Tuesday, November 25, 2008

At 85, Roy Heron is a Leader

At 85, Roy Heron is a leader


Roy Heron will be 85 years young on January 6, 2009.

I use the word 'young' advisedly. For, whereas many elder statesmen might relish a life of quiet reflection after a beleaguered lifetime in the trenches of the community advancement business, Heron believes that he is only now rounding into form, and is finally ready to make his real contribution to the battle for social equality and minority rights in Canada.

Heron has been a stalwart in African Canadian life and politics for over 60 years, fiercely dedicated to the principles of self-determination and consciousness-raising. He has single-mindedly maintained the same impassioned commitment to social justice that he possessed when he arrived in Canada in 1941.

Born in Jamaica, his struggle for illumination and equal rights began while he was in high school as part of the organized labour movement and as a member of the Young Communist League. In 1940, he went to South America with the Merchant Marines. That led to work on a Norwegian whaling ship in the Antarctic.

In 1941, at age 21, when Heron migrated to Canada he joined the army, working with the Royal Canadian Mechanical Engineers (RCME) as an Instrument Mechanic. Later, he settled in Montreal in order to take up the fight against then Qu├ębec Premier Maurice Duplessie's anti-labour regime. He eventually moved to Toronto, and, in 1958, helped launch the Jamaican Canadian Association, precursor to the Jamaicanization of Toronto.

Today, he continues the fight for social justice as a member of the New Democratic Party Executive for Scarborough Southwest; an executive member of the Canadian Cuban Friendship Society and as a member of both the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF).

At almost 85 years of age, Roy Heron is now a man with a wealth of wisdom and humility, who possesses his own unique cadence, and always begins his important conversations with the phrase - "These are the things I see..."

One of the things he sees today, to his dismay, is the continued fragmentation of the African Canadian community, and the inability of Black people to recognize what he calls their "bread and butter" unity.

"These are the things I see...when Black people walk down the street nobody knows and nobody cares that they are from Trinidad or Nigeria or Barbados, they only see a Black person. Don't tell me you're from Trinidad. Don't tell me you're from Nigeria. Don't tell me you're from Barbados. Your bread and butter is here. Without bread on the table none of you can survive," he argues.

In this connection, Heron's contemporary long-term goal is to reshape the minds of young people who have not been fully entranced by the twisted logic of social inequality. In youth, he sees the potential to defy both cooptation and divisiveness, resignation and resentment; and he sees the power to overcome the old poisons that have tainted life through the youthful instinct of "embracing the diversity of creation."

Finding unity in diversity has become something of a Heronism.

As he puts it - "These are the things I see...in the summer time all the leaves and trees are green. Why in the fall do we see the colour changes? Why are trees of different shades and sizes? That's a human being. We come in all colours, shapes and sizes. We must be like trees. Do the trees fight with each other? Trees live in harmony. They support each other. These are the things and comparisons we have to make to show people we all belong to Mother Earth."

It has been noted by many of his peers that Heron's most distinguished trait in his long career as a leader in the Black community is that he has never sought recognition for his efforts. He has never tried to toot his own horn, because he has never measured accomplishment by accolades and awards. He has always been too busy doing the work of educating, mentoring, agitating and mobilizing the forces of social change against the forces of the status quo, to worry about who gets the commendation.

Ironically, perhaps, it is this fierce selflessness that has stood him well over his years, in an environment that actually resists the very idea of an "African Canadian leader."

He is well aware of the fact that in the mainstream discourse of the Great White North, the great Black leaders are invariably identified with the American Civil Rights movement in the United States or the Anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. This is why, in a classic bit of twisted logic, it is often thought to be an affirmation of African Canadian culture to have a Toronto school named after Nelson Mandela, or to bestow an honorary doctorate on Bishop Desmond Tutu, or to fly in Reverend Jesse Jackson from Chicago to oversee a minority labour dispute.

To the mainstream media and public in Canada, "Blackness in Canada" is typically Jamaicanized. That is, it typically conjures images of world-class beef patties and curry goat and primitive politics -signifying a worldly cultural appeal in the absence of a democratic worldliness. Here, given that authentic or worldly Black leadership is unreflectively designated as an American and/or South African concept, it helps for men like Roy Heron not to have "ego" problems.

For Heron, though, the twisted White logic of Black leadership represents one more deflective force that can distract from the work at hand, and he will have no part in it. He long ago realized, that the Canadian tendency to confer greatness on Blacks-who-are-either-dead-or-living-abroad is, at a deep level, a psychological assault on indigenous activists and leaders, and the community's integrity. The act of minimizing Black leaders in Canada has a subliminal correlation to the second-class citizenship status of the community as a whole. When African Canadian leaders can be effectively contained, the aspirations for Black community mobility and advancement can be effectively neutralized, and put on hold.

Therefore, in a sociological sense, the de-legitimization and inferiorization of Black leaders in Canada actually functions as a central feature in a devaluation and infantilization process of the entire African Canadian community.

For Heron this sociological fact of life merely highlights the urgency and enormity of the task, and drives him on as a young octogenarian.

It is also the foundation for the ultimate Heronism: "I don't need or want a school named after me. I want to broker the minds in that school," he says.

"My challenge to all young people is this: What are you doing to make things better?"

I have a feeling that as he rounds into form, for Roy Heron, inspiring one young person to pursue an impassioned commitment to social justice is worth all the honorary awards and accolades in the world.

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