This Week in History


Always Fighting for Equality

For the week of Monday, February 2, 2015

On February 4, 1964, in his first speech as an Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), Leonard Braithwaite criticized the ability of schools to legally segregate students based on race. As the first Black MPP in Ontario and throughout his successful political and legal career, Braithwaite fought for gender equality and the rights of minorities.

Leonard Braithwaite in uniform in front of the British War Memorial, London, England, just after VE Day, 1945.
© Leonard Braithwaite / The Memory Project / Historica Canada, 1945

Born in the Kensington Market area of Toronto on October 23, 1923, Braithwaite faced racism from an early age. At 18 he tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) but was told at the recruiting office that they did not take “you people,” a reference to his race. Determined, Braithwaite returned to the office once a month for the rest of 1942. Finally, in early 1943, a Canadian-Ukrainian recruiting officer allowed him to enlist. Braithwaite served in the war as part of the RCAF ground crew and was posted to Scotland and later to England.

After the war, Braithwaite returned to Canada and earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Toronto but continued to face racial discrimination in the job market. Having lost none of his determination, he completed both a Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard and a law degree at Osgoode Hall before entering politics. In 1960, he was elected a school trustee on the Etobicoke Board of Education. Three years later, he was elected MPP for Etobicoke and began pushing for change.

Leonard Braithwaite (left) and a fellow RCAF member in London, England, spring 1946.
© Leonard Braithwaite / The Memory Project / Historica Canada, 1945

One month after his 1964 speech, the government repealed the 114 year old law allowing segregation in schools. Following his re-election in 1967, Braithwaite was appointed Liberal party critic for the Standing Committee on Welfare and Reform and continued to lobby for equality. He was a driving force behind the 1971 decision to allow female pages in the legislature, a position formerly restricted to males.

Although he lost his seat in the 1975 election, Braithwaite remained an active member of his community. He practiced law until his death in 2012, and was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario for his public service.

February is Black History Month! To learn more about the fight for equality in Canada, read: Building Bridges in the First World War, The First Black Battalion in Canada, and The Fight against Racial Discrimination in the This Week in History archives.

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