04/19/2012 11:13 EDT | Updated 06/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Leonard Austin Braithwaite is Dead. Do You Even Care?

So why do so few Canadians know about this exceptional leader? Because he's black? Well, yes, that's part of it. The other important reasons have to do with how little we as Canadians collectively value, and promote, Canadian civic literacy, and embrace a citizenship that is duty-oriented.

Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

As I write this, my heart is still heavy from learning about the death of a Canadian hero: Leonard Austin Braithwaite, C.M., O.Ont., Q.C., who died in March of this year. My heart grows heavier still as I realize that it is through this article that most will come to learn about Braithwaite for the first time.

Leonard Braithwaite was a WWII veteran, legal luminary, daring politician, service-driven community leader, champion of social justice and equality, and a model Canadian citizen. Born in Toronto in 1923 to Caribbean immigrants, Braithwaite served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII. His fierce but quiet ambition was such that by the time he was 35 years old he had already obtained an Honours Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Toronto, an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a law degree from the Osgoode Hall Law School.

Braithwaite went on to serve as a long-sitting City Councillor -- the first black Canadian to be elected to a provincial legislature -- and played a leading role in ending the longstanding institutions of racial segregation in Ontario schools, and gender discrimination that prevented women from serving as student pages in the Ontario Legislature. Braithwaite's decades of tireless civic, social and professional leadership, eventually led him to be appointed Queen's Counsel, and member of both the Orders of Canada and Ontario.

So why do so few Canadians know about this exceptional leader? Because he's black? Well, yes, that's part of it. The other important reasons have to do with how little we as Canadians collectively value, and promote Canadian civic literacy, and the fact that Canada has yet to embrace Canadian citizenship that is meaningfully duty-oriented.

Civic literacy is simply not a Canadian value. For example, while the average Canadian can identify beavers, maple leafs, hockey, tuques, or even beer as symbols associated with Canada, a casual survey of Canadian-born citizens under 35 would likely see most of us unable to explain the significance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, how the three branches of the Canadian government relate to each other, or the importance of John Diefenbaker's term as Prime Minister.

Aside from being required to pay taxes, and being expected to treat others with respect, openness and understanding, Canadian citizenship -- especially for those born in this country -- is also remarkably lax on civic obligations. As a result, activities such as serving in either the Canadian Forces, or any other kind of national service program, holding political office, and even voting are significantly undervalued as duties of Canadian citizenship.

This becomes particularly problematic when we consider that without being asked to give much back, the average Canadian enjoys access to a relatively robust array of government-run or initiated business and social support programs. Furthermore, he enjoy the constitutional protection of a multicultural society that features a collection of progressive rights, and liberties that are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So what do Canada's paltry regard for civic literacy, and a more or less obligation-free notion of Canadian citizenship have to do with Leonard Braithwaite? Well, if civic literacy were a Canadian value, and we encouraged a more duty-oriented approach to Canadian citizenship, chances are that hundreds of thousands of more Canadians would know about, and value the remarkable achievements of this WWII veteran, political trailblazer, courageous politician, gifted and well-respected lawyer, and community-committed servant of social justice and equality.

In the end, instead of being given his rightful place within the Canadian civic consciousness as a true Canadian hero, Braithwaite's greatness is relegated to the margins of being celebrated as a black hero who happens to have been Canadian, and is only to be recognized and celebrated during Black History Month.

There are many problems with this, but one of the most obvious is that it creates the impression that for Canadians who are not black, there is no civic pride, or even personal inspiration for them to gain from knowing about this man.

Another problem with this is that it allows far too many Canadians of African descent to continue to harbour the collective sentiment that unless it's Black History Month, Canada and Canadians are only comfortable with our presence in the country when we're tossing a ball, wasting behind bars, or performing on-stage.

Both of these notions hold dangerous implications for Canadian citizenship and the future of our open, just, and egalitarian society.

So, while it will take many years of Canadians working together to increase both our collective civic literacy, and correct our commitment to an understanding of Canadian citizenship that is mostly free of duties, we could start to address these problems by appropriately recognizing that with the passing of Mr. Leonard Austin Braithwaite we have all lost a truly Canadian hero, and model Canadian citizen.