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Taking action

Philanthropist Denham Jolly, C.M., has a lifelong history of giving back. “If it’s there to be done, get it done,” he says.

Denham Jolly doesn’t believe in inertia. At 86, he has always been a man of great energy who heartily presses forward and actively gives back. He counts Sunnybrook among his many philanthropic causes. “Sunnybrook has been my hospital for a long time. It is a teaching hospital and one of the premier hospitals in the world,” he says. “It has been good to me.”

This serial entrepreneur, philanthropist, teacher, human rights activist, founder of Canada’s first Black radio station, builder of a student rental housing empire, founder of the Black Business and Professional Association, owner of nursing homes in Ontario and Texas, owner of Medical Laboratories in Toronto, publisher of Contrast community newspaper in Toronto, winner of the 2017 Toronto Book Award, and member of the Order of Canada still thinks of himself as an underdog – albeit one who has won many of his fights.

I try to stand up for the underdog. I don’t forget my roots,” he says.
At 86, Denham Jolly has always been a trailblazer.

Denham was born in Green Island, Jamaica. He came to Canada at age 19 to attend McGill University in Montreal, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1960. Two years later, he began teaching Chemistry and Physics at Forest Hill Collegiate in Toronto.

As a sideline, he started buying student rental housing, a business that became profitable and led to the building of an empire. He started the Harry Jerome Awards, which celebrate achievement in the Black community, and co-led the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA). One of his most tenacious ventures was launching Canada’s first Black-owned radio station, FLOW 93.5.

It’s no surprise that the trailblazer would later have a road named after him, Jolly Way in Scarborough, Ontario.

A father and grandfather, Denham reflects that over the years he has faced racism and discrimination along his own way. His answer is to help those who are less fortunate, such as inner city kids in Toronto and students at his former high school in Montego Bay. “I have a strong feeling of noblesse oblige,” he says, referring to a French expression that translates to: “whomever claims to be noble must conduct themselves nobly.”

Denham has also been pleased to support Sunnybrook: “Medicine is a human right, and it takes money to help improve care, especially with technologies coming on stream today.”

Denham will always choose action over inertia. “If it is there to be done, get it done.”