By Rebecca Theodore
Upon those boughs which quiver against the cold, the shadowy dry sound of an October dusk lingers as orchids bloom and chrysanthemums incense the air in majestic sweetness. There's something mortal in them for their decline is the jaded life of transformation. Thus, we weep for a brother whose heart ceases to beat and who gently vanished into the blameless night sublimely accepting the dying of the light.
Charles Roach, pictured here at his Toronto home, died last Tuesday at age 79
Born in Trinidad and Tobago on September 18 1933, Charles Roach immigrated to Toronto and lived there for more than 50 years. A veteran civil-rights lawyer and activist whose final cause was his unsuccessful bid to become a Canadian citizen without swearing fealty to the Queen, he died peacefully in his sleep last Tuesday after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 79.
The name Charles Roach is synonymous with the promotion of human rights, one of those outstanding founders of Caribana, now called the Scotia Bank Caribbean Carnival, lead defense counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, from 1998 to 2005, and the Movement of Minority Electors in 1978 to encourage non-whites to run for public office in Canada. However, his last struggles were centered on his refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen as a condition of his citizenship.
Charles Roach died as a landed immigrant because he refused to take the oath to the Queen as part of Canada’s citizenship ceremony. He began a fight to have the oath removed in 1988, a cause he continued until his death.
Whether he was right or wrong, he felt that he could not take an oath to allegiance to someone else in a situation, indicating that there was not equality with somebody by virtue of birth. Regardless of the fact that no one stood with him, he stood alone. He believed in what he was doing and he believed it to be right for he was a man who stood on principles.
As many have argued, this was an unlikely legacy for someone who started as a man of the cloth, an immigrant who arrived to study at the University of Saskatchewan with his eyes on the priesthood. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, he slithered away from theology and went on to study law at the University of Toronto. He was called to the bar in 1963 and opened his own practice in 1968. In the 1970s, Roach fought for people seeking refugee status, as well as the rights of migrant workers.
With the assemblage of the black community in the shooting death of Buddy Evans by a police officer in 1978 during a brawl at a Toronto disco, an event that led to an 11-week inquest, the Canadian government responded by creating a civilian complaints commission pilot project in the 1980s.
It was during that time, that Roach co-founded the Black Action Defense Committee with Dudley Laws, Sherona Hall and Lennox Farrell. Questioning whether police were able to properly police themselves, the group fought for civilian control of policing. In 1990, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was launched to investigate civilian deaths and injuries involving police officers.
Now a man who fought for migrant rights, battled systemic racism and advocated for equality in community halls, on the streets and in the courts now walks the final path alone. ‘Death is indeed the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release, the physician of him whom medicine cannot cure, and the comforter of him whom time cannot console.’ A caterpillar died so a butterfly could be born. Mr Roach has been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe.
And as the Caribbean community in Toronto and others drip emotional tears and watch the butterflies fly, we know that you are now a citizen of a wider cosmos.