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George Altamont Brown
George Altamont Brown

Lives Lived: George Altamont Brown, 84 Add to ...

Scholar, rights advocate, husband, sports fan. Born on May 16, 1929 in Kellits, Jamaica; died on April 10, 2014, in Toronto, of heart failure, aged 84.

George Brown travelled from humble beginnings as the son of a Jamaican farmer to become a force for social change in Canada. As a boy, George helped to care for the livestock and harvest sugar cane, while his industrious father saved enough money to invest in a truck that led to a successful transportation business.

As a young man in Kellits, George met a retired British school master, E.B. Baker, who opened his library to George and became his mentor. Friendship with a well-educated white man was a revolutionary event in the life of a black teenager in colonial Jamaica. George grew up witnessing poverty and a well-defined class system based on skin colour, education and wealth – observations that fuelled his interest in economics and human rights.

In 1955, after working in Jamaica as a civil servant for several years, he moved to Vancouver to study economics and political science at the University of British Columbia. With an eye to improving living conditions in his homeland, he earned two master’s degrees (in public administration from Ottawa’s Carleton University and in economics from the University of Toronto) before returning to Jamaica in 1962.

Over the next four years he held a number of governmental positions in Kingston, trying to introduce beneficial changes for a newly independent country. But change proved difficult, and in 1966 he returned to Canada. Two years later he had a third master’s degree, in social work from U of T.

He then was contracted by Dan Hill, head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, to write a report about the tensions and conflicts among Toronto teenagers of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. He soon joined the commission full-time and by 1976 had become its executive director. For more than a decade, he was the main architect of policy development, education and research, and chief administrator of its 17 offices. He taught commission officers about racism and discrimination, and developed investigative techniques for them to determine the validity of the thousands of complaints made to the agency every year.

He led the struggle for equal opportunity on many fronts. The agency’s Community, Race, and Ethnic Relations Unit was created in the 1970s to address the rise in racial tensions, and a unit dealing with discrimination on the grounds of physical and mental handicap was set up in 1981. George played a major role in the commission winning the first sex-discrimination case in Canada, in the early 1970s. Another success, in the late 1980s, was establishing the rights of qualified girls to play on boys’ hockey or baseball teams.

At the end of 1987, George left the commission and was seconded to U of T’s Faculty of Social Work to develop course materials about the nature of prejudice and the social problems caused by racism and discrimination. From 1990 to 1994, he was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, hearing cases of refugee applicants. He also served on the boards of the Canadian Council on Social Development and the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto.

Away from his serious work, George had a fun-loving side. He enjoyed cooking, dancing the night away, watching movies and viewing sports (especially football, basketball, soccer and cricket).

In the fall of 1958, George met Iris Hall at the wedding of a mutual friend. On Valentine’s Day in 1959, he confidently informed her that he planned to marry her when she was ready. That happened in August, 1961, at a time when mixed marriages were not common. Even the Anglican minister who performed the ceremony told George that mixed marriages don’t last, but almost 53 years of marriage isn’t bad!

George’s death robbed Canada of one of the finest minds in the field of human rights. By the time he reached the end of his own road, his dream of making the world a better place had become a reality. His legacy is his remarkable contribution to the improvement of human rights in Ontario.

Iris Brown is George’s wife.

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