Ontario judge underscores the importance of education

By Neil Armstrong

Justice Irving André, a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Brampton, is urging Black Canadians who take education for granted to meditate on the struggles to attain a decent education in Ontario.

Kathy McDonald and Irving Andre

He was the guest speaker at the Peel United Cultural Partners 23rd annual Black History Month Concert held recently at the Century Gardens Recreation Centre under the theme, “Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.”

Justice André noted that conversations about excellence should also highlight other components of it such as effort and education. “You cannot have excellence without effort,” he said adding that according to the popular history of the Underground Railroad, ex-Black slaves who escaped from the United States and came to Canada were welcomed.

Larry Maloney (left) and Matthew Weeks

“But what the official version doesn’t tell you is that in 1850 in Ontario the legislature enacted the Common Schools Act to prevent Black students from attending the same school as white students,” he said, noting that in 1854 an ex-slave challenged the legislation for excluding his son from getting an education.

“The court, the bastion of law and order, ruled that it wasn’t about colour, but we will not allow him to go to that school. Why? — because of his morals and his habits,” he said.

Justice André referenced another case in 1874 in St. Catharines when an ex-slave challenged the legislation for excluding his children from attending the same school as white students. The court ruled that it was not because of colour but overcrowding.

He mentioned what happened at Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in Montreal, in the late 1960s, when six West Indian students challenged a professor who was giving them failing grades in biology.

The judge said the university dealt with the complaint without giving the students notice of their deliberations. The professor who discriminated against them was the one who told them that the school had rejected their complaint, he said, noting that it resulted in an incident in which former Dominican prime minister, Rosie Douglas, was identified as the ringleader. Anne Cools, who was later appointed to the Senate in Canada, was also considered an instigator.

Douglas is the subject of Justice André’s last book, “The Mantle of Struggle: A Biography of Black Revolutionary Rosie Douglas.” He noted that most of the students — who were from Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica — were expelled and deported, but they all became professionals.

“That is the struggle, that is the effort and that is the price that many of us have had to pay to attain an education,” he said while also mentioning the streaming of Black students into vocational training in the education system because of the assumption that Black students lack the mental capacity to become professionals.

Earlier in his legal career, Justice André, who was born in Dominica and immigrated to Canada in 1984, worked as a prosecutor for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, an assistant crown attorney in Brampton, a criminal defence lawyer and a vice-president of the Ontario Licence Appeals Tribunal.

In 2002, he was appointed as a judge in the Ontario Court of Justice where he presided as the Local Administrative Judge in the Region of Peel from 2010 to 2012. In 2012, he was appointed to the Superior Court of Justice in Brampton where he currently resides.

A community award was presented to St. Kitts-born dentist, Dr. Matthew Weekes, who has been practising general dentistry for over 45 years in Toronto and Brampton. A long-time supporter of the United Achievers’ Club of Brampton, he has been involved in its fundraising initiatives and has contributed to the annual scholarship awards, said the Peel United Cultural Partners, a partnership of the Congress of Black Women – Brampton Chapter and the United Achievers’ Club of Brampton