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Judge George Carter, right, with Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry, March 11, 1980. Photo by Barrie Davis / The Globe and Mail.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

In the early 1930s, when George Carter was attending Hester How Public School in Toronto’s Ward neighbourhood, teacher Julia Gribble, the principal’s assistant, contacted his parents with a pressing question. Their son, she told the couple, immigrants from Barbados, had become an extraordinarily voracious reader. How, she asked, did they plan to keep him supplied with books?

Ms. Gribble soon came up with her own solution, paying for reading materials for her young charge out of her own pocket.

By the time George reached Harbord Collegiate, his interest in language had further expanded. He soaked up Latin, German, French and even some Yiddish, which he learned from friends in the predominantly Jewish Kensington Market area. “He would have loved to be a teacher,” daughter Linda Carter recalls. But George’s father, John, wanted his eldest son to aim for another profession: the law.

The boy took his father’s advice and went on to become not only one of Toronto’s first black lawyers, but also one of this country’s first Canadian-born black judges. A member of the Order of Ontario and a Queen’s Counsel, he died in Toronto on June 7 at the age of 96.

Justice Carter loomed large among black lawyers and judges, and also in Canada’s legal profession generally, observes Toronto criminal lawyer Selwyn Pieters. “He exuded the ethical principles and professionalism lawyers strive to live by. He was a role model and a trailblazer.”

George Ethelbert Carter was born in Toronto on Aug. 1, 1921, a date that coincided with the annual Emancipation Day celebrations commemorating the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. He was the eldest of 14 children (11 of whom survived past infancy). His parents, John and Louise, came to Toronto just after the First World War, when a small but growing number of immigrants from the Caribbean were coming to Canada. Most were restricted to blue-collar jobs, such as railway-car porters and domestic workers.

John Carter worked in a foundry, and the family later moved from the Ward to a home in the College/Spadina area – a community teeming with newcomers.

“As a little fellow, the big thing I remember was that I was always with my mother, going up the aisle at some Anglican church,” he recalled. But because of his knowledge of Yiddish, Ms. Carter recounts, his friends asked him to come to synagogue to help make quorum.

Mr. Carter completed his undergraduate studies at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1944. But with the war in Europe raging, he was called up for active service, reporting to the Canadian Forces base in Ipperwash, Ont. After months of intensive preparation, Mr. Carter was on a train heading for a transport ship to Europe when his group learned that the Nazis had surrendered.

As a person of colour who had served in the army, Mr. Carter realized that professional doors once closed were now opening up for him. “Before that, a lot of positions, you couldn’t get into,” he recounted in an oral history project. “The war just threw the whole thing open.”

After returning to civilian life, Mr. Carter enrolled at Osgoode Hall law school, graduating in 1948. After being called to the bar in February, 1949, he soon found a position practising with a small firm led by B.J. Spencer Pitt, one of Toronto’s first black lawyers.

By then, he was also married to Kathleen Violet DaCosta, a young woman from Saint Kitts. They met during one of the many social functions held at the United Negro Improvement Association hall at 355 College St. Founded by the American black nationalist Marcus Garvey, the UNIA “was the gathering place of the black community at the time,” Ms. Carter said. “That was the only place to go.” The couple had four children.

Mr. Carter had his own law firm and practised in the areas of real estate, criminal and family law.

In early 1980, when he was 58, provincial officials began sounding him out for a position on the bench. In a recent interview, Mr. Carter recalled the racial overtones of those early inquiries, and being told, “You understand these people. You’ve been through all those back alleys with those guys. They know you.“ Soon after, then-attorney general Roy McMurtry, a future Ontario chief justice, asked to talk to Mr. Carter, and made it clear the historic appointment was on its way.

He was called to the bench in 1979 and served for 16 years on the Ontario Provincial Court and was later appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice.

Mr. Carter didn’t break the colour barrier on Canada’s judiciary: That distinction belongs to Maurice Charles, a Guyanese lawyer appointed in 1969. Mr. Carter, however, was the first Ontario-born black lawyer to make the leap. He belonged to a generation of pioneering black Canadians in public life, among them distinguished figures like former Ontario lieutenant governor Lincoln Alexander, Leonard Braithwaite, Canada’s first black provincial legislator, and Zanana Akande, Canada’s first black female cabinet minister.

Life on the bench was busy: he estimated that he heard about 3,000 cases per year, some of them well-publicized trials involving high-profile figures, like Argos quarterback Condredge Holloway, who faced a drunk-driving charge in 1985.

While Mr. Carter was a hard-nosed judge, his compassion was frequently on display, including during a 1986 sexual-abuse trial when he excused an evidently traumatized seven-year-old victim from testifying.

After he stepped down at the mandatory retirement age of 75, he “literally presided over the dining room table” in his Etobicoke home, Ms. Carter says. “So many people came to him [asking him] to help them out with their legal problems,” she says. The table was constantly strewn with legal documents and stacks of newspapers. He was proffering his counsel until well into his 90s.

Mr. Carter also participated in a public oral history project founded by Kathy Grant, documenting the lives and experiences of Canada’s surviving black veterans. While Mr. Carter was in his mid-80s when Ms. Grant began interviewing him, she says, he had a “photographic memory,” recounting the rich details of the working-class immigrant community where he grew up. “There was a picture of his classmates at Hester How and he could identify everyone, including where they lived.”

Mr. Carter was predeceased by his wife, Kathleen, who died in 2011. He leaves his sister Doris Brook; four children, Linda, Evan, Jacqueline and Ralph; six grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Justice Carter was this country’s first Canadian-born black judge. This version has been corrected.

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