When Lincoln Alexander died on Oct. 19, 2012, he was honoured with a state funeral.
He deserved nothing less.
As Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, and a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Alexander dedicated his life to his country.
Alexander was born on Jan. 21, 1922 in Toronto to Lincoln MacCauley Alexander Sr. and Mae Rose Royale. His mother was born in Jamaica, and his father was from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They met in Canada.
Alexander ‘s father was a sleeping car porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway and his mother was a maid.
In his memoir, Alexander recounted the importance his parents placed on education as a good means to building a better life. The title of his memoir, “Go To School, You’re A Little Black Boy” is a quote from his mother.
Alexander learned early in life that, “education was the path to limitless possibility.”
His mother, he wrote, “knew that accepting defeat was easy, but success was possible, and education was the vehicle to take you there. She was right, and it has.”
Not only did Alexander heed his parents’ words, but he did so with an unwavering commitment to excellence.
Alexander grew up in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s and was the victim of name calling and insults throughout his school years. He said he had to fight for respect.
Alexander fought for his dignity while stationed in Vancouver with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a wireless operator. One evening, he went to a local bar for some drinks with his fellow servicemen. All were in uniform. The bartender said he would serve everyone except Alexander.
At his earliest opportunity, Alexander spoke to his commanding officer and said, “‘You go down and tell them the next time I walk into that place, as a corporal, wearing the uniform of an Air Force person, that they serve me.’”
Alexander’s commanding officer refused. Alexander asked to be relieved from duty.
Alexander was honourably discharged in 1945, with the rank of corporal.
Alexander moved to Hamilton and attended McMaster University. He became the first member of his family to attend university. Alexander studied history and political economy and graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He also played on the university football team.
Alexander once again fought for his dignity at Osgoode Hall Law School. One day during class, he questioned the Dean’s use of inappropriate language in a lecture. His comment divided the class between those students who agreed with Alexander, and those who believed the Dean could use whatever language he chose.
Alexander wrote about the incident, “I don’t know what ever made me stand up and ask him that in a class of 200 people. . . But I will tell you one thing, that day made me a man.”
Alexander graduated from law school and was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1953.
Alexander entered federal politics in 1965 when he ran as a Conservative in the riding of Hamilton West. He lost that election but won his seat in 1968 and became Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament. He was re-elected in 1972, 1979 and 1980.
Alexander held the labour portfolio in the government of Prime Minister Joe Clark from 1979 to 1980. He was Canada’s first Black cabinet minister.
After leaving federal politics, he became the first Black Chair of the Ontario Worker’s Compensation Board in 1980. Alexander called the role, “a hell of a job.”
In 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney asked Alexander to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He became the first Black person to serve in a vice regal position in Canada and held that post until 1991.
A key part of Alexander’s mandate was youth and education, and an award was created in his honour. The Lincoln M. Alexander Award is presented to Ontario high school students who show strong leadership in eliminating racial discrimination.
Alexander also served an unprecedented five terms as Chancellor of the University of Guelph from 1991 to 2007.
In his memoir, he wrote, “I have seen constant reinforcement of my belief in the grandness of education, from bright and enthusiastic students – the future – to committed educators and administrators who deliver that greatest gift.”
Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1992. Four years later in 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Alexander Chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
In recognition of his many important accomplishments, 21 January has been celebrated as Lincoln Alexander Day across Canada since 2015.
As Alexander once wrote, “It is not your duty to be average. It is your duty to set a higher example for others to follow.”
SOURCES: ARCHIVES.GOV.ON.CA, CBC.CA, GO TO SCHOOL, YOU’RE A LITTLE BLACK BOY: THE HONOURABLE LINCOLN M. ALEXANDER: A MEMOIR, LGONTARIO.CA, MCMASTER.CA, ONTARIO.CA, THECANADIANENCYCLOPEDIA.CA