By Chris Podolinsky and Hassan Adan
The Probation Officers Association of Ontario (POAO) has been in existence for nearly seven decades; almost as long as the profession has been active in this province.
In the 1950s, when POAO was formed, the population of Ontario was not very diverse. It was composed primarily of people of British background, a smaller portion of French, and a sprinkling of people from other European nations. Probation and Parole Officers of the era, mostly white males, reflected the population of the time.
By the 1970s the demographics of the province began to shift, primarily in large urban areas like Toronto. The change in demographics was due to a change in the immigration policies, which had previously favoured applicants from Great Britain, while imposing strict limitations on citizenship applications from non-European countries.
Over time, as the population of the province became more diverse, the diversity of the clients of Correctional Services changed accordingly. The clients seated in the waiting room of a Probation and Parole Office would soon mirror the demographic changes in the community. Despite the growing multiculturalism in the neighborhoods in which Probation Offices were located, the Probation Officers of the era continued be mostly white males who were not representative of the communities they served. It was the courage and effort of a few individuals that paved the way for people of all backgrounds to enter the field.
In recognition of Black History Month 2021, POAO endeavored to find out who was the first Black Probation Officer. Although the Association has an extensive archive, our records did not contain the information we were looking for. With the help of the ADM’s Office and some long-time POAO members, we connected with some former area managers and regional directors who were able to provide us with the knowledge we were seeking.
In particular, Mr. Ray Williams, who had been a youth worker, Probation and Parole Officer, Area Manager, and co-facilitator of the “Systemic Change Program,” was able to share with us that the first Black Probation Officer in Ontario was likely a man named Lew Taylor. Mr. Williams reported that he met Lew Taylor in 1975, while he was inquiring about a job in Probation Services. Mr. Williams recalls that Lew “came into our service after a stint as a Social Worker in Toronto and brought an innovative approach to case management.”
According to Mr. Williams, Lew Taylor was born in Windsor, Ontario. He was a descendant of the original Black settlers who came to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Lew Taylor studied at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, earning a degree in social work, before relocating to Toronto. Mr. Taylor was married and had a son and a daughter.
Mr. Williams describes Mr. Taylor a prolific reader, particularly about history and biographies. He remembers Lew as “a man who had a heart of gold, which attracted people of all walks of life to this unique individual…he was just at ease with senior officials as he was with the most challenging of his Probation clients.” Mr. Taylor retired in the late 1980’s and unfortunately died soon after.
Probation and Parole Services in Ontario has had several Black Officers since then, and they stand on the shoulders of Mr. Taylor. It would be interesting to see how many Black persons have served since Mr. Taylor opened the door over 40 years ago, and how open and accessible our profession has become for racialized minorities. In the meantime, we celebrate Mr. Lew Taylor and thank him for his service.
We couldn’t have written this article without the assistance of four individuals, who were gracious with their time and allowed us to interview them:
- Ray Williams – retired Probation and Parole Officer and Area Manager, co-chair of the Systemic Change Program Working Committee (2003). Learn more about Ray at: http://www.guyaneseachievers.com/ray-williams-3/
- John Sang – retired Probation and Parole Officer, Area Manager, and Acting Regional Director
- Bose Sookdeosinghe – former Correctional Officer, Probation and Parole Officer, Area Manager, and Regional Director and a University of Toronto distinguished alumni.
- Vincent Kiwanuka – Area Manager, Riverdale Office
In our conversations with Ray, John, Bose, and Vincent, we learned a great deal about the projects, initiatives, challenges and successes that occurred during their careers. Each of them has a unique perspective on how the Ministry has changed over the years and added to our knowledge of the history of Corrections and Community Corrections in Ontario. They provided us with a lot of material, and we hope to be able to share more of their stories in future articles.