By Gerald V. Paul
“Come over to my place for lunch.”
That was the extraordinary invitation from the community’s iconic pioneer human rights leader to the protesters out of the Royal Art Gallery some 19 years ago.
He wanted them to know that while they protested together, they could also break bread together.
Such was the measure of the man known as Charles Roach, who died late Tuesday night from brain cancer. He was 79.
An adamant advocate for victims of police brutality, he fought for an end to systemic and endemic racism in Canadian society.
Out of Trinidad and Tobago to Canada to study theology, he turned to law when the injustice was seen as a burden on his people. He noted in an interview some years ago that he was inspired to turn to law because he landed in Canada at the height of the civil rights movement, in 1955.
From there, it was no turning back.
Roach fought tirelessly for the downtrodden, taking the plight of domestic workers from the Caribbean who were facing deportation in the 1970s to the very top. He also fearlessly defended the Black Panthers at a time when they claimed protection in Canada from what they said was political prosecution in the USA.
And then he took on the biggest fight of them all, petitioning the highest courts in the land to remove the monarchy.
He did so in the form of filing a high court motion saying that the demand that new citizens swear allegiance to the Queen was unconstitutional.
This is a fight he fought to the end of his life, leaving his hospital bed just days after a brain operation in May to take the matter before the provincial courts one more time.
Judgement in the matter was reserved.
In going after the monarchy, Roach denied himself opportunities to advance, and was forced to turn down an offer to become a provincial judge because he refused to swear an oath to the Queen.
As an advocate for human rights, Roach was appointed lead defense counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998.
As a lover of culture, he was one of the founders of Caribana in 1967, and served as the organization’s first chair.
“Charles Roach was a lawyer and fighter who spent much of his life defending the underdog against all forms of injustice and oppression. Here in Toronto, he may be best known as a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee, who together with the late Dudley Laws did so much to curb the police brutality that youths in the Black community suffered,” noted Henry Gomez, the current chair of the Caribana Arts Group.
“Charlie, as we know him, was also a renaissance man. He was an artist, poet, musician and entrepreneur who not only created originals, but also organized events and exhibits to create an awareness of the works of other art creators.
“He was a champion who fought to the very end and made our community better because he was here.”
Meanwhile Roach’s colleagues at the National Conference of Black Lawyers – rescheduled to Toronto when the NCBL Executives heard of Charley’s illness – noted: “This is indeed a sad day; however, Charley Roach’s revolutionary spirit will continue to be with us. We are indeed more committed as NCBL, to make the Gala Banquet a fine tribute to our comrade and brother…we will lift the roof as Charley would have done if he were physically present.”
And among the numerous social media prayers and thoughts: “ On behalf of Planet Africa Group and Silvertrust Communications we would like to extend our condolences to the family members of Charles Roach, renowned activist and lawyer who left us but will never be forgotten,” penned Cheryl Nembhard.
“No word, no poem, not even all the riches can replace his unprecedented incomprehensible interest in community development, love and care,” noted Karran Roopnarine, on behalf of the Trinidad and Tobago Entertainers Association of Toronto.
“This song is for you Charles Roach: ‘May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, Until We Meet Again!’” pannist Hameed Shaqq noted.
Funeral arrangements for Charles Roach will be announced subsequently.
He leaves to mourn his wife June, four daughters and several grandchildren.