Monday, 3 October 2016

The Legacy of Contrast Newspaper Remembered and Celebrated

Contrast newspaper remembered and celebrated
By Neil Armstrong

It was a moment of nostalgia at the 4th annual Black & Caribbean Book Affair on October 1, when for 2 hours former staff, reporters and editors of the now defunct Contrast newspaper gathered to celebrate it at 28 Lennox St., just around the corner from A Different Booklist, organizer of the event.

The newspaper, with the tagline, “the eyes, ears and voice of the community,” was founded by Al Hamilton, who was from Edmonton, Alberta, in 1969.

The first issue of the paper was published on February 9, 1969 and its front page was about the Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) race-related riot in Montreal, noted Dianne Liverpool who worked at Contrast.

It was launched as a biweekly and subsequently became a weekly in 1972.

The paper took a hardline on issues of racism, policing and immigration.

Hamilton managed Contrast until he sold it to Denham Jolly in the early 80s, who after a couple years sold it to Horace Gooden in 1983.

Gooden stopped publication of the paper in 1986 and a few years later launched an online version.

Itah Sadu, co-owner of A Different Booklist, said Harold Hoyte, co-founder of The Nation newspaper in Barbados, was also a member of Contrast in its early years.

“Some great people came out of this space,” she said, noting that Jolly called from Jamaica on Saturday to wish them a good event, that Hamlin Grange was attending the wedding of his daughter, and that JoJo Chintoh and Hoyte could not make it to the celebration.

The afternoon included a roster of speakers such as Toronto councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, Joe Cressy, Sandra Young, Patrick Hunter, Al Peabody, Dianne Liverpool, Lorna Simms and Clifton Joseph.

“As we are aware that the Mirvish Village and the space that we occupy in a little while will be no more, one of the good things about stories, stories are memories, they’re like taking photographs. So despite what we know now will not exist, at the same time, as tellers, as griots, as people we will carry those stories and those memories with us.”

Peter Venetis, project manager, and Alexis Cohen, architectural historian, both of Westbank, based in Vancouver and one of Canada’s leading luxury residential and mixed-use real estate development companies, spoke at the event.

‘The process for us started about 3 years ago and what we’ve tried to do in this process is communicate with people as often as we can and open up and hold a dialogue. We opened a gallery up the street where people can come and learn about the project and help influence it in terms of the programming that it delivers. It’s a large project, it’s about 1,000 apartment units and some condominiums, it’s a public market, it’s a daycare, it’s a park space, it’s new streets, heritage restoration, public art – it’s a very unique offering for the City of Toronto coming all at once,” Venetis said.

He said like anything “it’s change and change is difficult sometimes” and “part of  what we do as developers is sort of look to the past so we can guide to the future.”

He said they have spent the last year celebrating different chapters in Mirvish Village’s history and “today we’re here to celebrate this chapter.”

Cohen works with ERA Architects, the heritage architects partnering with Westbanks and many other consultants on the project.

“Our role is about the bricks and mortar, we’re going to be restoring the buildings but we’re also working on a very comprehensive interpretation plan to make sure that the history of this site is both captured in our research process and also remains legible to the public in meaningful ways moving forward,” said Cohen.

She said she met Sadu a couple months ago and they have been talking about “the significance of the Black community at Bloor and Bathurst, of Contrast, of numerous businesses and important figures that have shaped the neighbourhood, and shaped the community and intersected with the Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village, layered the history.”

Cohen said they are working right now on an exciting exhibition in collaboration with Chinedu Ukabam.


It’s called “Welcome to Blackhurst Street” which will open on October 15 and will be about Black heritage at Bloor & Bathurst and “all of the deep and significant contributions that black business owners and the community have made to shape not only this neighbourhood but the city at large.”

She said Contrast has been one of the key resources that they have been using to shape the exhibition.

“I believe that our history is a continuum so as interested as I am in doing this project about what Bathurst was in the past, I’m also very interested in knowing what Bathurst is now but also where the people who were influential on what Bathurst was, what they’re up to right now,” said Ukabam, a designer and curator.

