Charles “Charlie” Roach, Civil Rights Lawyer/ Co-Founder of Caribana, Member of the Board of Governors
Born: Belmont, Trinidad
Charles Roach’s Memorial Service Confirmation.
Date: Saturday, 10th November, 2012
Time: 2:00 p.m.
Venue: University of Toronto, Convocational Hall
Address: 31 Kings Colllege Circle, Toronto, Ont. M5S 3G4
Location: University Ave/College St (Queen’s Park)
Public Transit: Queen’s Park Stn, Southbound Platform
Charlie Roach was born in Belmont, Trinidad. His father was a trade union organizer and his mother instrumental in his spiritual development. The family began as Protestant Anglicans, and through her influence, eventually became Roman Catholic. Charlie’s mother wanted her children to have an excellent education and, in her view, that consisted of attending one of the best schools in the country – St. Mary’s College – which both Charlie and another brother eventually attended.
Because there were no universities in Trinidad in the late 1940s, those who wanted to go to university had to go abroad to study. Thus, Charlie came to Canada in 1955. He attended the University of Saskatchewan for theological studies initially, however, switched to philosophy. Charlie’s study of St. Thomas Moore’s courageous stand against King Henry VIII helped to form his philosophy today.
The same year Charlie came to Canada, Rosa Parks took the dramatic action of refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery transit system which inspired a Montgomery Bus Boycott. Seeing these events unfold influenced Charlie to also struggle for equal rights.
Charlie then began to embrace an anti-monarchist philosophy, which he defines as someone interested in true democracy. Thus, Charlie began to view monarchy as a form of racial superiority and his main goal in life became to struggle against it in favour of equal liberty and the dignity of all persons.
After Saskatchewan, Charlie attended law school at the University of Toronto. However, he was arrested during a “Ban the Bomb” rally while taking the bar admission course. If convicted, Charlie would have been blocked from becoming a lawyer. Fortunately, Charlie beat the charge and was forced to limit how active he was in protests in the future.
In 1962, Charlie married a woman named Hetty he met in Trinidad. He was called to the Bar in 1963 and during the process, was required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. It would be the last time Charlie would make such an oath. To this day, Charlie refuses to become a Canadian citizen because it requires making a pledge to the Queen and instead remains a permanent resident. All forms of racial discrimination have become important to him and he identifies these with monarchy.
Charlie worked as a staff lawyer for the City of Toronto until he opened his own practice in 1968. After law school, Charlie owned and operated a club called Little Trinidad. It was a place for Southern Caribbean people to practice Caribbean culture on a weekly basis – steel band, calypso, folk arts, drama and dance – with calypsonians such as the Mighty Sparrow and Kitchener being sponsored to come to Canada to perform.
It was through this Charlie became the convener and member of the Board of Governors of the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), organizers of the first Caribana. Charlie’s job was to gather everyone together for the first planning meeting for the Toronto West Indian community’s contribution for Canada’s Centennial in 1966.
As it was common in the Southern Caribbean to celebrate by masquerading and playing steel band and calypso in the street, it was most natural for a carnival parade to be chosen as the focal point of the Centennial celebration.
In his early years of leadership of the CCC, Charlie pushed for the parade to become more political given that Black people at the time all over the world were asserting their right to self-determination. The rest of the CCC, however, wanted to keep the celebration one of joy rather than protest, celebrating West Indian presence in Canada.
Charlie remained involved with Caribana off and on since its inception and was last chair of the CCC in 2007. In 2004, The CCC was transformed into the Caribana Arts Group. When the Caribana Festival was taken from the community by the Festival Management Committee (FMC) in 2007, Charlie gave permission for the FMC to use the name “Caribana.” The Caribana Arts Group, however, sued for the right to exclusive use of the Caribana trademark in 2011 and won.
In 1995, Charlie went to Tanzania and was asked by a prominent US attorney, Ramsey Clarke, if he would represent a number of Hutu Rwandans. Charlie agreed and was appointed lead defense counsel by the UN to represent Mathieu Ngirumpatse for crimes against humanity. Ngirumpatse was convicted and received a life sentence.
In 1992, Charlie argued in federal court that the oath for citizenship is against the Charter of Freedoms and Rights, but the case was dismissed. He took it to court again as a class action suit in 2007 and was allowed to proceed with the suit by a higher court but lost in 2009. In 2012, Charlie tried again, this time arguing that the oath is unconstitutional. He has been allowed to proceed.
In 1999, Charlie’s wife Hetty died in Toronto of a sudden heart attack. In 2001, Charlie met his second wife, June, and married her. At present, Charlie is courageously fighting brain cancer while continuing to work with his clientele.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE?
My favourite quote is: “The most important work is to struggle against domination of the people,” by Che Guevara. I think it is to struggle against imperialism wherever you find it.
Also, “No justice, no peace,” which is usually attributed to Martin Luther King.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” -Bob Marley
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK?
There are many books I really like. For example, Malcolm X’s books, cause me to ponder a lot about the struggle against racism. So, I would say that my favourite book is Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
Rosa Parks for what she did in not giving up her seat and of course Martin Luther King who supported her.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Because I believe in the equality of all human beings and oppose racism of all kinds, the highest form of which is hereditary rule.
GIVEN THE CHANCE, WHAT WOULD YOU DO THAT YOU HAVEN’T DONE YET?
Anything I can think to do, I do. What I feel I have to do now is alert people that the Canadian constitution is a racist apartheid. The head of state is a constitutional monarchy and you can only get there if you are born into that racial hierarchy. A position acquired by virtue of birth does not believe in the underlying equality of men. I believe Canada to be about democracy and the head of state should not be a monarch; it should be someone chosen by the people. What I’m doing right now is encouraging people not to take oaths of allegiance to pledge loyalty and true allegiance to the Windsor family. Everyone in Canada does, to me those who wish to hold office should not do so. But I hope I’ll get the time and strength to do so.