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Black History makers leave imprint on Toronto

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To recognize the area’s rich music history, the laneway located south of Eglinton Avenue West and extending easterly from Oakwood Avenue will now be called Reggae Lane"Josh Colle, Toronto City Councillor

By Neil Armstrong

On a sunny but cool November morning several members of the African Canadian community gathered at the cultural hub of Ontario, Harbourfront Centre, for a special plaque unveiling and dedication of  benches in its new Ontario Square.

Organized by A Different Booklist, a Toronto bookstore, in partnership with the Harbourfront Centre, twelve benches are now imprinted with the names of African Canadians who have contributed immensely to Black History and to enriching Canadian History.

All have an association with the Harbourfront either through donating to the centre, performing there, serving on its board of governors, working there or supporting its many programs.

 The honorees are the late Charles and Hetty Roach, Caribana pioneers 1967; Sandra Whiting, cultural animator and programmer; Austin Clarke, author and African Canadian literary pioneer; the late Ayanna Black, poet and advocate; Afropan, Canadian steelpan pioneers; Salome Bey, queen of jazz & blues and Howard Matthews, cultural pioneer; Rita Cox, patron of the arts; Kamala-Jean Gopie, patron of the arts; Pamela Appelt, patron of the arts; and Althea Prince, author and African Canadian literary pioneer; Zanana Akande, educator, leader and friend to many communities; and George Curtis Randolph Jr., founder of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts.

Speaking at the event, Itah Sadu, co-owner of the bookstore, said it is a place of big ideas and so the work that she, her husband, Miguel San Vicente and staff do come from the exchange of ideas with customers and books in the store.

In 2009, the bookstore was instrumental in having a bench outside Bathurst subway station named in honour of pioneers, Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnston, now deceased, owners of the legendary Third World Bookstore.

 

Nelson Mandela Boulevard

Earlier in the year, Toronto City Council approved the ceremonial dedication of University Avenue from Front Street West to College Street, “Nelson Mandela Boulevard,” in honour of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa and an anti-apartheid icon.

The former South African president died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. Ryan Lanyon, the project manager at Transportation Services, City of Toronto, who worked on the Nelson Mandela dedication, said the installation of  the signage “Nelson Mandela Boulevard” would take place by December 5, 2014 to mark the first anniversary of his death. The official street name will remain the same and addresses will not change.

The Mandela Legacy Committee unanimously approved University Avenue as its preferred choice at its June 13 meeting.

During Mandela’s first visit to the city in 1990, he and Winnie Mandela marched on University Avenue, from Toronto City Hall to Queen's Park where the South African freedom fighter gave a speech to a crowd of 30, 000 people. 

“We feel that University is one of Ontario’s best known roadways, popular with residents and visitors, and easily accessible by public transit. University Avenue is an elegant boulevard with impressive buildings and historically significant monuments including a monument to Canadians who served in the South African War (Boer War), 1899-1902. It is also the only option that involves the entire street. This street is most worthy for naming after Nelson Mandela,” said the committee in a letter sent to the community.

The not-for-profit organization of volunteers from community, education, business and labour intends to work with groups and individuals to preserve Mandela’s legacy of a society free from all forms of discrimination.

The executive committee is made up of co-chairs, Lloyd McKell and John Piper; secretary, Monica Hendricks; and treasurer, Zeib Jeeva.

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate was the first foreign leader to be awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada and in 2001 was granted honorary Canadian citizenship. 

McKell is proposing that once a year, beginning with the 25th anniversary of  Mandela’s first visit to Canada in 2015, that there be a freedom walk on Nelson Mandela Boulevard from Front Street to Queen’s Park.

This is something that he hopes will catch on across the country. The former South African president and anti-apartheid icon first came to Canada on June 19, 1990.

Reggae Lane

The Reggae Lane sign is already mounted in the Eglinton Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue area but at a later time an official unveiling will be held to mark the recognition.

The changes taking place in that section of the city prompted city councillor, Josh Colle, to propose naming a public lane, Reggae Lane to recognize the history and legacy of reggae music in what is unofficially known as Little Jamaica.

