Civil rights

Happy to celebrate Charles Roach – Lawyer and civil rights activist in Toronto and one of the founders of the city’s famous Caribana Festival

happy to celebrate
Charles Roach – Civil rights lawyer and activist in Toronto and one of the founders of the city’s famous Caribana Festival

News February 18, 2022

Charles Roach was a Toronto lawyer and civil rights activist and one of the founders of the city’s famous Caribana Festival.

He was perhaps most famous for his advocacy of the right of applicants for Canadian citizenship to obtain citizenship without taking the Queen’s oath. Despite years of hard work and legal challenges, it ultimately failed. He died in 2012 at the age of 79 without ever becoming a full citizen.

Charles was born in Trinidad and Tobago and moved to Canada in 1955 to attend seminary at the University of Saskatchewan. However, the civil rights movement shifted his focus from theology to law, which he studied at the University of Toronto. He was called to the bar in 1963 and devoted his life to civil rights cases, advocating against the use of force by the police, on behalf of asylum seekers and for the rights of migrant workers.

He was a founding member and first president of the Caribana Festival in 1967.

After 24-year-old Buddy Evans was shot dead by police in 1978, the black community was mobilized and an investigation was finally opened. Roach – who helped found the Black Action Defense Committee – was one of the loudest voices calling for reform and questioning whether the police could actually police themselves. The investigation and its advocacy prompted the Ontario government to pilot a civilian complaints commission in the 1980s. This eventually evolved into the Special Investigations Unit, which was launched in 1990 to investigate on civilian deaths and injuries involving police officers.

Charles’ activism has also extended to political and international arenas: in 1978, he helped establish the Minority Voters Movement; and he was appointed lead defense counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 1998 to 2005.

McMillan LLP recognizes Charles Roach as a change agent. He shed light on racial disparities in Toronto and across Canada, helped reform policing in Ontario, and raised important questions about Canada’s colonial legacy.