Afro-American Progressive Association

The Afro-American Progressive Association (AAPA) was one of the first Black Power organizations in Canada, and one of the liveliest. It was organized in Toronto in 1968 by Jose Garcia (originally from Aruba), Norman “Otis” Richmond (originally from the U.S.), and Ted Watkins, a black professional athlete from the U.S. Their first public event was a commemoration of the assassination of Malcolm X.

The AAPA had a Marxist focus, with a newsletter entitled Harambee, which is a Swahili term that means “Let’s pull together”. Co-founder Norman Richmond has stated that the term Afro-American “had nothing to do with Black America. It was inspired by Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).” That organization was fighting for the human rights of all members of the African diaspora brought by slavery to the Western Hemisphere. As Richmond put it, “We were internationalist from the get-go.”

Co-founder Jose Garcia was a Trotskyist in the Communist League, and the AAPA soon attracted the participation of elder and Canadian Black left pioneer Lenny Johnston, who had been the first African-Canadian to join the Communist Party of Canada in the late 1930s. Johnston quit the Communist Party in 1968 over ideological differences, joined the AAPA, and he and his wife Gwen opened Third World Books and Crafts – all in that same year of 1968. The store – Toronto’s first independent Black bookstore – quickly became a popular meeting place for political discussion and also became the headquarters of the AAPA.

Co-founder Ted Watkins, a black athlete with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team, had created a media firestorm in 1967 when, during an interview, he highlighted racism in Canada. By 1968 Watkins was helping to establish the AAPA, but he also moved his family to California because of the racist attacks they were receiving in Ontario. Shortly thereafter, during a visit to his family, Watkins was shot and killed during an encounter that U.S. police called a robbery, but that many others have questioned, then and now.

During the political foment of the late 1960s, AAPA took a radical position to the left of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil rights movement of the U.S. Basically, AAPA was arguing that imperialism and neo-colonialism were the central factors driving the rampant racism of the times. By organizing rallies and international solidarity campaigns in support of the Black Panthers and others resisting U.S. imperialism, AAPA was attempting to carve out its own model of anti-colonial education in Canada. But (as some have argued), AAPA did not address the specific conditions of African-Canadian colonization. AAPA also didn’t adequately counter the appeals of Canadian Black capitalism, which were central for some segments of the Black liberation movement in Toronto.

These ideological differences caused splits in the AAPA, which folded in 1971. Nonetheless, during its four years of existence, the AAPA sparked lively political discussions and hosted some riveting events in Toronto. It established a powerful united front with other anti-racist groups to push for increased Black student enrollment at George Brown College and cultural programs for African-Canadian youth. AAPA also inspired offspring organizations such as Black Lives Matter, which is a powerful force on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

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Radical Ambition: The New Left in Toronto

Related Topics: Anti-RacismBlack CanadiansBlack History and IdentityBlack LiberationBlack OrganizationsBlack PowerDiscriminationDiscrimination in EmploymentPolice HarassmentRace Relations/RacismRacismSixtiesTorontoToronto/Historical