Toronto

Roy McMurtry got a threatening letter from the Ku Klux Klan. He calls it a 'badge of honour'

Roy McMurtry still remembers the day the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan hand-delivered a letter warning him to stop implementing "anti-white policies." The former attorney general and Ontario chief justice, who worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination, calls the letter "a badge of honour."

Former chief justice and attorney general, 86, worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination in Ontario

Roy McMurtry was one of only two people who have been both the Ontario attorney general and chief justice of the Ontario Supreme Court. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Roy McMurtry still remembers the day the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan hand-delivered a letter to his office in 1977.

The former provincial attorney general and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario, now 86, recounted the story to CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond as Black History Month began.

He said the threat didn't dampen his desire to work for people from various backgrounds.

"I've had that letter framed in every office I've occupied since I received it," said McMurtry, referring to the typed letter, now yellowed with age.

"It's a badge of honour."

McMurtry received this warning letter in 1977 from David Duke, who was the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Grand Wizard David Duke, then 26, had stopped by Queen's Park to demand a meeting with McMurtry.

When he failed to get one, he instead passed along the letter, in which he accused the attorney general of "anti-white policies," including trying to "destroy" the free speech of white people. 

Duke warned of "grave consequences" if McMurtry continued his work. 

The threat came after members of the Western Guard, a Toronto-based white supremacist group and an unofficial branch of the KKK, were jailed in Ontario. 

Roy McMurtry on his legacy of fighting discrimination

4 years ago
Duration 4:04
"Toronto wasn't a very multicultural city when I was growing up," said McMurtry, who was born in Toronto in the early 1930s.

Photos with Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana

The walls in his office at Hull & Hull LLP in Toronto, where he now continues to serve as counsel, are a testament to the 86-year-old's storied career.

His office is adorned with photos from moments captured with Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana and Fidel Castro, to name a few.

While his work sent him overseas, McMurtry's work at home showed a commitment to help end discrimination, which included changing the penalties for racially motivated assaults and ruling in favour of same-sex marriage.

McMurtry pictured beside former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

His dedication to human rights started with his late brother, Bill, who worked one summer as a sleeping-car porter for the Canadian National Railway in the 1950s — a job almost exclusively filled by black workers.

Bill became friends with these men, giving both McMurtry brothers an education in the issues these workers faced.

McMurtry also worked for Frontier College during his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, where he taught new immigrants at night school.

"That encouraged the respect I had for the people who made the difficult and courageous decision to leave their countries of birth and go to a country with a different culture and often a different language," he said.

"It made me very sensitive to these issues."

Advocate for human rights, ally to the black community

McMurtry's experiences transferred to his political career.

As attorney general under former Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis in 1975, McMurtry chaired the Ontario cabinet committee on race relations. He was seen as a major advocate for human rights and a voice for the issues face by the black community.

Even 30 years later, McMurtry was still a fixture when it came to helping Ontarians understand race relations.

He and Alvin Curling, a former Liberal MPP and speaker of the Ontario legislature, were appointed by former premier Dalton McGuinty to review what the province could do to curb youth violence.

This led to the 2008 Roots of Violence report, which made recommendations that were echoed this past year as Toronto grappled with record-high gun violence.

Roy McMurtry now serves as counsel at Hull & Hull LLP, and is no longer a practising lawyer. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"I can't say that we've made great progress," said McMurtry.

He says there still aren't enough people engaged in communities where the violence persists, and that unless they are from these communities, people don't tend to think it's their problem.

"We have to be continually vigilant to promote these issues, otherwise our quality of life and this community will deteriorate and our problems become exacerbated," he said.

McMurtry insists that the current government needs to invest more in activities and development programs for at-risk youth. 

"It may not be a popular issue, but for me, to the day I die, it will remain a big priority."

With files from Dwight Drummond

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