Skip to main content

Human rights lawyer Charles Roach poses in his Toronto office on Monday, June. 27, 2011. The man who refused to take the oath of citizenship, because of his opposition to the monarchy, has died with his decades-long dream of becoming a Canadian unfulfilled.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

Charles Roach, a veteran civil-rights lawyer and activist whose final cause was his unsuccessful bid to become a Canadian citizen without swearing fealty to the Queen, died on Tuesday after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 79.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Roach immigrated to Toronto and lived there for more than 50 years, his name synonymous with the promotion of human rights.

He was a partner with Roach and Schwartz Associates, a law firm on St. Clair Avenue that, over the years, embraced a wide range of liberal and left-wing causes.

Often flamboyant, never shy, Roach was particularly prominent during the late 1980s, when a series of Toronto police shootings involving black people generated increasingly critical coverage of police conduct.

Those incidents were instrumental in the advent of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which probes police-civilian interactions in which death or serious injury occurs.

But he embraced culture as well as conflict, and was a leading player in the creation and development of Caribana, Toronto's annual African-Canadian celebration, now called the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival.

The festival's inauguration in 1967, marked the 100th anniversary of Confederation.

Two decades later, he started his 24-year battle to become a Canadian citizen without swearing allegiance to the Queen, which he asserted was unconstitutional. His most recent effort, in which he was joined by three other plaintiffs, is before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Last week, NDP Member of Parliament Andrew Cash wrote to Minister of Citizenship Jason Kenney urging him to grant the dying Roach his wish.

"I'm deeply saddened by the news of Charles's death," Cash said in a statement on Wednesday. "He was an inspiration and contributed so much to our country. A great Canadian, in all but official title. We can honour his contributions to our country properly by granting his dying wish and recognizing him as a citizen of Canada, a country he loved so dearly."

As tributes accumulated on Facebook and Twitter, fellow civil-rights advocate and lawyer Clayton Ruby recalled his long-time friend with affection.

"He was just a lovely man," Ruby said.

"My memories of him are of the two of us trudging through snow with picket signs. I cannot remember any more what the issue was, but I spent many an hour with him on picket lines in the cold and wet, and very often they were very small picket lines with a handful of people.

"But he was always there, he had a heart as big as Canada."

And while Roach was for many years among the fiercest critics of Toronto police, his sincerity was unquestioned.

"He was a strong, and at at times a critical voice, but his commitment to his community was unwavering," Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair wrote in an e-mail from San Diego, where he is attending a police convention.

"He made a difference."

Never more so than in the 1970s and 1980s, when a string of high-profile, Toronto-area police shootings led to the provincial Task Force on Policing and Race Relations, which in turn produced Ontario's civilian-staffed SIU.

Each of those shootings seemed to garner bigger headlines than the one before.

The 1978 death of Buddy Evans was followed the next year by the killing of Albert Johnson, and both stirred wide anger in Toronto's black community.

But it was with the slaying of Lester Donaldson in 1988 by a Toronto police constable, and the death in the same year in Peel Region of teenager Wade Lawson that the pressure for police reform gathered pace.

The conflict peaked in 1990, when a Toronto policeman became the fifth officer – three in Toronto, two in Peel Region – in 18 months to be charged criminally for shooting a black person.

And along with his friend activist Dudley Laws, whom he would later defend on criminal charges, Roach's voice was among the loudest.

Together, Roach and Laws founded the Black Action Defence Committee, which became a byword for black activism.

John Sewell, who was a city councillor for eight years before being elected to the mayoralty in 1979, recalls those years vividly.

"He was among the leading black lawyers of the city, but more than that, he organized his practice so that he took on very progressive causes," Sewell said.

"So he had a real cadre of progressive people working with him, including his daughter."

Nor did Roach flinch from taking on unpopular causes, both as a criminal lawyer and in the rest of his busy life.

Among his distinctly unlikable criminal clients were Kuldip Singh Samra, convicted in 1993 of murdering two men and paralyzing a third for life. And in the same year, he defended three men found guilty of plotting to bomb two Toronto-area Hindu buildings.

In 1999, he travelled to Rwanda to defend Hutu journalist Mathieu Ngirumpatse, accused and convicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal of human rights violations in the 1994 slaughter that claimed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi lives.

And when the first Persian Gulf war began in February, 1991, and pro-war demonstrators were rallying around the Canadian troops, Roach was among a small group of pacifists who marched in Toronto's bitter cold to denounce the war.

"People of colour suffer more the anguish of war," he remarked. "We are carrying on the tradition of Martin Luther King, who opposed aggression and violence as a way of solving problems."

The son of a trade-union activist, Roach was born on Sept. 18, 1933, in the community of Belmont in Trinidad and Tobago. He and his first wife, Hetty, immigrated to Canada in 1955, and according to one account, his initial plan was to become a priest.

But the nascent civil rights struggle in the United States was under way, and Roach later described the upheaval as pivotal in his evolution.

So instead of the priesthood, he opted to be a lawyer, and after studying law at the University of Toronto, he was called to the bar in 1963.

He began his career as a lawyer for the City of Toronto, and launched his own practice in 1968. Among the first clients through the door were the Black Panthers, U.S. draft dodgers and a host of other asylum-seekers.

In 1978, he successfully sued a Toronto police constable who searched a television reporter at gunpoint, accusing the officer of assault and unlawful arrest. And for years, Roach was a familiar face at anti-establishment gatherings of all stripes.

Yet he was forgiving of others' slip-ups. When Toronto mayor Mel Lastman said he was reluctant to visit Africa because "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me," Roach let it go, dismissing the comment as "an off joke."

But it was his 24-year running battle to secure Canadian citizenship without swearing an oath to the Queen that probably drew the most attention, chiefly because it lasted so long.

As a member of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, he urged his adopted homeland to sever ties with the British monarchy. And in 1992, he argued in the Federal Court of Canada that the traditional oath violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The court disagreed, as did the Supreme Court of Canada. But Roach was undeterred, and in 2007, he launched a class action. This too was shot down in court.

Earlier this year, and despite his failing health, the tenacious Roach was back in court, and when he died on Tuesday, the Ontario Superior Court was weighing his newest challenge.

He explained: "Some Canadians don't understand what they're saying when they recite the oath."

His stubbornness was famous, and by every estimate he left his mark.

"He really stood up for progressive causes and was part of the very early work on the anti-discrimination stuff the Canadian Civil Liberties [Association] was doing," Sewell said.

"He left behind a very significant focus on the fact that society does not seem to treat people with black skin equally, particularly the police. That was his thing, and I think that people galvanized around that. He's left behind a lot of very well-informed people who are willing to be active."

Roach leaves his wife, June, his four children and several grandchildren, and predeceased by his first wife, Hetty, who died in 1999 and who worked for many years in her husband's law practice.

Interact with The Globe