneer two years ago in the Ontario Legislature dining room. “His lifelong activities helped to effect changes in the law.”
He was victorious in two subsequent elections, serving as Opposition Party Critic for Labour and Community and Social Services before being defeated in 1975.
When the York West Liberal Association could not recruit a candidate to run against Tory Minister of Correctional Services Nick Leluk in the 1985 provincial elections, Braithwaite accepted the challenge three weeks before the polls and lost by 821 votes.
Ontario Premier, Dalton McGuinty, said Braithwaite lived a long and remarkable life that was characterized by his strong convictions, passion for public service and powerful sense of justice.
“His determination to see Ontario do what was right and just by all its citizens helped make our province the open, diverse and caring place it is today,” said McGuinty. “We have lost a trailblazer, a champion and a friend, but he leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the strong and diverse province he helped build.”
After his exit from provincial politics, he was elected to the Board of Control in Etobicoke, which later became part of the City of Toronto following amalgamation.
Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, said Braithwaite’s life and many achievements deserve to be celebrated.
“He led by example,” she said. “He was a role model to youth and to the community. He was a pioneer as a lawyer and as a law-maker and he brought dignity and nobility to public office. The Ontario Legislature, and our parliamentary tradition, is the richer for his service. Members of Provincial Parliament and the citizens of Ontario owe Mr. Braithwaite a debt of gratitude.”
During his illustrious career, Braithwaite supported the young people in his community, sponsoring boys’ and girls’ sports teams known as “Braithwaite Legal Eagles” for 26 years.
He was a member of many organizations, including the Kiwanis, the Thistletown Lions Club, the Toronto Board of Trade, the Harvard Club, the Black Business & Professional Association, the Etobicoke Board of Health and the Etobicoke Planning Board. He is also a past president of the Delos Davis Law Club and a former member of the board of governors of the Canadian National Exhibition, Etobicoke General Hospital and West Park Hospital.
Appointed to the Order of Canada in 1997 and the Order of Ontario seven years later, Braithwaite was the recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and U of T Black Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Leadership, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers Achievement, the Canadian National Griot Association Cornwall-Miller Founders, the African-Canadian Achievement, Tropicana Community Services Organization Community Builder and the Harry Jerome Professional Excellence Awards.
Two years ago, he was presented with a Wazee Award for his extensive contributions to the province during the Ontario Science Centre and Tourism Toronto collaboration Northern Lights: African-Canadian Stories three-week exhibition curated by Taylor.
A practicing lawyer since 1958, Braithwaite was recognized with the William Hubbard Race Relations Award at the City of Toronto’s annual Access, Equity and Human Rights event which is held to celebrate Human Rights Day last December and the inaugural Rose Fortune Award a month later at the Ontario Black History Society Black History Month kick-off.
Councillor, Michael Thompson, presented the William Hubbard Award to Braithwaite last November.
“That’s my last memory of him and he had mentioned to me then that his health was failing,” Thompson said. “He was a great resource person for many in the community, including myself. He was very open and always willing to lend a helping hand. The community has lost a great leader.”
A memorial service will be held on April 21 at 11:00 a.m. at St. Matthias’ Anglican Church, 1428 Royal York Road in Etobicoke.
By RON FANFAIR