Black History Month: Honouring Leonard Braithwaite

In recognition of Black History Month, I like to dedicate one blog post in February to a black person in the legal realm whose achievements deserve acknowledgement. This year, I selected Leonard Austin Braithwaite.

Leonard Braithwaite was born in Toronto, Ontario, on October 23, 1923, and raised in the Kensington Market area. Before embarking on his studies, at the age of 18 he served overseas in World War II with the Royal Canadian Air Force No. 6 Bomber Command in Yorkshire, England.

After the war, he earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Toronto in 1950. He then received a Masters of Business Administration degree from the Harvard Business School in 1952, and graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1958. He practiced as a barrister and solicitor, and was named Queen’s counsel in 1971.

Braithwaite also became Canada’s first black parliamentarian. He served as a Liberal member of the Ontario legislature from 1963 to 1975. After his political career, Braithwaite went back to practising law, and in 1999, he successfully overcame another hurdle by becoming the first black bencher elected to the governing council of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He practised law until his death at 88 on March 28, 2012.

In his lifetime, Braithwaite received many prestigious awards, including the Order of Canada (1997); the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002); the Alberta Cornwall-Miller Founder’s Award (2003); the Order of Ontario (2005); the Tropicana Community Services Community Builder Award (2006); the City of Toronto William P. Hubbard Race Relations Award (2011); and the Ontario Black History Society Rose Fortune Award (2012).

But what stands out to me as Braithwaite’s greatest legacy was his work to promote and achieve racial equality. This included his contribution to the end of segregation of black children in Ontario schools in 1965, ensuring that all children have access to the full educational opportunities promised by Canadian society. His effort led to the abolishment of the Common Schools Act of 1849. The Act was intended to create separate schools for Protestants and Catholics, but it was also used to create segregated black schools.

In addition, he stood up for gender equality. In 1966, he called for the Ontario legislature to permit female pages at Queen’s Park. At that time, not only were the pages all boys, but the entire house was male. Not long after, female pages started working at Queens Park.

For these reasons, I was dumbfounded that in 2008 the Toronto District School Board voted to open “Africentric” (i.e., black-focused) schools in Toronto, despite widespread public opposition and all the work in the 1950s and 60s of advocates, teachers, communities, parents and others against segregated schools. I was even more astonished that the board named its first Africentric high school program after Braithwaite, a man who fought against such separation of races in education.

“Africentric” schools are supposed to provide a curriculum that focuses on the history and contributions of people of African descent, with the aim of increasing the engagement of black youths in the education system. According to the board, any student (of any race) who chose to attend would be eligible. The general Ontario curriculum would be the backbone of teaching, but such schools would also focus on the contributions to society made by Africans and black Canadians. These alternative schools would have black teachers and role models to help black youths graduate and succeed.

Nothing wrong in theory!

However, I am not personally comfortable with the concept of a black-focused school. Similarly, I am uncomfortable with the concept of publicly funded religious schools. In my opinion, dividing or grouping people—especially children—by race, colour, religion, ethnicity and culture always introduces or propagates the risk of prejudice.

Yes, the history, contributions and achievements of Black Canadians are missing from the Ontario curriculum (outside of February). The Ministry of Education should do something about that! But instead of justifying that omission with Black History Month, schools should teach black history year round, hire more black teachers, principals and administrative staff and bring back after-school programs to help motivate, mentor and engage ALL kids.

And fundamentally, the government should aim to instil in all Canadians that once you become a citizen of this country and participate in its economy and culture, you stop being an immigrant. I think that would go a long way toward restoring pride in the black youth.

The Toronto District School Board and all the parents, teachers, advocates, communities among others who voted for these “Africentric” schools seem to have forgotten what these people fought so hard for: equality for all black people in society including education!

Filmmaker Sylvia D. Hamilton writes, “What is not widely known or remembered is that in two Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia and Ontario), because of their race, a large number of African-Canadian children were also required by law to attend separate, segregated schools.” The “Afrocentric” school approach doesn’t force black students to be separated from their counterparts of other ethnicities, but it creates a division, nonetheless. Theorist W.E.B. Du Bois said in his important 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk,

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

It seems clear that it is a problem we have brought with us into the 21st century. We must ask ourselves if it matters whether the colour-line is mandatory or voluntary.


My visit with Leonard A. Braithwaite, C.M., O.Ont., Q.C., by Stanley C. Lartey for the Ontario Black History Society

Backhouse, Constance (1999:250–252). Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950. Toronto, ON: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press


  1. David Collier-Brown

    It’s getting way more optional, even in the Excited States. I did an 8-month project in the Washington area a while back, and saw the same kind of colour-insensitive behaviour as I grew up with in Chatham*.

    [* Located half-way between Hope (now Dresden) and North Buxton, we were all shades of brown, at least in the summer-time (:-)]