The lane is behind several Jamaican-owned businesses in the Eglinton Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue.

On August 13, Colle sent a letter to the community announcing that the North York Community had approved his motion for the naming of the laneway which did not have a name.

To recognize the area’s rich music history, the laneway located south of Eglinton Avenue West and extending easterly from Oakwood Avenue will now be called Reggae Lane, said Colle who grew up in the area.

He notes that, in the 1970s and 80s, Toronto was the epicenter of reggae music after Jamaica, and much of that activity could be found in the vibrant stretch of music stores, labels, studios and venues along Eglinton Avenue West.

Colle said the city’s policy for renaming civic properties is a great way to honour and promote this heritage.

He notes, “Eglinton West continues to transform with the coming Eglinton Crosstown and Oakwood Station, it is more important than ever to remember and celebrate this rich history. I think Toronto needs to do a better job of recognizing its history – especially its music history. Like the Yonge Street strip, Yorkville, and Queen Street, Eglinton West has a music history and story that should be shared.”

While the move seems to have the support of local businesses owners who say the lane needs a revamp first, some reggae music aficionados have mixed reactions.

This particular area was the embryo of the Jamaican migration from 1958 coming on up when the first set of Jamaican immigrants came into Toronto under the household helper program. This was the area in which they stayed; they lived and took root here, said Arnold Rowe, vice chair of the York-Eglinton BIA.

He said these Jamaicans brought along their culture – dance and music – and when Jamaican artists were invited to Toronto this was the area in which they came.

Rowe said when Colle came up with the idea; he contacted him, veteran reggae singer, Jay Douglas, and others like him who grew up with the music in the area.

They had consultative meetings, which did not only include Jamaicans but people from other ethnicities, who lived in the area who understood the value and the vibrance, and effect that the music had on the area.

There was a vote and it was agreed that it would be called Reggae Lane.

The BIA vice chair said the laneway will be upgraded and efforts will be made to identify the forerunners of the people who carried the music here so that second and third generation Jamaicans will know their history.

“It is intended to set up murals where pictures of these artists would be there to be seen. Blurbs under their picture would be there for the younger folks to go and read about these people.”

He said there were no other options offered as the lane is the only thoroughfare that the city has governance over. All the other areas facing Eglinton Avenue are private property.

Douglas grew up in the area and said the main concern of Councillor Colle and others, like himself, is that Toronto has not done well with its history, especially arts and culture.

Now that they’re building the rapid transit, Eglinton is going to be changing rapidly and we’re concerned that we’ll lose more of the history and the legacy that has built up there for years.

The veteran musician said Lester and Monica of Monica’s Beauty Salon & Cosmetic Supply started from the late 1960s and many artists have passed through there.

He said one of the biggest distributors of reggae music was Cookie of Cooks Distributors and his entrance was from the lane. Joe Gibbs Records used to be along the strip as well.

Douglas said Colle spoke with all the vendors there and they were in agreement with him to name it Reggae Lane.

Vernal Small, proprietor of Jamall Caribbean Custom Tailors, whose store has been beside the laneway on Oakwood Avenue for 40 years, welcomes the naming.

Some customers and staff in Randy’s Take-Out, which backs onto the lane and has been around for 36 years, also agree with it but recommend that the city clean it up and install lights.

Mavis Palmer of Discount Beauty Supplies & Salon says she supports it since it is an initiative of the city councillor.

Dalton Higgins, a music programmer, pop culture critic, author, broadcaster and journalist, grew up in the area and lives there with his wife, Karen; daughter, Shiloh and son, Solomon.

“Will a re-naming of the lane do much, if anything, to help with some of the more pressing issues in the community, like economic development, helping to keep the mom and pop shops out there open given the LRT construction and gentrification creeping in. There’s a condo development happening right next to this proposed Reggae Lane, so I can tell you that the people in the community are a lot more concerned with how that will impact the small black businesses out there”, said Higgins.

Reggae music historian, Klive Walker, thinks the move is a positive one as the area has been home to businesses and residents of English Caribbean heritage for

many decades.

