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Leonard Braithwaite is sworn in as a member of the Ontario Legislature for Etobicoke, a new suburban Toronto riding, in November 1963. (The Canadian Press)
Leonard Braithwaite is sworn in as a member of the Ontario Legislature for Etobicoke, a new suburban Toronto riding, in November 1963. (The Canadian Press)


Leonard Braithwaite, Canada's first black parliamentarian, dead at 88 Add to ...

Back home, as he recounted to Lartey, he was hired at a chocolate factory only after the plant’s foremen, who had never received a black applicant, got together and concluded they could not turn away a war veteran. Mr. Braithwaite was given the night shift, tending the rolling machines.

In the fall of 1946, he enrolled in the University of Toronto's commerce and finance program. One day, “a group of women were walking near the campus and chatting among themselves about his acceptance when they spotted Len's mother coming towards them,” historian Sheldon Taylor told Share, a newspaper serving the black and Caribbean communities in Toronto. “They surrounded her and started to scream loudly because this was a victory for Len's family and his community. That had to be the first instance of a flash mob strike in the city.” Mr. Braithwaite graduated with honours.

Again faced with a restrictive job market, he was accepted into the Harvard Business School, graduating with an MBA in 1952. He then decided to stay in the States, where the racism, as he would describe, was much less subtle than at home.

On his first day as an executive trainee at General Cable Corp., in Perth Amboy, N.J., Mr. Braithwaite got into line in the company cafeteria, collected his lunch and sat down among several other employees. Without a word, all of them stood and left. “I mean, it was just like in the movies,” said his son. Mr. Braithwaite was also certain that his co-workers were tampering with his work.

Even so, he lasted a year before returning to Toronto to enroll in law school. He was elected class president in his first year and by his fourth, he was president of the student body at Osgoode Hall Law School and was awarded a Gold Key for leadership.

After establishing a small law practice in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Mr. Braithwaite was elected as a school trustee in 1960, followed by winning an alderman's seat on the Etobicoke council two years later. By now a popular local politician who had helped erect the first sound barriers between homes and highways, he spurned an offer from then Ontario premier John Robarts to run in the 1963 provincial election as a Conservative. Running as a Liberal, he captured his seat by just 443 votes. The headline in the Toronto Daily Star read: “Wins Etobicoke: Braithwaite Ontario’s First Negro MPP.”

His arrival at Queen's Park was uneventful, at least on the surface. He internalized whatever animosity may have been directed his way. “All he ever said was that, at the beginning, it wasn't a very pleasant environment,” related his son.

Robert Nixon, then a Liberal MPP who later served as party leader, remembered fellow legislators' reaction to Mr. Braithwaite’s election as “nothing but positive. There was not the slightest tremor of anything anti-black.”

Re-elected in 1967 and 1971, Mr. Braithwaite served as the Liberal critic for labour and welfare. In 1975, he lost to the New Democratic Party candidate. His entire time in office at Queen's Park was marked by Tory rule.

Alvin Curling, who was the first black Speaker of Ontario’s Legislature, regarded Mr. Braithwaite as a mentor. “I came to appreciate very, very much some of the things he must have gone through in his time,” Mr. Curling said. “[To him]they were not negative or positive, just challenging experiences.”

Following his defeat, Mr. Braithwaite returned to municipal politics, winning a spot on Etobicoke’s Board of Control. In 1985, he was persuaded to run as a last-minute Liberal hopeful in that year's provincial election, but lost to the Conservative incumbent.

In 1999, Mr. Braithwaite became the first black bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Among a slew of awards was the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He was especially proud of having sponsored boys’ and girls’ sports teams known as “Braithwaite Legal Eagles” for 26 years.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath summed up the thoughts of many when she said Mr. Braithwaite “brought dignity and nobility to public office.”

“He did what he had to do,” his son said. “I never once heard him say that he thought he deserved more.”

Mr. Braithwaite is survived by sons Roger and David. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. at St. Matthias' Anglican Church, 1428 Royal York Rd., Toronto.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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