Canada’s first Black judge opened doors
Maurice Charles, who in 1969 was named to the Ontario Court Bench making him Canada’s first Black judge, is dead.
The legal pioneer passed away last Friday at Toronto East General Hospital following complications from a stroke he suffered about a month ago. He was 92.
Charles’ son, Dr. Richard Van West Charles, said his dad was active until about two months ago.
“He was on the computer doing research and going to the library,” said the son-in-law of late Guyana president Forbes Burnham. “I will remember him as being very independent and strong-willed and someone who stood up for the rights of the ordinary person.”
As a judge who was not afraid to criticize police, Charles was also controversial and capricious.
He once fined a defendant while the accused’s attorney was in the washroom and he unsuccessfully challenged mandatory retirement when forced off the bench at age 75. Two years later, he was back on the other side of the fence as a lawyer representing Rohan Ranger and Clinton Gayle who were convicted for separate high-profile murders in the city.
A decade ago, Ranger was found guilty for a second time of killing sisters Marsha and Tammy Ottey in their Scarborough home on August 16, 1995. Ranger, Marsha’s ex-boyfriend, was first convicted of first degree murder and manslaughter in 1998. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 2003 and a new trial ordered. Canada’s top court denied the appeal in February 2012.
Charles also made an appeal on behalf of Gayle, a convicted cop killer, who is serving concurrent life sentences for the 1994 murder of Toronto Police Constable Todd Baylis and the attempted murder of his partner Mike Leone.
Born in Guyana, Charles – his father was a law clerk and real estate agent -- passed his Law Society of England bar exam in 1944 and was appointed to the Her Majesty’s Overseas Judicial Services that provides judges to the British colonies. He served as a magistrate in Guyana – then British Guiana – and as a judge in Ghana – then the Gold Coast – before retiring in 1967.
Charles came to Toronto the following year and articled for the province’s late attorney general and cabinet minister Arthur Wishart before making history in 1969.
“You will always face challenges and difficulties when you are the first in any system,” said retired Ontario court judge Vibert Rosemay. “In my view, Maurice was judged more critically than other judges, but he acquitted himself in an honourable and decent manner. He was worthy of that appointment and he opened doors for people of his skin colour. We should never forget that.”
A total of 28 Black judges have been appointed to the Bench since Charles broke the colour barrier 44 years ago.
“He was a pioneer who paved the way for the rest of us,” said Canadian Association of Black Lawyers co-founder Roger Rowe. “He will be remembered as an outstanding jurist.”
George Carter was appointed to the Bench seven years after Charles, making him the first Canadian-born Black judge.
“Maurice knew his law, but he was not always courteous to the Bar,” recounted Carter who turns 92 in August. “He was different, but he didn’t care. He was a good lawyer and a capable judge.”
Retired provincial court judge Vibert Lampkin knew Charles for nearly six decades.
“He was the best friend of one of my uncles, so I grew up calling him ‘Uncle Maurice’,” said Lampkin. “He was very studious and one of the criticisms levelled against him was that he always quoted English law. You couldn’t blame him for that because that was where he did his law originally.”
Charles resided in South Africa for five years before returning home in 2006.
In addition to his son, the trailblazer is survived by daughters Lorraine Smith and Maureen Charles-Drake.
His funeral service takes place today at Ogden Funeral Home, 4164 Sheppard Ave. E., starting at 10 a.m.