By Francine Buchner
Human rights lawyer, Julian Falconer, admitted that he shook his head in wonder and thought Charles Roach flaky when he heard of Roach’s battle with the Queen of England.
Years later, Falconer said at his first function as a bencher he was asked me to toast the Queen and he couldn’t do it. He said he “was one of those people who was still asleep when Charlie had already woken up.”
Falconer was the keynote speaker at the Black Action Defense Committee’s (BADC) 24th annual dinner and dance that honoured Roach’s contributions to Canada. Roach came to Canada in 1955 and studied law at the University of Toronto.
Next year will mark 50 years of practising law in this country but Roach is still not a Canadian citizen.
“It is not possible for me to plead allegiance to those who enslaved us,” said Roach via a video recording done at his home earlier in the day as the BADC organisers where unsure that his failing health would permit him to attend in person.
Later that evening, Roach, who is confined to a wheelchair and his, wife June, did arrive at the Jamaican Canadian Association where the event was held.
Falconer touched on the significance of Roach’s chosen field of expertise as a lawyer - race relations, racism, human rights - and the fact that Roach is bi-racial, like Falconer, and all the complexities that come with that.
“Both blacks and whites demanded that these attorneys stand apart from their racial community as members of the legal fraternity. Yet at the same time, they were expected to be “authentic” - that is, in sympathy with the black masses,” said Falconer, quoting author Kenneth W. Mack in his book titled, Representing the Race: The creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.
Falconer said there is an expectation of compliance within this legal fraternity and it is a constant pressure. In the 1960s Roach worked as a staff lawyer for the City of Toronto, while also participating and organising marches and demonstrations for equal rights.
He said Roach never towed that line and showed by example the courage to be himself. Roach has fought predominantly human rights and race-based cases. He founded the BADC in the late 1970s and the Albert Johnson Defense Committee alongside the late activist, Dudley Laws.
It was the murder of a 24 year-old, black man named Buddy Evans at a downtown bar by police on August 9, 1978 and 35 year-old Albert Johnson, a year later on August 26, 1979 that prompted the beginnings of mass demonstrations against police brutality in the city of Toronto.
From this movement came the creation of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to hold accountable murders and serious injuries caused by police. The SIU still operates to this day — a key achievement for Roach and Laws.
“It tells you something about Charlie Roach - absolutely fearless; never restricted by that need to comply and kind, kind, kind. There is true brilliance, not just in courage, but in vision. There is, right up until the moments that we part company with Charlie, for now, there is extraordinary dignity and vision and principal in what Charlie is doing.
It’s like Charlie knows something, that I don’t,” said Falconer. Falconer also called Roach a renaissance man because his expertise spans not just the law, but includes artiste, musician, activist and one of the Caribana founders. He said that Roach reminds him of another renaissance man, Leonardi Di Vinci.
“He is conscious of true justice, but is capable of a balanced life that speaks to the renaissance man.” Roach is fighting brain cancer but is has not stopped him from continuing to fight for what he believes in and that is, it is his right and the rights of others, if they so choose, to become a Canadian citizen without the mandatory requirement of pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the II.