He notes that the gentrification of that area is already underway and the arrival of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will further accelerate that urban renewal.

Not sure exactly what that would mean for the current Caribbean residents and businesses in that neighbourhood but it is safe to assume that many may not survive the neighbourhood make-over. It may be in the decades to come that one of the few remaining reminders of the Caribbean presence in that neighbourhood is the street name: Reggae Lane.”

Denise Jones, an event manager and producer of the JAMBANA festival, said it is a good start.

Acknowledgment of our music is a good thing but I think reggae and our community really are above the laneway. That’s not really our history. I hope that’s no indication of the level of our brand and the community. And I hope this is not someone’s political move.

She said reggae music is global and demands the name of a street. If we’re going to acknowledge reggae, let’s acknowledge it in a way that’s significant to the contribution that it had globally and certainly on the Canadian music industry.

Victor ‘Tipper’ Henry, one of the pioneers of Jamaican sound systems in the early 70s in Toronto, said he is not against the idea but totally against the location.

He and Terry Brown, who has been involved in the reggae business for 40 years, believe there should be a Reggae Village instead of a laneway.  They proposed that this should be between Marlee Avenue and Oakwood Avenue or Dufferin St. along  Eglinton Ave.

SOME PLACES HONOURING AFRICAN CANADIANS IN TORONTO

 

Stanley G. Grizzle Park – 320 Main Street, across from Main Street subway station – named after Canada’s first African Canadian Citizenship Court Judge on November 1, 2007. In the 1950s, Grizzle became the first acknowledged African-Canadian to contest a seat in an Ontario election. In the early 1960s, he accepted a position as an Officer with the Ontario Labour Relations Board and became the first African-Canadian member of a trade union. He is the author of “My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada.”

 

Jean Augustine Park – 2115 Lake Shore Boulevard West, a small park near Park Lawn Road and Lake Shore Boulevard West that features a water fountain, multiple pathways through the open green space and leads to Humber Bay Shores Park. Augustine is a community advocate, former Member of Parliament and Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner. In 1993, Augustine became the first African Canadian woman elected to the Parliament of Canada and subsequently the first black woman in a federal Cabinet.

 

Clovis John Brooks Lane – Located in Regal Heights where the late founder of the John Brooks Community Foundation and Scholarship Fund, Dr. Clovis John Brooks, lived for 45 years. As a community stalwart, he founded the organization in 1981, to recognize academic excellence in high school students of African descent. The street naming took place on May 19, 2010 two years after he died at the age of 83.

 

Miss Lou Room – Harbourfront Centre – named after Jamaica’s cultural ambassador, Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley, a veteran storyteller, poet, folklorist and author, who lived in Toronto for many years before she died in 2006 at the age of 86. McMaster University Library houses the archives of the latter part of the life of the cultural icon. The University of the West Indies has the archives of the earlier stage of her life.

 

In 2000, the City of Toronto Culture Division erected a plaque at 20 Cecil Street to commemorate Donald Willard Moore’s significant contributions.

Moore, a community leader and civil rights activist who fought to change Canada’s exclusionary immigration laws, was born in Barbados on November 2, 1891. He died in August 1994 in Toronto at the age of 102.

The web exhibit, “Caribbean Connection: One Man’s Crusade,” in the Toronto Archives notes that, “In 1956, Moore and two other members of the Negro Citizenship Association purchased a 12-room house on Cecil Street and converted it into a recreation centre for the West Indian community called Donavalon Centre.”

 

Angela James Arena – Angela James was honoured in an official ceremony June 6, 2009, with the renaming of the former Flemingdon Arena as Angela James Arena. She was the first African-Canadian woman to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.

Constable Percy Cummins Parkette – On May 5, 2012, the City of Toronto honoured Percival Cummins, a black Toronto police officer who died in the line of duty in September 1981, by naming a new parkette after him to recognize his 11 years of service to the citizens of the City of Toronto.

