Crusading Robert (Rosie) Rowbotham shone public light on prison life | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (December 6, 2022, 9:28 AM EST) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
Lawyers are trained to respect boundaries — not to become personally involved with the client’s case. Nonetheless, I felt personal loss on hearing the news of the death on Dec. 1 of Robert Wilson (Rosie) Rowbotham.

He might be remembered as providing the title to an application to have the government pay the legal fees incurred by an accused’s defence counsel who has been refused legal aid. He might also be remembered as serving the longest prison sentence ever meted out for cannabis trafficking. But I will forever regard him as the prisoner who did the most to bring the concept of prisons and the abuses that go on in them into the public realm.

Rosie was a child of the ’60s. The Vietnam war was raging and Rowbotham was an early proponent of peace, love and marijuana. With his long curly locks, he could be spotted on Highway 401 hitchhiking from his hometown of Belleville, Ont., to Toronto where he became involved with what was called Rochdale College. It was not a degree-granting institution. It was a free art school where acceptance was granted to anyone with non-judgmental thinking. It was a drug-fuelled atmosphere that Rosie referred to as a “mosaic of culture, art, music, expression and inspiration.”

By 1972, a drought in supply was bridged by Rosie establishing a link between bikers and hippies and soon convoys of vans bound for Toronto established Rochdale as an international hub for the supply of cannabis.

In March 1967, Rosie had been arrested for the first time for trafficking marijuana and sentenced to 30 days. By 1974, he was arrested again. This time it was for conspiracy to import a ton of hashish into Canada. He was sentenced to 16 years. While awaiting his appeal he used the four-year wait in prison to his advantage. He completed high school, obtained a degree in psychology at Queen’s University and a business certificate from Sheridan College.

He also met up with a fellow drug trafficker, Richard Stratton. The two of them arranged delivery of eight tons of hashish. Police were alerted but only a ton and a half of the product was seized. Rosie was sentenced to 20 years for this escapade.

Stratton won his appeal in the United States and wrote a book on the adventure, married a former Texas police officer who also got into writing. Her book Rush was made into a movie.

Stratton and his wife started Prison Life Magazine to speak up for those doing time. Stratton reunited with Rosie who was named Canadian managing editor. The magazine covered such topics as Terry Fitzsimmons’ ordeal with solitary confinement in a feature article with the title “A Short Brutal Life.”

Stratton would go on to develop and be a consulting producer for the TV series Oz. Stratton and Rosie kept in touch and the creative juices flowed. Rosie answered an ad to become the new host of a TV talk show produced by Kingston Cablenet and piped weekly into all area prisons. Rosie renamed the show Prison Life Television and invited guests to be interviewed by Rosie on topics of interest to the inmate population.

Rosie asked me to be a guest on one episode, and I was impressed with the professionalism with which he conducted the interview. Even the TV crew consisted of prisoners released on passes to initiate a program highlighting prison issues and analyzing wrongs within the criminal and correctional systems. For the first time, international media was focusing on the prisoner’s perspective on issues.

On Oct. 6, 1997, Rosie was paroled. One of his first stops upon release was an interview with Michael Enright on a national CBC broadcast. Rosie was so impressive he was hired on to focus on prison issues.

Yet trouble continued. A bogus charge led to Rosie being suspended on parole and returned to prison. I was retained to act for Rosie at his post-suspension hearing. He performed brilliantly before the board and in front of an audience of observers the majority of which were CBC luminaries such as Michael Enright and Shelagh Rogers. When the board announced the suspension was cancelled, the audience broke out in applause.

Subsequently, I became a founder, producer and host of a radio show on a local community radio station, Northumberland 89.7FM. Cannabis was about to be legalized. I asked Rosie this time to be the interviewee. He readily agreed and invited me to his Toronto home where he eloquently spoke in unapologetic terms of his crimes. He considered himself to be General Patton in the war on drugs.

Rosie’s perceptive commentary on prison issues has led to a better public understanding of why humane treatment of prisoners is essential. We owe Rosie our gratitude. May he rest in peace.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books), which was published Sept. 1. Contact him at

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author
s firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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