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Feb 9, 2022
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Black & White Portrait of Dr Wilson HeadDr. Wilson Head spent a lifetime engaged in anti-racism activism. In Canada, he was a key contributor to several milestones in our civil and human rights history, making sure discrimination and anti-Black racism were exposed, discussed and challenged with systemic analysis and pro-action.

Head was born in 1914 in Milner, Georgia, USA. A child of sharecroppers, he grew up in poverty. His father died when he was a child and he was raised by a mother who he has credited with having instilled in him the fundamental importance of education. Head pursued an education in sociology and psychology.

As a young adult in the 1930s, well before the American civil rights movement was underway, Head engaged in sit-ins at restaurants and bars discriminating on the basis of race. He protested businesses such as barbers, shopkeepers, and movie house owners who refused to serve Black patrons. In the 1940s, Head worked with the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.

Head moved to Canada in 1959 where he would initially become involved in social planning and would focus specifically on race in the context of a range of Canada’s social systems. 

He was involved in authoring Ontario’s Human Rights Code, 1962. He investigated and authored reports on discrimination in Ontario and the experience of racialized communities. In 1969, he authored Poverty: A Major Issue Confronting Canadians. In The Black Presence in the Canadian Mosaic (1975), commissioned by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Head included the perspectives of Black Canadians, including youths and community leaders, on issues of employment, housing, education, immigration, law enforcement and the media. He explored the experience of racism, including persistent subtle racism, and perceptions of Black identity. In Adaptation of Immigrants in Metro Toronto (1977), Head explored the challenges racialized immigrants experience on entering Canada. He highlighted the discrimination and prejudice they faced on the basis of their individual or intersectional identities of race, colour, religion, national origin, ethnicity and gender. Following his participation in the Donald Marshall Inquiry Commission, Head wrote Discrimination Against Blacks in Nova Scotia: The Criminal Justice System in 1989.

In the 1970s, while a member of the Social Planning Council of Metro Toronto, Head was one of seven founding thinkers who created the concept of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations as a response to the increased frequency of race-based hate violence in Toronto. They conceived a community partnership with law enforcement and government towards prevention of such violence. Following a series of planning sessions, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) was founded in 1975 and Head was made Executive Director.

The UARR has continued to operate as a community-based organization engaged in discussion, consultation, review, activism, and protest towards promoting equity and justice in a broad range of areas including policing, education, and the justice system. This included, for example, participation in the 1979 Toronto District School Board Sub-Committee review of Race Relations. In the context of policing and the justice system, a legacy has been the ongoing role of the UARR intervening in a range of legal challenges including the following:

  • R v Williams [1998] SCJ No. 49, on the issue of questioning prospective jurors in criminal matters on racial bias
  • R v. Brown [2003] 64 O.R. (3d) 161 (CA), on the issue of arbitrariness of police detention based on racial profiling and reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of the trial judge reviewing this
  • Penner v Niagara (Regional Police Services Board) [2013] SCJ 19 on the issue of whether people who have filed police complaints should be estopped from pursuing civil claims against the officers if the discipline proceedings against the officers acquitted them of wrongdoing
  • Wood v Schaeffer [2013] SCJ 71 on the issue of whether, in the case of civilians having been killed or seriously injured by police officers, the police officers were entitled to consult legal counsel before completing their notes of the incident to the Special Investigations Unit

Head later served as president of the National Black Coalition of Canada, an organization that formed in 1969, after an occupation of a computer centre at what is now Concordia University to protest the university’s lack of action to incidents of racial bias towards Black students. While president of the organization, Head appeared before the joint House Senate Committee on the Constitution regarding the Canadian Constitution. This has been described as the first time that a national organization representing Black Canadians or racialized Canadians other than Japanese Canadians, had been involved in official Canadian constitutional discussions.*

Special thanks to Sheilagh Turkington for her assistance in preparing this feature. 

Further Readings

Head, Wilson, A Life on the Edge:  Experiences in Black and White in North America  (1995)

Turner, Francis, editor, Encyclopedia of Canadian Social Work Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Howe, Brian, “The Evolution of Human Rights Policy in Ontario” Canadian Journal of Political Science (1991)

Urban Alliance on Race Relations,“Our History” (https://www.urbanalliance.ca/ourhistory)

*“National Black Coalition of Canada” Pushing Buttons:  Pushing Stories, York University (https://archives.library.yorku.ca/exhibits/show/pushingbuttons/black--caribbean-community/national-black-coalition-of-ca)


About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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