 

Harry Gairey Skating Rink – Located at Alexandra Park and named in memory of the late Harry Ralph Gairey, a prominent campaigner for the civil rights of members of Toronto’s Black community. One day in November 1945, Gairey’s 15-year-old son and avid skater, Harry Gairey Jr., was refused entry at a private city rink because of his colour. The father petitioned city officials and secured an audience with the mayor and City’s Board of Control. His actions led to supporting protests by student and labour groups, which ultimately resulted in the passing of laws two years later barring discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, colour or religion. Three years after his death in 1993, the rink where his son skated as a child was renamed in honour of Harry Gairey Sr.

 

Herbert H. Carnegie Centennial Centre – Home of the Herbert H. Carnegie Indoor Artificial Ice Rink, popularly called the Herb Carnegie Arena. The former North York Centennial Arena, which was constructed in 1967 – Canada’s centennial year – had a name change on May 2, 2005, to honour the late hockey star who passed away in March 2012. Carnegie, one of the first black hockey players in Canada, saw his ambition to play in the National Hockey League thwarted on account of existing racial barriers of that era. He founded the Future Aces Hockey School in 1955 to cater to children 12 -14 years, and the Future Aces Foundation, which provides bursaries for post-secondary education.

 

Kempton Howard Park – Kempton Howard was a talented and respected 24-year-old local youth leader, basketball coach and mentor. He was a recipient of the Youth Ontario Volunteer Services Award and a Boys and Girls Clubs of Ontario scholarship, who worked at Eastview Boys and Girls Club.  In December 2003, Howard was tragically shot and killed in the neighbourhood in which he lived and worked. The park, formerly known as Eastview Park, was renamed in honour of him in 2007.

 

Len Braithwaite Park – The City of Toronto renamed the former Melody Park on October 24, 2012, after the late Leonard “Len” Braithwaite. He was a lawyer, scholar, businessman, veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force who served in World War II, and Canada’s first Black parliamentarian. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1963 and served for the next 12 years as the Member of Parliament (MPP) for the Etobicoke North riding where the park is located.

 

Randy Padmore Park – Formerly called Carr Street Parkette, it was officially renamed on July 11, 2010, to honour Arthur Randolph “Randy” Padmore who passed away in 2009. Padmore was one of the first residents of the neighbouring Alexandra Park community. He was a dedicated youth-worker and community organizer who devoted a large part of his life to community projects, charitable work and public service in the Atkinson Housing Co-Op, his Alexandra Park neighbourhood and the Malvern community.

 

Rita Cox Park – Dr. Rita Cox joined the Toronto Public Library as a children’s librarian in 1960. She became head of Parkdale Branch in 1974, where she remained until her retirement in 1995. In 1973, Dr. Cox pioneered the Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection – one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in Canada – that was subsequently named after her by the Toronto Public Library. She is a renowned storyteller and was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997 for her outstanding work in storytelling and literacy. In 2008, a new park in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood was dedicated in honour of Dr. Rita Cox to recognize her achievement and contributions to the community.

 

Shawn “Blu” Rose Park – Shawn “Blu” Rose was a long-time resident of the Malvern community who devoted his life to helping young people in his neighbourhood. He spent 12 years at the Malvern Community Centre where he was a youth worker who served as a role model and mentor for young people. He died in November 2005 of a brain aneurysm, only weeks before his 29th birthday. Members of the Malvern community came together and petitioned the city to rename Empringham Park in his honour. The park was officially renamed Shawn Blu Rose Park in August 2006.

 

William Peyton Hubbard – Toronto’s first black elected official will be the honoured with the naming of the new park at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East. In 1894, he was elected as an alderman – becoming Toronto’s first elected black politician. Over the course of his career he served as acting mayor.

 

Afropan Steelband – Afropan Steelband celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013 and the City of Toronto allocated an official landmark name to the panyard, known today as “Afropark.”  The park is located at the southern end of Jefferson Ave. off of King St., just east of Dufferin St. bordering the Allan A. Lamport Stadium.

 

– Information compiled mainly from the websites of the City of Toronto and Afropan Steelband.

 


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