Hugh Fraser: a trailblazer on the oval and in the courtroom

Queen’s alumn details his journey from the Olympics to the courtroom and back

Image by: Jodie Grieve
Hugh Fraser has had a remarkable career from being an Olympian

When he was seven years old and new to the country, Hugh Fraser had the Canadian right of passage of experiencing his first snowfall.

“I remember running outside and jumping without even putting on my coat. It was something I’d only seen pictures of.”

17 years later, he was entering Montreal’s Olympic stadium for the 1976 summer games donning red and white. He was just getting started.

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Born in Jamaica, Fraser spent most of his early childhood being raised by his grandmother, while his father Cecil—Queen’s first Black law graduate—worked on his studies in Canada, accompanied by Hugh’s mother, Rose.

At the age of seven, he and his brother made the voyage from Kingston, Jamaica to Kingston, Ontario, becoming the setting where Fraser has most of his childhood memories, playing football, baseball, and hockey with classmates and friends on the street.

It was also the first time he remembers being underestimated.

Upon coming to Canada, Fraser was enrolled in elementary school, picking up where he left off in Jamaica, in the second grade. However, his school principal thought he ought to repeat first grade, assuming the education Fraser received was inferior and that he might need some time to readjust.

“My mother was furious with that,” he said.

After meeting with the principal, Fraser’s mother argued it would only be fair to base his grade level on some form of test. The principal agreed and began selecting papers around his office for Fraser to read aloud, on the spot.

“That’s one big memory I still have,” Fraser said. “He had some papers in his office and asked me to read that. And I read it. And then he got something else and I read it flawlessly.”

“[The Principal] apologized to my mother and said, ‘you know, he’s already reading at a level higher than the kids his age, so I’m actually going to put him a year ahead.’”

And so, Fraser, who was already small for his age, began his schooling as the new kid among ‘big kids,’ in a new country.

Fraser discovered his love for running while working as a foul ball retriever for Kingston’s semi-pro baseball league. They paid him 50 cents per game, and he had a knack for it.

“I never lost a single ball,” he said, giving the sense that the achievement still holds a spot in his mental trophy case all these years later.

It wasn’t until his final years of high school that the eventual Olympian got his formal start in track and field, a team which, ironically, he wasn’t good enough to make in his first two years.

While Fraser was building his profile during his senior year of high school, garnering offers from top American schools, he suffered a devastating setback: tearing his hamstring. The recovery was long and tenuous, lasting his first year at McMaster University.

For his second year of university, Fraser moved back to the town where his life in Canada began, at Queen’s University. He was drawn back by his memories of the school’s traditions while his father was a student, but more importantly by long-time track coach Rolf Lund, who churned out provincial and national titles and would one day coach at the Olympics.

It was here where Fraser hit both his literal and proverbial stride.

“[Lund] was really like a second father to me,” he said.

Fraser looks back on his time at Queen’s fondly, having formed lifelong bonds and learned the art of balance between sports, academics, and Olympic pursuits. At times he found the mounting expectations of him overwhelming, but Lund was always ready with advice.

In the summer before arriving at Queen’s, Fraser was back from his injury and building a name for himself on the national stage, and this trend continued throughout his undergrad.

But it was during his time as a law student at the University of Ottawa where the Olympics entered Fraser’s sights. Rather than take time away from his studies to reach his peak sprinting performance, Fraser decided he would do both—become a lawyer and an Olympian—at the same time.

“I literally organized my bathroom breaks because I just didn’t have time to flitter away on anything else.”

His bet paid off, and in 1976 he was entering Olympic stadium with Team Canada to raucous cheers of the 85,000 attendees in Montreal, and in front of millions more eyes around the globe.

Fraser was also one of a few athletes selected for dinner on the Royal Family’s yacht. Having small talk with Queen Elizabeth, he said, was just about as memorable as his march into Olympic stadium—especially now that he’s an avid watcher of The Crown.

Unfortunately, injury struck again just weeks prior to the Olympics while competing in London, England. Fraser had reinjured his right leg—the same one from high school.

“You’re just thinking ‘oh no, not again,’ and knowing how long the first injury had taken to heal, I thought my Olympics were done—done before they even started.”

However, after weeks of rigorous therapy, Fraser’s leg was ready to compete—albeit with some wrapping. He sat out of his favourite event, the 100 metres, but competed in the 100 metre relay and the 200 metres, making it all the way to the finals in the former.

“The Olympic experience was just so incredible, to be in your home country, to meet the Queen.”

While spectacular, being hampered by his injury was also frustrating. He set his sights four years down the road to the Moscow Olympics. In the run-up to those games, he was in the best shape of his life and believed it to be his best shot at the podium yet. However, the boycott of the Moscow Olympics dashed Fraser’s hopes.

This time it was more than a setback. It was the end of a chapter.

“It was really demoralizing. I was just so down and said at that point I’m just going to hang this up.”

Yet, while one career was ending, Fraser was just getting started.

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While a late bloomer to sprinting, Fraser was a young talent as a lawyer. At 41, he was appointed to the bench and served as one of the few Black justices in the province.

Prior to being a judge, he sat on the Canadian human rights tribunal, and the first case he presided over made its way to the Canadian Supreme Court, where ultimately Fraser’s verdict was ratified.

As a justice in 1992, Fraser presided over the high-profile hearing of an OPP officer who shot and killed Dudley Moore, an Indigenous activist, at the Ipperwash protests, ultimately finding the officer guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

In addition to sitting as a judge, Fraser has also moonlighted as an adjudicator for the Court of Arbitration for Sport at the Olympics, settling debacles that need swift yet sound judgment.  He was one among the first-ever adjudicators at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and has since worked at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and 2016 Olympics in Rio.

His role in sports has continued in other facets as well, namely in keeping sports clean. Following Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s infamous positive drug test after winning gold in the 1988 Olympics, the Canadian government established the Dubin Inquiry, investigating performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports.

Serving as an advisor to the board, bringing up the issue of PEDs was something of a bittersweet experience for Fraser, knowing he had competed against ‘dirty’ athletes as an Olympian—one of which was Johnson, who later eclipsed him as the Canadian 100 metre champion.

But for Fraser, competing dirty had never been a thing he ever remotely entertained.

“I would never be satisfied if I didn’t believe I was competing clean and it might have cost me a few positions, no question. But I believed that my body shouldn’t be treated with that kind of compromise, regardless of who else was doing it.”

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Cecil Fraser never considered himself to be a trailblazer, but his son does. Reflecting on his past, Hugh noted that his father’s ability to break into the very white profession of law and be successful made the path seem less imposing.

In truth, the Fraser’s are a family of trailblazers, from Cecil Fraser to Hugh Fraser, down to Hugh’s son, Mark, who broke barriers to achieve a career in the NHL, one of professional sports’ most white-dominated leagues.

Fraser believes this comes from a strong belief in perseverance.

“It comes from feeling that you shouldn’t assume that any particular doors are closed to you. It may be hard for us to get through some of them, but part of that was just to believe.”

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