He said he wants to make sure that no matter what happens with the neighbourhood, “whether it’s being rebuilt or revamped, or whatever, that our stories are not erased.”

Ukabam wants to capture in the exhibition the intersection of black activism through Contrast, entrepreneurs like Lloyds Barbers where he has been going for the past 15-20 years or whether it is A Different Booklist and learning from Sadu about Third World Bookstore.

Councillor Cressy said he will be working with Sadu “to find a way to have a space for black history and heritage, a permanent space, to continue here.”

“When we look back in time, it was the black history of this community that shaped this neighbourhood. And, as we look to change in the future I have to tell you it forces us all to think about where have we been and where are we going,” he said.

He said when one thinks about “where we are today in the history of Contrast, we’re struggling today.”

He said a permanent space will help “to remember Contrast, to remember the contributions of those who wrote to Contrast, to remember the history of this community but its also going to provide us that space to organize.”

“Because I have to tell you if we’re going to have the change that is so necessary, if we’re going to tackle that growing inequality, it’s not by remembering the past. It’s by standing on their shoulders and organizing to change the future,” said Cressy who described himself as an activist.

Veteran journalist, Norman Otis Richmond, host of the evening, said Hamilton took over The West Indian News Observer newspaper, which was around from 1967-1969.

Along with Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, now Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hamilton started Contrast in 1969.

Richmond said when Hamilton came to Toronto in the 1950s he started working as a porter with Canadian Pacific Railway.

Someone called him a racial slur – the ‘N-word’ -- and Hamilton retaliated.

“Al Hamilton decked the guy and let’s say Al had to find alternative employment and he ended up in prison. And when he went to prison, he reformed himself, came out and started a publication, Junior Achievement Awards and so on and so forth,” said Richmond.

He said he has a soft spot for Denham Jolly because anytime he needed anything and still need anything he can always go to him.

Horace Gooden took over the paper from Jolly and ran it until it closed.

Sharing a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Black Press, Richmond noted that Henry Walton Bibb founded “Voice of the Fugitive” in 1851, and Mary Ann Shadd founded “The Provincial Freeman” in 1853.

She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada.

He said the first black newspaper in America was “Freedom’s Journal” which was started by Peter Williams, Jr. on March 16, 1827.

Richmond referenced “The Canadian Negro” which was started by Jack White of Nova Scotia.

The veteran journalist underscored the importance of the three biggest black newspapers: Marcus Garvey’s “The Negro World,”(published in Spanish, French and English), the Nation of Islam’s “Muhammad Speaks,” and the Black Panther Party’s “The Black Panther.”

Sandra Young highlighted the connection between Contrast and The Ashanti Room, which she co-owned with her husband, Patrick Hunter, and was located at 28 Lennox Street years after Contrast relocated.

She had fond memories of Third World Bookstore, Joyce’s and Wong’s businesses along the Bathurst Street strip.

“As a publication, Contrast championed African liberation, social justice and social change. Contrast spoke to the social issues that dominated the life of Toronto’s Black community such as racism, education, youth issues, justice issues, and really when you compare 1969 to 2016, it really hasn’t changed that much,” she said.

When the newspaper left 28 Lennox St., Young said the building appeared lifeless and unoccupied.

Young said her mother owned a bookstore and that it was probably what birthed the idea in her head in 1994 of The Ashanti Room to focus on the “excellence of our community and African heritage.”

She was driven by the idea of positive Afrocentric, positive black images, “greeting cards with black themes were unavailable in Toronto at the time, black dolls and African textile equally so, except during Kwanzaa markets.”

She listed nine black businesses that operated from 28 Lennox St. including: Identity Toys and Island Dolls, Jambayaya, Origins, Soulful Reflexology, Lorraine Scott, and Enid Lee, a race relations consultant had an office there as well.

Contrast moved up Bathurst St. and then eventually to the Oakwood Avenue and St. Clair Avenue area.

