Leo Withnol Bertley
To his students at Vanier College, where he taught history for 36 years, he was affectionately known as The Bertz.
Leo Withnol Bertley, many of those students will tell you, was unconventional, stubborn, passionate, stimulating, dogmatic and undoubtedly the best Afrocentric history teacher around.
One of the co-founders of the Garvey Institute in Montreal and a founding editor of the community newspaper Afro-Can, which later became The Afro-Canadian, Bertley died of cancer Wednesday, December 6, 2006 at the West Island Palliative Care Centre. He was 72.
"He was no respecter of officialdom, that's for sure," said longtime friend Clarence Bayne, a professor at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business. "He was highly motivated, very articulate and in many ways opinionated, very focused in trying to define himself and black culture.
"His legacy is that, notwithstanding his attitude, he made a significant contribution in raising the consciousness of the contributions of black people to the history of Quebec and Canada.
"Even if he passionately disagreed with you, you were always entertained by his arguments. His influence in the black community was important. "
Bertley, the youngest of four children in a mechanical engineer's family, was born on May 21, 1934, in Pointe-a-Pierre, Trinidad. He was a brilliant student who was educated at private schools, including St. Benedict's Prep School and Presentation College, where he played soccer and was captain of the cricket team.
"My parents ingrained my history in me, taught me its worth and its importance. It is inbred and I won't forget it," he once told a reporter. "You need a sense of who you are and where you came from to understand where you stand. Once you know that, regardless of what colour you are, there's no need to look down on anyone else."
Bertley came to Canada in 1954 as an Island Scholar to study at McGill, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Latin and Social Studies in 1957. He continued his education at Sir George Williams University and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1960.
He studied pedagogy at the Universite de Montreal, and earned a master's degree in education from the University of Ottawa in 1963.
He later got his Master's and Doctoral degrees in History at Concordia. He received a Class A teaching diploma from the Quebec government in 1970. He helped found the Black Board of Education and was its first principal.
His book Black Tiles in the Mosaic, published in 1974, was one of the first to document blacks' contributions to Canadian history. He also wrote Canada and its People of African Descent, considered a seminal textbook by many.
In 1983, Bertley disrupted a parliamentary inquiry into racism. MPs complained that in presenting his brief to the committee, Bertley resorted to abusive sarcasm and was biased. Bertley was unapologetic, accusing the MPs of placing their own value judgments on his style.
Bertley, who was also an officer in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, retired from Vanier in 2006. He is survived by his wife, June Miller, whom he married in 1958, and by their three sons. A daughter died in 1989.
(adapted from '"The Bertz' co-founded Black Board of Education", Alan Hustak, The Gazette, Dec 9, 2006. pg. A.8 )
Read a memoir written by a childhood friend of Leo Bertley's, Harry Ramlakhan. Click here.
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