Life was not easy for the late Dr. Doug Salmon when he was a youth. Born in 1923 and the youngest of six children, he and his siblings were cared for by a widowed aunt – a trained nurse who was unable to secure employment because of racism – after his Jamaican-born parents died when he was very young.
Despite the financial challenges and other hardships, Salmon was the top graduate in his high school class. Because he was in an applied stream and wanted to attend university, he had to complete two additional years in high school, which he did in the evenings while working during the days.
Salmon was one of just four Black students at the time in his medical class at the University of Toronto.
“He received a scholarship, but he had to work part-time to cover his expenses,” recalled former Toronto city councillor, Bev Salmon, who met her husband in his fourth year in medical school at the U of T. “We knew what a struggle it was for him to pay his way through university and we also knew how much he benefitted from the scholarship he received.”
Salmon earned his first degree in 1951, his medical degree four years later and went on to become Canada’s first Black surgeon and the first African-Canadian president of a hospital medical staff. He was also an accomplished athlete, sculptor, pianist and one of the 1942 Race Discrimination Committee’s lead protestors who fought for the rights of Blacks to enter Palais Royale Ballroom to see such jazz greats as Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
The trailblazer died in September 2005 at age 81.
Soon after his death, the Salmon family established the Dr. J. Douglas Salmon Award for Black medical students at the U of T.
“We wanted to extend the same opportunity to students today that Doug received so many years ago through the scholarship he received,” said Bev Salmon.
Last Thursday, Salmon, along with Leonard Braithwaite, who passed away last March at age 88, Julius Isaac, who died in July 2011 at age 82 and celebrated author Austin Clarke were among 100 of the U of T University College’s 100 most accomplished alumni celebrated at a gala dinner.
University College is a constituent college of the U of T, created in 1852 specifically as an institution of higher learning free of religious affiliation.
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.
He served in Canada and England with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War. 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. As a result, Blacks were very scarce on university campuses.
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.
The first and only member of his family to attend law school, Isaac was the first Black to be named to the Federal Court of Canada and the first Black to be appointed Chief Justice of the Federal Court. He worked as a coal miner in Cape Breton to pay for his first year at law school and then took jobs as a maintenance worker at the Toronto Star and as a railway porter to complete law school at the University of Toronto in 1958.
Isaac co-founded the university’s West Indies Students’ Association and served as legal adviser to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and Other Workers before earning his law degree. Called to the Ontario Bar in 1960, he worked in private practice in corporate commercial law and criminal and civil litigation, acted as legal advisor to the Saskatchewan government and various crown corporations, served as senior magistrate in Grenada and provided legal counsel to the Ontario Securities Commission before joining the Department of Justice in 1971.
Grenadian-born Isaac functioned in various capacities in the federal department for 18 years before being appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1989. Three years later, he made history by becoming Canada’s first Black Chief Justice and the first Black to sit on the federal court.
A 1959 graduate, Clarke has authored 11 novels, six short story collections and five non-fiction books. He’s also the recipient of several notable literary awards, including the Toronto Book Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Polished Hoe.
Clarke came to Toronto from Barbados in 1955 to attend the U of T. He later worked as a reporter in Timmins and Kirkland Lake before joining the CBC as a freelance producer and broadcaster. It was while he worked in the Canadian media that he wrote his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, which was released in 1964.
He also lectured at several American universities, served as Barbados’ cultural and press attaché in Washington, as adviser to late Prime Minister, Errol Barrow, and also as general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados before returning to Canada in 1976.
Clarke, 78, was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998.
University College president, Donald Ainslie, said the institution will add to this distinguished group on the basis of nominations from alumni and others in the college’s community.
“One of the greatest pleasures of my first year as Principal at University College has been meeting alumni,” he said. “They work in almost any field you can name…And while they have chosen different professional paths, they are unified by their ongoing commitment to the values that were nourished during their time at the College.
“They continue to value excellence and open inquiry and they have ascended to positions of leadership by exemplifying these qualities in their day-to-day activities. So many of them have worked to change our society for the better so that decisions – both public and private – that make a difference to people’s lives are premised on respect for difference and an openness to the evidence, wherever it leads.”