Richmond had memories of Horace Campbell and Walter Rodney walking through the doors of Contrast arguing about singer, Roberta Flack. Campbell was not impressed with Flack but Rodney loved her.

Clifton Joseph did not work with Contrast but was a student at York University and a reporter for the student paper, Excalibur, who interviewed Hamilton to write a story about the fierce black community newspaper.

“Al was a sweet dude, talk nice, you’re in a trance when Al is talking, I mean, and a sharp dresser. Of course, Al had the pimp about him too. Al Hamilton had a kind of pimp style,” said Joseph.

He said the Microfiche Section of the Toronto Reference Library was where he went to research information about Contrast and Spear magazine.

Joseph described Contrast as “a radical paper that dealt with the issues that gave you an explanation of the world” that he met when he came to Canada in 1973.

“Contrast was a radical, black Third World, international struggle-oriented newspaper,” he said.

Richmond, who is a historian and Internet radio program host, said he worked for Contrast for about 9 years but was underground.

He remembered that Maurice Bishop, a revolutionary and politician who later became Prime Minister of Grenada, used to layout the paper upstairs the building.

“The last thing about Maurice Bishop, at one time if you went to Grenada they had billboards with ‘Contrast supports free Grenada.’ There was a link between Contrast and Maurice Bishop,” said Richmond.

Al Peabody said Harold Hoyte and Arnold Auguste, publisher of Share newspaper came out of Contrast and became successful media owners.

Hoyte founded The Nation newspaper in Barbados in 1973 and Auguste founded Share in Toronto in 1978.

Peabody mentioned others who worked there such as the late Austin Clarke, Royson James, Hamlin Grange and Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange.

Cecil Foster was an editor there from 1979-1981, Dan Hill and Cameron Bailey also wrote for the paper.

He described Al Hamilton as a “suave debonair gentleman” and “a professional conservative playa.”

“When I first met him back in ’66, he wore like an undertaker suit and he was working for Corrier Canadese, an Italian paper,” said Peabody who noted that Hamilton worked in advertising.

Several speakers mentioned that Contrast was more than just a newspaper and one said the newspaper at one time founded a consortium to take over Doctor’s Hospital, which hired many Black Canadians, and whose employment became precarious at one point.

The newspaper also founded a support group to help immigrants.

Lorna Simms, the last editor of Contrast, who eventually founded her newspaper, Dawn, said she had a good job at the Gleaner in Jamaica and although her children were living in Canada, she had no intentions of leaving Jamaica.

The kids would be home for the holidays so she saw them often.

But her decision to stay here changed when she was making plans to fly back to Jamaica and Denham Jolly, new owner of Contrast, called her to offer the job of editor of the paper in the early 80s.

She said she learned a lot of stuff there, especially from people like the late community leader, Harry Gairey, and John Brooks, who would walk in and talk to her things happening during that time.

“I was very grateful because I had a new enlightenment about world issues,” she said.

Simms said the last issue of Contrast was never printed because Horace Gooden told her the same day it should have been printed that there would be no issue – the paper was closed.

She was very appreciative of the generosity of the Jamaican community that helped her to start her own biweekly publication, Dawn, founded in July 1991.

Lawyer, Courtney Betty, gave her two rooms at his office, small businesses that used to advertise with Contrast said they wanted to continue with her, the printer for Contrast printed her first issue for free and she was offered a free computer.

There were lots of memories in the room and also there was author and publicist, Dalton Higgins, who later that night received the 2016 My People Award for outstanding work in writing nonfiction.  

Also receiving an award was PanMan Pat Mc Neilly for outstanding work in arts education. He is celebrating 50 years of creating Pan music.

Author, Nadia Hohn, was the recipient of an award for her contribution to children's literature.

A cake to celebrate Contrast newspaper at a reunion event for many who worked at the groundbreaking publication.

28 Lennox Street in Toronto -- former home of the now defunct Contrast newspaper.

Itah Sadu, co-owner of A Different Booklist, speaking at an event to celebrate the legacy of Contrast newspaper at 28 Lennox Street in Toronto.

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