Heroes of Toronto’s Black liberation movement

Six champions who defined the last 50 years of anti-racism activism in our city


Len & Gwen Johnston 

(1918-1998 1915-2009) 

Founders of Third World Books and Crafts

The Johnstons were Canadian-born veterans of the labour movement – Len was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They opened Third World, a source of politics for the Caribbean, Latin American and African communities – Toronto’s “underground railroad” to Black colonial history – on Bay Street in 1968, when the Ontario school curriculum was still deeply immersed in notions of white superiority. The bookstore, which later moved to Bathurst and Bloor, became a centre for Black community activism, as well as a source of inspiration for young Black writers and poets, among them Clifton Joseph. After Len died in 1998, Gwen kept the bookstore open until 2000. She died in 2009.

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Screenshot from Rosie, The Fearless Rebel directed by Sonia Godding Togobo

Roosevelt “Rosie”Bernard Douglas 

(1941-2000)

“The Fearless Rebel”

“I am saying that we have to prepare ourselves to use any means necessary to seek our liberation from white domination.” The Dominica-born activist became involved in the civil rights movement after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s. Douglas was an early defender of Native people and segregated Black communities in Nova Scotia. The turning point in his activism occurred in 1969 when, as a student at McGill, he participated in a protest at Sir George Williams University in Montreal over the treatment of Black students by one of its professors. The protest turned into a two-week sit-in when 100 students barricaded themselves in the university’s computer centre. Police were eventually called to break up the sit-in and investigate a fire. Five protestors, including Douglas, were sent to prison for obstructing the uses of public property. He served two years in a medium security prison and was ordered deported to Dominica right after his release. He moved to Toronto to take part in efforts to stop his deportation, which were ultimately unsuccessful. In Dominica, he became leader of the Labour Party in the mid-1990s and prime minister in February 2000. He died eight months later.

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Screenshot from Who is Marlene Green? directed by Ella Cooper

Marlene Green 

(1940-2002)

Activist and educator

The larger-than-life Green was “a big and bright voice” for education reform. She founded the Black Education Project in the late 1960s in response to Black parents’ concerns about streaming and high drop-out rates (do these sound familiar?) at the height of Caribbean immigration to Toronto. And at a time when Black kids were being categorized as special needs, and Jamaican students in particular had problems adjusting because of language barriers. BEP ran after-school programs and summer camps. In 1979, she co-authored the first report on racism in the education system as a community relations officer with the Toronto Board of Education. She returned to her Caribbean roots in the 1980s and 90s, serving as head of CUSO in Grenada, and supporting the Canadian development org’s anti-apartheid work in Africa. She provided leadership when the United States invaded in 1983 following the assassination of prime minister Maurice Bishop.

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Screenshot from Dudley Speaks For Me directed by Ngardy Conteh George

Dudley Laws 

(1934-2011)

“Voice of the Voiceless”

An early disciple of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Jamaica-born Laws worked in the labour movement in England before immigrating to Toronto in 1965 where he joined the Jamaican Canadian Association and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, becoming president after the organization changed its name to the Universal African Improvement Association. In response to the Toronto police shooting deaths of Buddy Evans and Albert Johnson in the late 1970s, Laws organized demonstrations and helped found the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC), serving as the face of the organization. His outspoken activism – he called Toronto’s police force the most racist and murderous in North America – made him a target of law enforcement and sometimes alienated him from conservative members of the Black community. In the early 90s, a continued campaign of police harassment (he was arrested five times) culminated in a number of criminal charges alleging immigration violations related to his immigration consulting work. The charges were eventually dismissed. 

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Screenshot from Charley directed by Laurie Townsend

Charles (Charlie) Conliff Mende Roach 

(1933-2012)

Criminal defence lawyer

Roach immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in 1955 to study theology at the University of Saskatchewan. He switched to law and during his early legal career took on human rights cases and represented political asylum seekers from the U.S., including members of the Black Panther Party and Vietnam War resisters, as well as domestic workers facing deportation. He was a driving force behind the creation in 1978 of the Movement of Minority Electors, a group dedicated to encouraging people from racialized communities to run for office. Around that time, he also became a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee and the group’s legal counsel, following the police shootings of a number of unarmed Black men. Roach’s opposition to the British monarchy would lead to his filing several court challenges to the provision in the Oath of Citizenship requiring swearing allegiance to the Queen. 

Compiled by NOW News department.

Sources: Akua Benjamin Legacy Project 2016, NOW Magazine archives

Watch short films on the activists directed by Sarah Michelle Brown, Sonia Godding Togobo, Ella Cooper, Ngardy Conteh George and Laurie Townsend here.

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