By Joanne Hill
As we join all Canadians in commemorating the first national Lincoln Alexander Day on January 21, 2015, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) looks back at the life and career of the man who served as its inaugural Chair.
The late Lincoln M. Alexander, known to many by his nickname ‘Linc,’ is a shining example of how one person – through a lifetime of hard work, integrity and a commitment to justice – can help shape the values of an entire country in a positive way.
Canada is known around the world for its official policy of multiculturalism and commitment to diversity but it wasn’t that way when Alexander was born in 1922 to immigrant parents. As a Black child growing up in Toronto in the 1920s and ‘30s, his daily existence and any hopes he might have had for the future were severely constrained by systemic racism, but his mother’s guiding voice always encouraged him to pursue an education. After serving Canada in the Second World War, Mr. Alexander earned a law degree in 1953 and became a practicing lawyer.
He could have taken pride in that accomplishment alone and settled into life as a lawyer, but Mr. Alexander was a natural leader who recognized that he could make a difference in the lives of others, so he chose to enter politics. In doing so, this humble and ethical man initiated what would become a lifetime of history-making firsts.
Mr. Alexander became Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament in 1968 when he was elected to represent Hamilton West. He was re-elected four times and served a total of 12 years. During that time, he became Canada’s first Black Cabinet Minister, upon his appointment as federal Minister of Labour (1979-1980). He topped these remarkable achievements by becoming Canada’s first Black Lieutenant Governor when he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (1985-1991).
Outside of his political career, he held other important positions in which he excelled, including Chair of the Workers’ Compensation Board (1980-1985) and Chancellor of the University of Guelph (1991-2006).
In recognition of his dedication to building harmonious race relations, Mr. Alexander was appointed to be the first Chair of the CRRF, and from 1997-2003 he was integral in helping to shape its work and vision. The CRRF presented Mr. Alexander with its first Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003.
In his memoir, Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy, he shared his perspective on racism in Canada. “Racism is, simply, a product of ignorance, but I am an optimist and have seen great strides taken toward eradicating that evil,” wrote Mr. Alexander. “I think it is a product of the Canadian character that we are far more inclined than so many other countries to judge people on the quality of their minds and thinking, the quality of their character, than in any superficial factor such as colour. We can’t disenfranchise people for such meaningless reasons. We all need to work together to make certain Canada is the great nation it can be and in many ways already is.”
Those words remain true today and Mr. Alexander continues to be a guiding light for the CRRF.
Perhaps respect is one word that best exemplifies his life values.
“I’ve worked hard through my life to get and maintain something very fundamental and everyone’s right – respect,” he wrote. “In my way of thinking, a primary way to draw respect for oneself is to be prepared to return it in kind. It generates loyalty, commitment and productivity.”
Mr. Alexander gave and received a tremendous amount of respect during his lifetime and, following his death in 2012, Canadians continue to honour his memory. Most appropriately, in 2013, the Government of Ontario proclaimed January 21 – his birthday – as Lincoln Alexander Day, and in 2014 the federal Lincoln Alexander Day Act received Royal Assent from the Governor General of Canada.
Mindy Tweedle (100 Huntley Street) in conversation with the The Honourable Lincoln Alexander on his 90th birthday
Lincoln Alexander - 2013- Black History Month Poster, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO)
The Honourable Lincoln Alexander (1922 – 2012), Archives of Ontario
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander First Black Canadian Elected to the House of Commons, Wayne Brown, Electoral Insight, Elections Canada
Lincoln M. Alexander Award, Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade, Government of Ontario
CRRF PHOTO GALLERY: Award for Lifetime Achievement 2003: The Honourable Lincoln Alexander