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Lawyer Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, second from left, with Dudley Laws of the Black Action Defense Committee, Kabir Joshi and Martin Ejidra of the Justice for Alwy Campaign Against Police Brutality at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on July 17.

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Dudley Laws, 76, a crusading social activist and prominent member of Toronto's black community, has died of complications of kidney disease.

Only a few days ago, the local community had organized a day in his honour at the Jamaican Canadian Centre. Too ill to attend, Mr. Laws watched the proceedings from his hospital room via an Internet camera.

For the better part of five decades, both in the United Kingdom and in Canada, Mr. Laws campaigned vigorously and fearlessly for human rights and reform of the criminal justice system, immigration, public housing, and policing policies.

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Among the many communal groups with which he was involved was the Black Action Defence Committee, which he co-founded in 1988 (with Charles Roach, Sherona Hall and Lennox Farrell), after several young black men had been shot by Toronto-area police.  Mr. Laws served as its executive director.

Precisely such community-based organizations, Mr. Laws maintained, were needed  "to achieve and sustain progress, justice and respect."

Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby said, "Laws was indefatigable. He was a great man. He was a very early supporter of the peace movement, which people have forgotten, and he was active here when he was almost alone." Today, Mr. Ruby said, "the African-Canadian community is well organized politically. But in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, it was just Dudley, lawyer Charles Roach and a few white guys. It's hard to remember how difficult it was back then. Nobody displayed the courage he did in taking on the police. "

Nzinga Walker, a member the Black Action Defense Committee, said Mr. Laws was "hugely influential." It was his advocacy, she said, that ultimately led governments to provide fund to social agencies to adopt new programs for disadvantaged youth. He was not bitter about the failure to achieve more. He saw it as an evolving process. and his role was to bring issues to the forefront. And Mr. Laws' commitment to communitarian principles, she noted, extended beyond African-Canadians to embrace Aboriginals, new immigrants and other minorities.

Born in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas on May 7 1934, the fourth child of Ezekiel and Agatha Laws, Dudley Z. Laws, attended Rollington Town Public School in Kingston until the age of 14, before apprenticing with Standard Engineering Works as a welder and mechanic. It was during his adolescence that he became a disciple of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican writer and proponent of the Black Nationalism and the Pan-African movements.

At 21, he emigrated to England and soon became involved in organizing the West Indian community, forming the Brixton Neighbourhood Association and the Standing Conference of the West Indies. A decade later, in 1965, Mr. Laws came to Toronto, working initially as a welder and taxi driver, and, subsequently, as a travel agent and an immigration consultant. There, he immediately joined the Jamaican-Canadian Association as well as the Universal African Improvement Association, a Garveyite organization, and eventually became its president. He also played a key role in creating the Black Youth Community Action Project (BYCAP) and the Black Inmates & Friends Assembly (BIFA).

In a statement posted to the website liwi68.com, Mr. Laws said he drew inspiration from  a statement contained in Garvey's Philosophy and Opinions: "Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people; action, self reliance, the vision of self, and the future has been the only means by which the oppressed has seen and realized the hope of their own freedom."

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And while Mr. Laws' activism ameliorated many conditions, he remained a realist about the problems African-Canadians continued to face in Toronto and elsewhere - "internal acts of crime that have taken the lives of hundreds of young black men since the early 1990's... the problem of unemployment and unskilled youth....who are dropping out or being pushed out of the education system...and the condition of public housing."

He was particularly vocal about the need for a ban on the manufacture, sale, and distribution of guns, which he blamed in part for "the destabilization of hundreds families, the deaths of hundreds, of black youths, and the imprisonment of hundreds more." And he was relentless in seeking greater civilian oversight of police misconduct, which he attributed to systemic racism.

"We are not anti-police," he insisted. "We are anti-police violence.... We have said to them that you cannot investigate yourselves."

Inevitably, perhaps, his criticism of the police brought his activities a higher level of oversight. In 1981, for example, he was fined $50 after police inspectors found beer and wine at his organization's social gathering 40 minutes after his formal liquor permit had expired. On another occasion, he was forced to make a court appearance on charges of causing a disturbance, after police stopped his car for belching smoke. And, only days after criticizing the mild charge - careless handling of weapon - laid against a policeman who had shot one young black youth, an officer dropped by Mr. Laws' business office to remind him of $142.50 cents worth of outstanding parking tickets.

In 1994, Mr. Laws was charged with smuggling illegal aliens into the US and subsequently sentenced to a nine-month jail term and fined $5,000. The conviction was overturned on appeal and, after a judge ordered a new trial, the charges were withdrawn altogether when Mr. Laws agreed to serve 200 hours of community service.

"I'm accepting responsibility," Mr. Laws said at the time, "but I'm not admitting any guilt whatsoever."

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A decade ago, in recognition of his work, he was honoured in Toronto with the creation of an annual Dudley Laws Day.

Dudley Laws is survived by his wife, Monica, and five children.

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