It didn’t take long for Bromley Armstrong to encounter racism in Canada, and it didn’t take him long to use those encounters as forces for change. In 1948, a year after arriving in this country from his native Jamaica at the age of 19, he went to work as a labourer for Massey-Harris (later Massey Ferguson, maker of agricultural equipment).
But Mr. Armstrong wanted to be a welder, like his father, and he signed up for classes. “Get your money back,” his supervisor advised. The company had never hired a black welder, he was told, and wouldn’t do so any time soon.
Mr. Armstrong ignored his boss and graduated. He applied for welding jobs when they came up. The personnel department replied that it could not find his application. This happened on three occasions.
So he turned to his union, the Canadian Auto Workers Local 439, for help. The union president wondered why he should intervene, given that Mr. Armstrong had never been to a meeting.
“I promise you, you will see me every month at every union meeting,” he replied, according to durhamregion.com, also noting that out of the union's 4,500 members only 13 were black. "That’s how I got involved in the union. From that stage, I never looked back.” Indeed, he went on to become shop steward at Local 439, helping others and gaining a reputation as a shrewd labour activist.
From there, it was a natural step to helping the Toronto District Labour Council gather evidence of discrimination in the city. “We checked all kinds of clubs,” Mr. Armstrong recalled in a 2013 interview. “We tested barber shops, restaurants. We never tested them, but even churches discriminated. You were politely told you don’t belong.”
In 1949, Leslie Frost became Ontario’s premier and “he was sympathetic to what we were doing.” By the early fifties, Mr. Frost’s government had passed the anti-discrimination Fair Employment Practices Act and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act.
Toronto was resistant to change, Mr. Armstrong would find, but small-town Ontario was even further behind. When he and other activists discovered rampant discrimination in the town of Dresden – where about 20 per cent of its 2,000 residents were people of colour – he paid a visit. After all, Dresden was once home to Josiah Henson, who inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the terminus of the old Underground Railroad that brought escaped slaves to Canada. The irony of segregation there was monstrous.
On Oct. 29, 1954, Mr. Armstrong sat down at Kay’s Café in Dresden, along with Hugh Burnett, a black carpenter who had co-founded an anti-discrimination group called the National Unity Association, and Ruth Lor Malloy, a Chinese-Canadian campus activist. They waited for 20 minutes, receiving no service in the near-empty eatery.
Meantime, two white patrons, Toronto freelance writer Gordon Donaldson and a photographer, had come in and were promptly served.
When the photographer started snapping pictures, restaurateur Morley McKay knew he’d been set up. Mr. Armstrong “was seriously concerned that he might be attacked by the restaurant owner, who was wielding a large meat cleaver and appeared to be having trouble controlling his notorious temper,” related The Dresden Story, a 2001 study.
As Mr. Armstrong remembered it in 1992, “the more I talked to [Mr. McKay], the faster the cleaver was going.”
Mr. McKay was later served with a summons for violating the province’s new laws. That merited a two-inch story in The Globe and Mail, noting the complaint was laid by “Bromley Armstrong, Toronto Negro.” The owner was fined $50 and ordered to pay $85.40 in costs; he and another local restaurateur became the first people convicted under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. (Mr. McKay refused to serve black people until 1956.)
It was “a dangerous escapade” but got national media attention and marked “the beginning and the end of racial segregation in Southwestern Ontario,” the Jamaican Canadian Association said in its tribute to Mr. Armstrong.
Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, he took part in sit-ins to test business owners’ compliance with the new laws, and pioneered “rent-ins,” where he and Ms. Malloy would respond in person as a couple to advertised apartment rentals. “When they were told the rooms had already been taken, a white couple – the other half of the ‘test’ team – would arrive and be offered the very same accommodation,” the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on Mr. Armstrong states.
Recalled as a calm but firm voice, Mr. Armstrong was among Canada’s most dogged and respected civil- and human-rights activists who had a hand, it seemed, in every development in race relations over six decades. He died on Aug. 17 at Centenary Hospital, in Scarborough, Ont., at 92. His work was “courageous and trailblazing” and his legacy was “exceptional,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet. “Canada is richer, more just and more equal for his efforts.”
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 9, 1926, the fourth of seven children, to a nurse and a welder, and came to Canada because two of his brothers had served in the Canadian army during the Second World War.
By the early sixties, he’d gained enough prominence to be appointed a commissioner of the newly created Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“He spoke to everybody, whether he agreed with you or not,” said Lennox Farrell, who was part of the Black Action Defence Committee, founded in 1988 in response to a series of police shootings of black men in Toronto. Its other members, lawyer Charles Roach and businessman Dudley Laws, were dubbed radicals by white civic leaders, but Mr. Armstrong sympathized with their anger and frustration.
“He was a gentleman and a scrapper,” Mr. Farrell said with a laugh. “If you stood in front of him, you’d be bruised. But he’d be the first person to bring comfort and healing balm – so he could bruise you again.”
Mr. Armstrong served as an adjudicator with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Zanana Akande, the first black woman elected to the Ontario legislature and Canada’s first black female cabinet minister, recalled the time when Mr. Armstrong’s fellow adjudicators asked that he recuse himself from a case because the complainant was black and there would be a perception of bias. He agreed to do so – but only if his colleagues excused themselves from every other case.
“That’s the way he was,” Ms. Akande said. “Direct. And there was a bit of humour to him.”
Mr. Armstrong founded or served in several organizations, including the Jamaican Canadian Association, the Black Business and Professional Association, the National Council of Jamaicans and Supportive Organizations, the Canadian Ethnocultural Council and the board of governors for the Canadian Centre for Police Race Relations. In 1975, he was also among the founding members of Toronto’s Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
He went on to publish a newspaper, The Islander, from 1973 to 1997. Repeated threats against the paper and a campaign of harassment against Mr. Armstrong in the seventies led to the arrest of 29 white supremacists, according to published reports.
He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1994 as well as being admitted to the Order of Ontario and the Order Distinction of Jamaica. His memoir, Bromley: Tireless Fighter for Just Causes, was published in 2000.
Mr. Armstrong leaves his wife, Marlene; seven children; 18 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Linda. (His first marriage ended in divorce after 22 years.)
Ms. Akande recalled the best advice she received from Mr. Armstrong: “Decide what you’re going to do. Speak about it clearly. Be direct, and be prepared for the consequences.”