On October 2, 2012, Toronto lost an inspiring and beloved leader. Charles Conliff Mende Roach, a civil rights activist and lawyer, passed away at age 79 after a battle against brain cancer, his decades-long wish of becoming a Canadian citizen still unfulfilled.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Roach immigrated to Canada over 50 years ago and studied law at the University of Toronto. After opening a firm in 1968, Roach addressed and fought for the rights of migrant workers. One of his greatest victories as a lawyer was a case of seven Jamaican mothers who were all granted permanent residency in Canada. As a result, many more workers from places all around the world immigrated to Canada in hopes of becoming permanent residents and starting new lives here as well. These people brought their cultures and traditions with them, making Toronto a more diverse and accepting city.
In 1978, Roach helped set up the Movement of Minority Electors, encouraging non-whites to participate in electoral politics. These people and their ideas for Toronto, inspired by Roach, have helped shape Toronto into what it is today. During the late 1980’s, following several incidents where black people were killed by the police in Toronto, Roach co-founded the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), which fought to reform the way police treated black Torontonians. In 1990, the BADC prompted the creation of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian-led unit still running today, which independently investigates civilian deaths and injuries that police officers are allegedly accountable for. This unit replaced the former method where police would investigate police, which the BADC thought was biased and ineffective. Charles Roach continues to make an impact in Toronto with the SIU, which maintains public confidence and voice in the Toronto Police Services.
One of Roach’s major contributions to Toronto is the Caribana festival, now called the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival, which he co-founded in 1967. This annual celebration of Caribbean culture and traditions is the largest street festival in North America, attracting over two million visitors and more than $400 million into the economy annually. Through this festival, Roach reminds us that Toronto has become a wonderful place today because of the many cultures and communities in our city, including the black community.
Roach justly supported Toronto’s black community and was an integral member in showing everyone that black Torontonians have indeed become a crucial part of Toronto’s cultural mosaic. He served as a rite of passage that led to citizenship in Canada for immigrant workers, broke the tension between Toronto’s black community and Toronto’s police through the SIU, and taught us to accept and embrace different cultures and communities, especially the black community, through the creation of the annual Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival. As a representation of how a common man can peacefully bring change to a whole city, he has inspired many people, including myself, reminding us time and time again that black Torontonians have played a key role in Toronto becoming a modern, diverse metropolis.