Thanks for the opportunity to join your celebrations of this first-ever national Lincoln Alexander Day. There is no place I would rather be today than right here at home in Ajax, in this school bearing the proud name of one of Canada’s truly great citizens.
I have three connections with the man and the day. First, I was honoured to meet Linc often at public events since my school days in Toronto. Our names brought us together: he used to call my parents and me «kissing cousins».
Second, I had the pleasure to vote last year as an MP for the bill that created Lincoln Alexander Day. Third, he was among my inspirations to enter politics.
An amazing person – personal, charismatic, wise – he had two outstanding qualities: for one, the drive to be the first, to take the initiative, when convention or adversity might otherwise have held him back; but also the determination not only to do his best, but to be the best at what he did.
As he put it – and you made this statement the 20th anniversary motto of your school two years ago – «It is not your duty to be average. It is your duty to set a higher example for others to follow. I did. You can. You will.»
Lincoln Alexander came from humble beginnings.
His mother, Mae Rose Royale, was a maid from Jamaica. His father, Lincoln MacCauley Alexander Sr., had immigrated from St Vincent and the Grenadines, a carpenter by trade, but became a porter for the CNR.
They faced racism and discrimination in Canada at many turns. As Linc wrote,
Blacks at that time made up a sliver-thin portion of the city’s population, and racial prejudice abounded. That environment clearly defined for my parents the kind of employment opportunities they could exect. Theirs was not a world filled with workplace options, so they settled on careers that were largely the default jobs for blacks at that time.
When Linc was born, the family were living in downtown Toronto, off Front Street, at 29 Draper – a street named for one of Canada West’s first Conservative premiers.
On January 21, 1922, Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King was still in his first year as prime minister. He would serve for 21 more, interrupted for six by Meighen and Bennett.
The family moved on to Simcoe and McCaul Streets, then later Chatham Avenue off the Danforth. Linc was the only black kid in his kindergarten at Earl Grey Public School. He later attended Riverview Collegiate Institute.
After an altervation with Linc Sr., his mother moved to Harlem, later bringing her eldest son with her. Linc attended DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx – with 12,000 students, the largest high school in the world in the 1930s – whose many famous graduates include James Baldwin, Burt Lancaster, Ralph Lauren, Sugar Ray Robinson and Neil Simon.
In New York Linc learned that black kids were growing up to be leaders, creative geniuses, fighters for causes.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, his mother sent him back to Canada to join up. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1942 to 1945, though bad eyesight prevented him from crossing the Atlantic.
After the war he completed high school in Hamilton, home to his future wife Yvonne, then did a BA in economics and history at McMaster before seeking work at Stelco, which turned him down on grounds of race.
He brought his mother home from New York, but her dementia advanced quickly, and she died in Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital on Linc’s birthday in 1948.
Linc had married Yvonne in September 1948, determined now to take a law degree at Osgoode Hall, boarding for a time with his Dad in Toronto.
But in 1951 his father, now distraught with regret and suicidal, hanged himself at Queen Street Mental Health Asylum.
Linc carried on. His first law partner was Jewish. His second, for six years, was Hamilton Conservative David Duncan.
In 1960, Linc and Yvonne visited Africa, where they saw a new generation of leaders taking control of their countries as decolonization swept the world.
By this time Linc had been impressed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who took a strong stand in the Commonwealth against apartheid and other forms of discrimination, and later encouraged Linc to run for parliament.
Hamilton West had been represented in the Diefenbaker government by Ellen Fairclough, the first woman cabinet minister in Canadian history.
Linc made his first run in Hamilton West in 1965, but lost.
In 1968, he won, becoming not only the first black MP in Canadian history but the only elected federal parliamentarian of African or Caribbean descent in North America.
The civil rights movement was at its apogee. JFK, King and Robert Kennedy had all been gunned down. The US media flooded into Hamilton to find out how he had done it.
«How many of your people do you have here in the city, Mr. Alexander?» they asked.. «Thirty or forty,» Linc coolly replied.
«Hamilton is forty percent black?» they asked, incredulous at the thought. «No, we have thirty or forty black families here,» Linc replied.
He had won with support across the board, one of only four opposition MPs in urban ridings to resist the tide of Trudeaumania. He won again in 1972, 1974, 1979 and 1980.
He was apparently one of two Conservatives who provoked the «fuddle-duddle» outburst from Trudeau, becoming Minister of Labour under Joe Clark in 1979.
In 1980, Premier Davis asked him to chair the Ontario Workers’ Compensation Board, which he reformed thoroughly.
In 1985, he became the first black Lieutenant Governor of Ontario – and the first African-Canadian vice-regal representative in Canada.
In this role he excelled, visiting more schools and communities, welcoming more guests, attending more parades and galas, than perhaps any before him.
He was truly beloved by Ontario. People connected with him.
He then served from 1991 to 2007 (a record!) as Chancellor of Guelph University, and was an outstanding Chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
These were astonishing achievements. But he claimed to owe it all to his mother’s advice: «Go to school! You’re a little black boy,» the title of his memoirs.
In education, in the law, in politics and as the crown’s representative among us, Lincoln Alexander had dared to be first and to be best.
But he was also drawing on a larger heritage of black achievement in Canada.
His parents had taken him as a child to the Port Dalhousie Picnic – from 1924 to 1971 the largest annual gathering of the black community in Ontario, at Lakeside Park in St Catharine’s, started by Bertrand Joseph Spencer Pitt, an immigrant from Grenada who graduated from Dalhousie University and became Canada’s second black lawyer.
The picnic was an Emancipation Day Celebration, honouring the July 9, 1793 Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves enacted by John Graves Simcoe, a noted abolitionist and the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.
Ontario and Canada were of course among the first jurisdictions in the Commonwealth to outlaw the acquisition and later free all remaining slaves well before the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire on August 1, 1834.
Catharine’s had also been one of the outlets of the Underground Railroad and was home to Harriet Tubman – the «Black Moses» — in the 1850s.
Niagara had seen Richard Pierpoint’s Coloured Corps help turn back an invasion in the War of 1812, then form the guard accompanying General Brock’s remains to their final resting place beneath the Brock Monument in 1859.
At least 30,000 freed slaves came to Canada, mostly to Ontario, on the Underground Railroad. Black loyalists were among the earliest English-speaking settlers to the Atlantic provinces and to Canada, as the Book of Negroes reminds us.
Even Champlain might not have started settlements in the Bay of Fundy and later Quebec without his African interpreter Mathieu da Costa.
Lincoln Alexander endured racial slurs. He overcame adversity. He persevered to improve himself both through education and his chosen professions.
But he made certain to go first, when no one else could. And he made sure he was among the best, usually the very best, at what he did.
In doing so, he took responsibility for himself, then for countless others.
He did not drive, but today a major highway in Hamilton is named for him. He was not a police officer, but OPP headquarters in Orillia is named for him. He was voted the «greatest Hamiltonian ever»! He was given the first state funeral by Ontario since Premier John Robarts.
Not bad for a kid from Draper Street!
Happy Lincoln Alexander Day, everyone.