Sewell on City Hall: Denham Jolly’s story of life as a black man in Toronto is revealing

Seeing the city through new eyes


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Denham Jolly established Toronto’s first black-owned radio station, Flow 93.5

Denham Jolly begins his book with a story: three or four years ago he was driving up Parliament Street (he lives in Cabbagetown) and was involved in a fender bender. He and the driver of the other car were exchanging insurance information when a police officer intervened and said a tow truck should be called. Jolly said the damage was minor enough that he could take the car to a repair shop.

The officer repeated his demand to call a tow truck, and again Jolly said it was not needed.

At which point the officer said, “What do I have to do to make sure you do, put a gun to your head?”

Jolly, who is black, was aware of enough cases where Toronto police officers have shot people with black skin that he immediately complied and called a tow truck.

Later, he filed a complaint about such threatening behaviour, but the complaint got nowhere. Jolly did see the police report that began “The complainant, a 77-year-old Jamaican immigrant.…”  Jolly notes that if he had been white his origin would have been irrelevant, but as a Jamaican, he was the “other,” even though he has been a citizen of Canada for more than 50 years.

His autobiography is called In the Black, published this year by ECW Press, and a second meaning of the title refers to his business success. He came to Canada in the mid-1950s to study at the agricultural college in Guelph, then studied in Truro, N.S. Eventually, he emigrated to Canada and returned to Toronto. He started teaching high school at Forest Hill Collegiate, then he ran several rooming houses and established a very strong business in retirement homes. With his financial success, Jolly helped get Contrast, a newspaper serving the black community, up onto a solid footing. He also established Flow 93.5, Canada’s first black-owned radio station.

Active in community affairs, he founded the Black Business Professional Association, the Harry Jerome Awards and Scholarships, and he funded many other scholarships. He was a member of many organizations, such as the YMCA and the Mayor’s Economic Competitiveness Advisory Committee, as well as Caribana.

I was surprised to learn of the challenges Jolly faced because of his colour. He had difficulty renting an apartment in the early ’60s. He found the only way he could buy a house for his family was by using a white trustee to sign the agreement of purchase and sale.

Some banks balked at loaning money for his business operations. 

In 1990 he applied for a radio licence from the CRTC, hoping to establish a station that would serve the black community that had no Toronto source at that point. He noted the CRTC was not ready for him, and the first question he was asked at the hearing was, “What is black music?” The commission referred to what Jolly’s team had to offer as “dance music.”

His application was rejected. The CRTC decided what Toronto really needed was a country and western station.

Toronto media was incredulous at the CRTC decision, as was the chair of the commission itself, Keith Spicer. 

He said, “The decision ignores the music of probably 200,000 black Torontonians.” It wasn’t until a decade later that Flow 93.5 made it to air, and while it was rebranded as a pop station last year, it was a great success.

Jolly was involved in many of the black community’s actions trying to defend itself from the Toronto police: shooting, carding, and the general discrimination practised by the police force. Sadly, as the Toronto Star reported in early July, the discrimination continues. The report revealed, for example, that on a per capita basis the police charge three times as many blacks as whites with possession of marijuana.

Seeing the city through the eyes of someone of a different colour and meeting those who joined Jolly in making Canada a better place is eye-opening.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.

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