A who's who in the history of Canadian activism

A who's who in the history of Canadian activism

Activism has long-standing roots in Canada, with many notable activists being Black, Indigenous or persons of colour. From advocating for civil rights, access to safe drinking water, or proper representation in the media and the government, these activists have helped pave the way for change within their communities and beyond.

Charles (Charlie) Roach (1933 – 2012)
A lawyer by profession and an activist by passion, Roach was a trailblazer in organizing demonstrations for equal rights for Black Canadians. His passion for advocating for his community inspired him to start a law firm in his name in 1968, which represented asylum seekers from the United States—including members of the Black Panthers and those avoiding the Vietnam draft—and Canadian labourers at risk of deportation. Roach also founded the Black Action Defence Committee in 1988 in response to numerous police killings of Black folks in years prior. Roach was born in Trinidad and Tobago and brought his cultural roots to Toronto's art scene by opening the club Little Trinidad, and founding the original Caribana parade in the 1960s, separate from the city of Toronto. He died in 2012 before he was able to become a Canadian citizen.

Leonard (Lenny) Johnston (1918 – 1998)
Johnston was born in Toronto to Jamaican parents in 1918. He dreamed of owning a bookstore that catered to Black authors and readers, and would eventually see that dream come true. While working at a Toronto railyard, he set aside what he could from his monthly paycheque of $16. With those savings, Johnson eventually opened up Third World Books in November 1968. Beyond being a spot to find a good read, the bookstore was also a place for public discussions on socialism and encouragement for Black youth to enter academic discussion. Following Johnston's death in 1998, the bookstore was closed in 2000, but it paved the way for others like it, such as A Different Booklist.

Alanis Obomsawin (b. 1932)
Born in the U.S. in 1932, Obomsawin settled in Canada with her mother when she was six months old. Obomsawin is one of the most well-known Indigenous film directors in the world. Her first short film for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) entitled "Christmas at the Moose Factory" came out in 1971. Since then she has directed over 50 films, including several NFB documentaries on Indigenous peoples. One of her films, The People of the Kattawapiskak River, explored the situation in Attawapiskat First Nation after a state of emergency was declared in October 2011 due to a housing crisis. She also documented the Oka crisis in 1990.

Autumn Peltier (b. 2004)
Peltier is a 16-year-old from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and is known for her water and climate activism. She started advocating for clean water for several Indigenous communities globally at age 14—specifically on the issue of unsafe drinking water, which is a systemic problem happening in many First Nations. According to Water Today, there are 104 active water advisories in Ontario alone. Peltier also gained recognition for her opposition to prime minister Justin Trudeau and the Trans Mountain pipeline and is Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishnabek Nation.

Jim Egan (1921 - 2000)
In the late 1980s, Egan was dubbed Canada's first LGBT activist for his publication of long-form articles on the gay experience in the country and for serving as Canada's first openly gay politician. He and his partner, Jack Nesbit, were the first same-sex couple to apply for the Old Age Security spousal allowance in 1988, which resulted in sexual orientation being written in as protected grounds of discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Egan was a lifelong advocate for LGBT rights until his death in Courtenay, BC in 2000.