Rolling with Bromley Armstrong was like rolling with Elvis. I found that out when the civil rights leader and union activist was honoured by the Toronto & York Region Labour Council in May and Armstrong took me along as one of his guests. A rainbow of people in their 20s to their 80s clamoured for his attention. The Labour Council established an award in his name in 2004. It’s given to a person who demonstrates outstanding leadership on labour and human rights.
Armstrong died August 17, which also happens to be the birthday of Jamaica’s national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
His work fighting on behalf of African-Canadians goes back to the 1950s, when he took part in sit-ins at restaurants in Dresden, Ontario, that refused to serve Black Canadians.
Armstrong was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on February 9, 1926. He wore many hats and won many accolades for his work and helped untold numbers with problems both big and small.
He served on the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as an adjudicator with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, convinced North York Mayor Mel Lastman to set up the first municipal race relations committee, served on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Centre for Police-Race Relations, and is a member of the Order of Canada (1994) and the Order of Ontario (1992).
I will never forget Armstrong because the first paycheque I earned as a journalist was signed by him. The story was about soul singer/songwriter Betty Wright, who rose to fame in the 1970s with hits Clean Up Woman and Tonight Is The Night. She also opened for Bob Marley and the Wailers and sang backup on recordings by the King of Pop Michael Jackson, Peter Tosh and others.
At the time, Armstrong was publisher of an African-Canadian newspaper called the Islander, published from 1973 to 1997. My wife and I rode the bus with him every morning from Pickering. I treasured these moments while Armstrong told us stories about Canada and the Caribbean.
He explained to us many times how he was related to Roy Heron, whom we all referred to as Uncle Roy. That is how the legendary Gil Scott-Heron, his nephew, introduced him to people backstage during his last appearance in Toronto at the El Mocambo.
Armstrong, who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1947, quickly became involved in the fight against police brutality decades before the Toronto police shooting death of Buddy Evans pushed the issue into public view in the late 1970s.
As Armstrong writes in Memoirs Of Bromley L. Armstrong: “Before the Buddy Evans shooting, some police officers allegedly would abuse and brutalize minorities and First Nations peoples. However, in such instances care seemed to have been taken by those police officers to ensure that their somewhat racially motivated actions were not fatal. This was not the case with the 1950s Belfon shooting.”
Garfield Belfon was the son of James Belfon, a barber who had a shop near Huron and Dundas. It is alleged by police that he was shot while caught in the act of breaking into a dental warehouse with a number of other youths in Toronto. To others in the community, however, the shooting looked like murder.
Armstrong’s activism opened the way for groups like the Black Action Defence Committee, founded in 1988 in response to the killing of Jamaica-born Canadian Lester Donaldson, which helped spawn Black Lives Matter.
Armstrong was a lifelong freedom fighter. He kept up the struggle until health issues forced him to stop.
He was quoted by DurhamRegion.com recently. “I still get people sending me letters asking for help. That’s what gives you the feeling your contribution made a difference.”
Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, produces Diasporic Music, a radio show for Uhuru Radio, and writes a column for the Burning Spear newspaper.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @nowtoronto