10/04/2012 02:42 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST

The Black Canadian Activist Who Was Never a Citizen


Canada has lost one of its fiercest, most uncompromising, contentious and passionate pursuers of justice and equality, Mr. Charles Roach. On October 2, 2012, Roach passed away after a hard-fought battle with cancer. He was 79 years old.

A Renaissance man, Roach was a former reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces, a distinguished lawyer, businessman, community activist, mentor, musician, painter, poet and even an occasional rapper.

He demonstrated a tireless commitment to anti-imperialism, social and economic justice for poor and oppressed peoples, and as a fervent pan-Africanist, he remained dedicated to achieving racial justice for blacks in Canada and all peoples of African descent. His legacy includes co-founding the multimillion dollar Caribbean-flavoured street festival, Caribana, and leading (alongside the late Dudley Laws) the massive community campaigns against police brutality that are directly responsible for the creation of the Special Investigations Unit, a civilian agency charged with looking into killings and serious injuries caused by police.

Of all his pursuits for a fairer and more just society, however, the most controversial and publicized of Roach's advocacy efforts was his push, since 1988, to get a Canadian court to recognize that it is a violation of individuals' constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience to require prospective Canadians to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, Her Heirs and Successors, as a requirement for obtaining Canadian citizenship.

As a result of his opposition to this, despite having lived in Canada since 1955, Roach remained a permanent resident. Convinced that the monarchy represents racist hereditary privilege, Roach recently explained his steadfast adherence to equality and civic republicanism by stating the following:

"I feel that we [blacks] were colonized as a people by the British throne, and we were enslaved as a people by the British throne and, to me, taking an oath to the monarch of Great Britain, without any disrespect to the Queen herself as a person, is like asking a Holocaust survivor to take an oath to a descendant of Hitler,"

Only months ago the Ontario Superior Court finally granted Roach the right to argue the constitutionality of the oath in its current form. Up until only a couple of weeks ago, he was sure that he would live to become a Canadian citizen without having to swear to the Queen. Sadly, Roach, who is predeceased by his first wife Hetty, will now never get the chance to live his final Canadian dream. He leaves behind his wife, June, his four children, several grandchildren, and what else?

Roach's life leaves this message for Canada's diffident, splintered and rudderless black Canadian community: to access the doors of justice, we must first walk the halls of sacrifice.

At a time when Canada's official immigration policy was to deny people of African descent entry into the country, Roach undertook reservist training in the Canadian army during the 1950s. Risking his chances of entering the legal profession if convicted, he was also arrested in the early 60s during a "Ban the Bomb" rally that he attended despite being in the process of taking the bar admission course. He remained undeterred in his steadfast commitment to justice through sacrifice upon entering the legal profession.

For over 40 years he chose a legal career of fighting for the poor and oppressed as opposed to setting-out on a more lucrative career path. He sacrificed the rights to vote, to travel on a Canadian passport, to run for public office, and even gave up the privilege offered to him of being appointed a judge; all this because of his unshakable resistance to swearing an oath to a monarchy in whose name blacks and Aboriginal Peoples were enslaved, colonized, maimed and murdered en mass for hundreds of years.

Though he never got to enjoy the official status himself, Roach's life provides a new model for living out black Canadian citizenship.

He did not use his distinguished education and professional privilege to distance himself from the black communities that made him who he is, but rather leveraged his privilege in service of poor and oppressed people and against racialized socio-economic injustices that, even today, make black Canadian success stories the exception rather than the rule.

Roach demonstrated that Black professional excellence and advancement in Canada need not be synonymous with the cultural suppression, self-alienation and self-censorship in the interest of ascending scales of mainstream success. Unlike the vast majority of the growing and maturing class of black Canadian professional and businesspeople of the day, Roach never feared, but rather embraced being associated with any speech, action or person engaged in transformative structural and social change for a better Canada and better world.

He demonstrated that true love of and respect for self and community meant not disregarding one's connection to a people that suffers from disproportionately high and chronic rates of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, glorified thuggery, academic under achievement, police surveillance and brutality, and incarceration. To the contrary, Roach remained ever cognizant of and engaged by the words of the great Caribbean-American writer and activist, Audre Lorde, who once said, "Your silence will not protect you."

For the principles of justice and equality, Charles Roach paid prices that most people are not prepared to pay, especially those he would call brother and sister. Some Canadians would even say that the costs were too high given that Roach never attained his dream of Canadian citizenship. This, though, is only a matter of opinion informed by subjective decisions about where to sit within the spectrum of self-interest and transformative social justice.

In the end, deciding if Roach's struggles were a success is not at all what matters most. In fact, for those who'd be quick to call his quest a failure, it is sure that he would leave them with the following words:

"The struggle is the important thing. Not how it ends. It's not whether I win or lose, but did I fight and do all I can?"

Not only do we wish that Roach rest in peace, but we also know, that for all Canadians and potential Canadians, he rests in the power of protest.