Not always happy with life in Canada but always Jolly

Denham Jolly’s autobiography wins Toronto Book Award

By Stephen Weir

B. Denham Jolly

The standing ovation began before City of Toronto librarian Vickery Bowles could finish announcing Denham Jolly’s name.

On Thursday night in the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon, Jamaican Canadian businessman, radio pioneer, and now author, received the 2017 Toronto Book Award for his autobiography In the Black: My Life.

“We’re really pleased that Mr. Jolly’s book, In the Black: My Life, has been selected as the winner,” said Bowles. “The book gives voice to a unique kind of Canadian experience that has historically not been heard.”

Established by Toronto City Council in 1974, the Toronto Book Award honours authors of  works of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto. The annual awards offer $15,000 in prize money: finalists receive $1,000 and the winning author is awarded $10,000.

Jolly beat out four other Toronto writers to win this prestigious award.  The jury that picked his book said that “Denham Jolly should be a household name. In the Black:My Life  shines a light on many of the hurdles faced by immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. From politicians to community leaders, no punches are pulled as Jolly recounts the hurdles that littered his path to business, personal and community success. It recounts Jolly’s journey from a happy boyhood in Jamaica to business success in Toronto, publishing Contrast, the now defunct  Black community newspaper and founding FLOW 93.5, Canada’s first Black-owned radio station.”

It makes for interesting reading to see just how many activist causes Jolly joined in Toronto. He started the Black Business and Professional Association and was a vocal member of an endless string of action groups.


He talks about demonstrating when a mentally disturbed Black man, Lester Donaldson, was shot by police. “After the demonstration, a number of us, including Charlie Roach and Jean Augustine, went to a meeting called by Dudley Laws to launch the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) – an organization to fight against this sort of police killing. ” I was named as part of the founding group but in this case the moving force really was Dudley Laws,” said Jolly.

“There probably is a file with my name on it,” he said. “In 1991 the police were clearly obsessed with nailing the hides of uppity Blacks to the wall.”

As he aged, he spent more time keeping FLOW afloat than demonstrating.

Jolly has been cited for his cultural contributions . He won the Black Media Pioneer Award and the African/Canadian Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Denham Jolly’s autobiography is a quintessentially Canadian success story,” said Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre), Chair of the City’s Economic Development Committee. “His memoir reveals how the lessons of his childhood in Jamaica enabled him to have an enduring and inspiring influence on Toronto’s business and cultural communities.”

This is not the first honour the City of Toronto has bestowed upon  Jolly. Four months ago, as ECW Press was publishing In the Black:My Life, the city honoured him by naming a new road, Jolly Way in Scarborough. It is s a tribute to a man who hasn’t always been happy in Canada but has always been loud, proud and uniquely Jolly.


Jolly is the first Caribbean Canadian author to win the Toronto Book Award for a nonfiction book. However he is not the first Caribbean Canadian writer to win the award. Three other authors with deep Caribbean roots have won the $10,000 prize for works of fiction.

Previous winners:

  • Rabindranath Maharaj (Trinidadian/Canadian)
    The Amazing Absorbing Boy
    Knopf Canada
  • Austin Clarke (Barbadian/Canadian)
    Thomas Allen Publishers
  • Dionne Brand (Trinidadian/Canadian)
    What We All Long For
    Alfred A. Knopf Canada