It was 1963, the year Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech.
In Toronto, an ambitious young lawyer named Leonard Braithwaite was living his own dream. He was elected in Etobicoke under the Liberal banner and became Ontario’s first black MPP, sitting in opposition.
The Harvard Business School graduate died March 28 at the age of 87, working part-time in his law office until recently and having amassed a long list of achievements in politics, civil rights, business and community work.
His honours include the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
“We have lost a trailblazer, a champion and a friend — but he leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the strong, diverse province he helped build,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said in a statement.
Consumer Services Minister Margarett Best said she was “deeply saddened” to hear of Braithwaite’s passing and noted he had been recently welcomed to the Legislature to mark Black History Month.
“The legacy of his contribution to the province is something all Ontarians can be proud of.”
Those contributions include pushing for an end to the segregation of black children in Ontario schools, pressing for student pages in the Legislature to be girls as well as boys, serving as a municipal councillor and sitting on the boards of the Canadian National Exhibition and Etobicoke General Hospital.
“Those are critically important steps we take so much for granted now,” Rosemary Sadlier of the Ontario Black History Society said of the anti-segregation effort.
“We’ve lost a great activist. Maybe in his own way he was our Martin Luther King.”
The son of West Indian parents and raised in the Kensington Market neighbourhood in the 1930s, Braithwaite attended Harbord Collegiate and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943, serving with No. 6 Bomber Command in Yorkshire, England, for the final years of World War Two.
He returned home to earn a commerce degree at the University of Toronto, went to Harvard and later graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1958.
Braithwaite’s latest honour was the 2011 William P. Hubbard Race Relations Award from the City of Toronto.
Braithwaite is survived by two sons, Roger and David. A memorial service will be held April 21 at St. Matthias’ Anglican Church, 1428 Royal York Rd.