Skip to main content

Charles (Charlie) Conliff Mende Roach (1933-2012)

Charlie Roach

Charlie Roach was born in Trinidad and Tobago and came to Canada in 1955 to study theology at the University of Saskatchewan. He soon became politicized by the American Civil Rights Movement, causing him to change to the study of law at the University of Toronto.  He was called to the bar in 1963.

While working as a staff lawyer with the City of Toronto, Charlie became more involved in activism organizing and participating in marches and demonstrations for equal rights for African Canadians. He started his own law practice in 1968 and focused mainly on issues of human rights, advocating for the poor and oppressed. His clients included asylum seekers such as Black Panthers and American draft dodgers who were seeking refuge in Canada. He also represented domestic workers who were facing deportation. While working through the courts to address the injustices facing individuals, he also used the courts and the streets to bring attention to systemic racism, oppression, and exploitation, as well as to make broader societal changes.

Charlie was also an artist, poet and musician. He owned and operated a club called Little Trinidad. It was a place for Torontonians from the Southern Caribbean to engage in their Caribbean culture through steel band, calypso, folk arts, drama and dance. He organized events and exhibits to create awareness of Caribbean artists. His desire to celebrate the cultural contributions of people of Caribbean descent led him and others to organize the first Caribana parade as part of country-wide celebrations of Canada's 100th birthday in 1967. This Caribbean cultural celebration was so successful that the organizers were asked to make it an annual event. Charlie became a founding member and the first chair of the Caribana festival, which has grown into the largest festival of its kind in North America.

With the spate of shootings of unarmed Black men by the police in the 1970s and 1980s, Charlie Roach along with Dudley Laws, Akua Benjamin, Lennox Farrell, Numvoyo and Brian Hyman, Akilah and Dari Meade, and others founded the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). The organization protested police treatment of African Canadians and called for independent investigation of police shootings. BADC is credited with the creation of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit and the creation of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System.

Charlie's opposition to the British monarchy meant that he would not take the oath of citizenship which required swearing allegiance to the Queen. Because he wasn't a citizen, he could not run for public office, but he understood the importance of racialized people participating in the electoral process. In 1978 he initiated the Movement of Minority Electors to encourage people from racialized communities to seek elected office.

Charlie initiated several court challenges to have the Oath of Citizenship changed. This was one of his last fights. He died in 2012 with his unfulfilled dream of becoming a Canadian citizen.