Black and white photo of a group of men dressed in suits.

Reflecting on the legacy of Leonard Braithwaite

As an esteemed alumnus of the Commerce program, Leonard Braithwaite has made significant contributions to Canadian politics, law, and academia, leaving behind a legacy of inspiration for aspiring leaders.

Leonard Braithwaite: pioneer in the Canadian legislature

Leonard Braithwaite was one of the first Black graduates of U of T’s Rotman Commerce program, going on to make a profound impact on the landscape of Canadian law and politics. His journey, however, was far from straightforward.

Before starting his degree, Braithwaite sought multiple times to enlist in the army, with each attempt met with rejection due to the pervasive discriminatory attitudes prevalent during the era. For example, Black people were still refused service in restaurants in the 1950s, Klan activity persisted in Ontario even into the 1960s, and the Common Schools Act, dating back to circa 1850, allowed segregated schools to continue operating until the 1960s.[1]  Undeterred, Braithwaite’s determination eventually led him to the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he became an engine mechanic and equipment worker in England.  

After returning to Canada, Braithwaite enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce program at the University of Toronto and graduated in 1950. His educational journey didn’t end there – he went on to obtain an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1952 and graduated from Osgoode Law School in 1958. Following his education, he opened his own law practice and became Ontario’s first Black Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP). Perhaps most notably, his career in politics was integral in repealing the Separate Schools Act. In 1965, just a year after his inauguration speech during which he spoke out against racial discrimination in Ontario schools, the last segregated school in Ontario closed.

Black and white photo of man in suite in front of a solider memorial.
Leonard Braithwaite stands in uniform in front of the British War Memorial in London, England, shortly after V-E Day in 1945.

Contributions to education

Braithwaite’s influence also reached academic and community circles, evident in his Order of Canada membership in 1998 and the 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Alumni Association at U of T. Both were awarded to him for his advocacy in promoting positive social and political change. In 2014, his enduring influence led to the first Afrocentric high school curriculum in Scarborough, taught by an all-Black faculty. The program continues today, empowering students by educating them on Black history and the impactful contributions of people of African descent[2]. Inspired by Braithwaite’s vision for educational equity, it cultivates an inclusive learning environment that instills a sense of belonging and fosters academic achievement among students.


Though he passed away on March 28, 2012, Braithwaite’s legacy continues to inspire current and future students and leaders. Since his time, the number of educational institutions which recognize the need for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within their ranks continues to grow. U of T has identified EDI and anti-racism work as key priorities and is addressing and implementing recommendations from several working groups and task forces. Positive social change, such as that embodied by Leonard Braithwaite, is also an important priority for Rotman Commerce.

Black Rotman Commerce: fostering diversity and inclusion 

Black Rotman Commerce (BRC), a student group created in 2020, has played a pivotal role in promoting inclusivity and raising awareness and visibility of underrepresented individuals. The group facilitates networking events, socials, and peer support opportunities. Most notably, BRC organizes their annual Black Career Conference with sponsorships from Black Founders Network (BFN) and Rotman Commerce. The conference provides opportunities for Black students, recent graduates and entrepreneurs to network with professionals, develop leadership skills, explore career paths, and secure internships, all within an inclusive and empowering environment.


Braithwaite’s impact on future generations of leaders

Reflecting on Leonard Braithwaite’s achievements, Zimman Yousuf (BCom ‘23), a Rotman Commerce alumna and former President of BRC, explained, “People learn by example…this legacy in front of us allows us to look at this path, and identify who and what can support us, what to watch out for, and the lessons along the way.”  Zimman’s sentiments highlight the importance of fostering supportive networks and mentorship within the Black community. “Since we’re such a tight-knit community, we often pay it forward to help the next generation. This domino-effect of mentorship will only help further the Black talent pool, inspiring Black youth to be the best that they can be.”

Black and white photo of man in a suit standing at a desk reading a book with a book shelf with books in the background.
Leonard Braithwaite during this time as a Canada’s first Black Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP).

Progress and challenges

Today, recognized student groups like Black Rotman Commerce continue to offer support through various means, providing students with the opportunity to learn more about their community and establish a supportive network. “Black Rotman Commerce tries to empower students to overcome and thrive in society today,” says Iman Hussein (BCom ‘24), the current president of BRC.


However, there is still considerable work to be done and it will be interesting to see how organizations like BRC continue to serve as an incubator for Black talent. Drawing from Zimman’s experience, mentorship can play an important role.


“If more mentorship relations were provided from alumni and upper year to younger students, it would help many of them in terms of discovering what really piques their interest and how they can further develop their professional and personal networks”.

Looking forward

Leonard Braithwaite’s story of resilience and determination has paved a road of inspiration. Like Zimman, future generations are empowered to follow in his footsteps, rallying their community and finding opportunities through mentorship and organizations such as Black Rotman Commerce.  Moving forward, continued focus on mentorship, community building, and addressing inequity is crucial for building a more equitable and successful future for all students.


Lead photo: Commerce Club Executive, featuring Leonard Braithwaite, 1950 Torontonensis,

[1] Pierre, “Another Year, Another Reflection on Black Canadian History”, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, 2017

[2] “The Leonard Braithwaite Africentric Program”. Leonard Braithwaite Program.