Human rights lawyer, activist, artist, musician and prominent leader in Toronto’s Black community, Charles Roach dedicated his life to advocating on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized people in society, and fighting against systemic racism, oppression and police abuse of power.
Roach was born in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1933 and was the son of a trade union organizer. At the age of 22, Roach moved to Canada to study theology at the University of Saskatchewan. A product of his times, he became increasingly politicized and engaged in the growing civil rights, anti-colonial, and post-imperialist movements across North America, Latin America, and Africa. This eventually led him to study law at the University of Toronto.
After being called to the Ontario bar in 1963 and working as a staff lawyer at the City of Toronto, Roach opened his own law practice in 1968. His practice focused on human rights, particularly at the intersections of criminal and immigration and refugee law. He represented Black Panthers seeking refuge from criminal prosecution in the United States, domestic workers facing deportations, and young Black men subjected to racial profiling and police abuse.
In 1988, Roach founded, along with Dudley Laws, Sherona Hall, Lennox Farrell, Akua Benjamin, Akilah and Dari Meade, and Brian Hyman, the Black Action Defence Committee, in response to the police killings of Black men in the GTA, including Buddy Evans, Albert Johnson, Michael Wade Lawson, and Lester Donaldson. The Black Action Defence Committee protested, organized and fought against anti-Black racism within the police and the criminal justice system and sought to promote police accountability and a more racially just society. The Committee’s work led to the creation of the Commission on Systemic Racism and, in 1990, the founding of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an independent civilian oversight agency mandated with investigating civilian deaths, serious injuries or sexual assaults caused by police. The SIU was an important step toward police accountability, as the previous process of “police investigating police” frequently led to injustices and lacked the confidence of marginalized communities and the public more generally.
Outside of the law, Roach contributed to his community by promoting Caribbean arts and culture. He was an artist, poet and musician and owned a club called Little Trinidad which was an important venue for artists, musicians and cultural and community gatherings. In 1967, he founded, along with others, the Caribana festival, which is now the largest festival of its kind in North America.
A man of principle and committed anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, Roach refused to swear an allegiance to the Queen, a prerequisite to becoming a Canadian citizen. Under Canadian citizenship laws, individuals over 14 years of age who wish to become a citizen must recite and sign the following oath:
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
To Roach, who was of Caribbean and Irish descent – and to many others – the Queen represents a legacy of oppression, imperialism and racism. As a result of his conscientious objection, Roach was denied his dream of becoming a Canadian citizen. He was also prevented from running for elected office or serving as a judge, as these public and judicial offices are limited to Canadian citizens. On three separate occasions, Roach sought to challenge the oath requirement in court, arguing that people should have the option of swearing allegiance to Canada, as opposed to the monarchy. He argued forcefully that a mandated oath of allegiance to the Queen violated freedom of expression, freedom of religion and conscience, and the right to equality enshrined under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unfortunately, this issue ended up being Roach’s last legal battle. He died of brain cancer in October 2012. In 2013, the Ontario Superior Court upheld the constitutional validity of the law. The decision was upheld on appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2014.
For more information on Charles Roach, please see:
Roach v Canada (Minister of State for Multiculturalism & Culture) (1994), 1994 CanLII 3453 (FCA)
 See, eg, McAteer et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 ONSC 5895 (CanLII), para 2: https://canlii.ca/t/g0n32
 McAteer et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 ONSC 5895 (CanLII): https://canlii.ca/t/g0n32
 McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578 (CanLII): https://canlii.ca/t/g8kld
Special thanks to Adrienne Telford for her assistance in preparing this feature.
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.