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Electoral Insight – Readjustment of Federal Electoral Boundaries

Electoral Insight – October 2002

The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander: The First Black Canadian Elected to the House of Commons

The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander: The First Black Canadian Elected to the House of Commons

Wayne Brown
Co-Editor,
Electoral Insight,
Elections Canada

Lincoln M. Alexander has accomplished many firsts in a life that has helped remove numerous large barriers for visible minorities in Canada. On June 25, 1968, he made electoral history as the first Black Canadian to be elected to the House of Commons. Eleven years later, he was the first Black person appointed to serve in the federal cabinet. In 1985, Alexander was appointed Ontario's Lieutenant Governor, the first member of a visible minority to serve in that role in any province in Canada. More recently, in 1996, he became the first Chairman of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a post he still holds. He has experienced racism at many stages in his life and has always tried to fight it head on. In January, he celebrated his 80th birthday.

Lincoln MacCauley Alexander was born in Toronto, Ontario, on January 21, 1922, the son of immigrants of West Indian descent; his mother was from Jamaica and his father from St. Vincent. His mother, Mae Rose, was a maid, and his father, also named Lincoln MacCauley Alexander was a carpenter by trade, but in Canada, had to work as a railway porter, which in those days was one of the few jobs available to a man of colour. The younger Alexander grew up in Toronto, until the age of 15 when he moved to Harlem, New York City, to be with his mother. He subsequently lived in Long Island and Brooklyn.

On returning to Canada, Alexander served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the World War II years of 1942 to 1945. At Lachine, Quebec, he trained to be a wireless operator. On graduating he was sent to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, where he flew training missions. He entered McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949. He would also earn a law degree from Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Alexander recalls there were only about four Black practicing lawyers ahead of him in all of Ontario. When established law firms turned him away, in 1954, he became a partner in the first interracial law firm in Canada, Duncan and Alexander. "It was not really difficult, but I didn't have all the clients, because people weren't used to having a Black lawyer," says Alexander. "Nobody said it, but Black meant you were seen as incompetent." In 1962, he became a partner in the Hamilton law firm of Miller, Alexander, Tokiwa and Isaacs, and he was subsequently appointed Queen's Counsel in 1965.

In 1965, Alexander entered federal politics. At first, he hadn't really expected even to win his party's nomination. There were only a few hundred Black persons in Hamilton at the time and "no one of colour in those days was involved in politics to any great extent. They really weren't wanted," he says. Regardless, he succeeded in becoming the first Black candidate to run for a federal seat in Hamilton. As the Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Hamilton West, he lost to the Liberal incumbent by a margin of 2,359 votes.

However, Alexander's team regarded the result as a victory and he immediately got himself nominated again for the next election, which would not actually occur until two and a half years later. His long campaign paid off. In the 1968 general election, he won by the narrow margin of less than 350 votes and became the first Black Canadian elected to the House of Commons. He was the only Progressive Conservative party candidate to be elected in an Ontario urban centre, as the Liberals, led for the first time by Pierre Trudeau, scored a majority government win. Alexander's victory was notable for another reason too. He had never held any political office before and "went from the guy in the street to the House of Commons. Most people (in the Commons) usually had some previous experience in politics, maybe as an alderman or school trustee," says Alexander. (In that same general election, Leonard Marchand would become the first Status Indian to be elected to the Commons, as the Liberal member for the British Columbia riding of Kamloops—Cariboo. For more on Senator Marchand, see the June 2000 edition of Electoral Insight). Alexander's riding, Hamilton West, also had the earlier distinction of being the riding that elected Ellen Fairclough, the first woman to be appointed to the federal cabinet as Secretary of State, in 1957.

Alexander's election to Parliament was big news. He remembers receiving a newspaper clipping from a friend in London, England, detailing his historic election in Canada. Alexander says he almost didn't enter active politics. Two years before his first campaign he was asked to meet with then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who wanted to appoint him to a post as a High Commissioner or Ambassador for Canada. But it didn't happen before the Diefenbaker government lost power a few months later. Why had Diefenbaker been interested in appointing Alexander? Diefenbaker had boasted that "I am the first Prime Minister of this country of neither altogether English or French origin." "I think it was because he too was an outsider," says Alexander. "His name wasn't Smith or Jones either."

When Alexander entered Parliament it was still a club of white men. There was only one female member (Vancouver New Democrat Grace MacInnis) in a legislature of 264 seats. In Parliament, Alexander was an imposing figure. At six feet three inches, the man they called "Linc" towered over most other members and his very deep voice made it one of the most authoritative the Chamber had ever heard. "I was in the club and highly respected by Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats," he says. He especially loved the camaraderie with members of all political parties and the cut and thrust of the daily question period.

Alexander would win federal re-election four times and serve in Parliament for almost 12 years. Another first came in 1979, when he was appointed the first Black cabinet minister in Canada's history, in the newly elected Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark. But his term as Minister of Labour would last only nine months, until the government's defeat in the winter election of 1980. He remains deeply disappointed that after years on the opposition benches he didn't really get the chance to prove he could be a good cabinet minister or to accomplish much in his portfolio. A few months later, in May 1980, Alexander resigned his Commons seat to accept an appointment from Ontario's Premier William Davis as Chairman of the Workmen's Compensation Board of Ontario. He had loved being a member of Parliament and was very reluctant to leave, but says his wife convinced him he should take the offered job.

Alexander would make front-page news again in 1985. On the recommendation of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, he was appointed Ontario's 24th Lieutenant Governor. It was another historic step, as Alexander became the first member of a visible minority group to serve in that vice-regal office in any province in Canada. His official duties included summoning and dissolving Ontario's legislature, reading the Speech from the Throne at the opening of each legislative session and giving assent to bills passed by the legislature.

Meanwhile, he made youth and education issues key parts of his mandate as he spoke to students at more than 250 schools during his term. He constantly promoted the importance of education, with the advice to young Canadians to "Stay in school. Get an education. Leave drugs and alcohol alone. You don't need them as a crutch." He served as Lieutenant Governor until 1991. That same year, he was appointed Chancellor of the University of Guelph, in Ontario. "When you meet him and when he looks at you and shakes your hand, you think that he has waited his whole life to meet you. You have his undivided attention," says the university's Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development, Robert McLaughlin.

In 1996, Alexander agreed to chair the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. The Foundation was created by the Government of Canada as part of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. In a 1999 speech at the launch of what he described as "the largest anti-racism campaign of its kind in Canadian history," Alexander noted the equality rights provided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But he added, "Racist attitudes and institutional racism are still very much alive. In my view, we still have a long way to go." In asking Canadians to join in the fight against racism, Alexander stated, "We want Canadians to fight racism wherever it rears its ugly head – in schools, in hockey rinks, in workplaces, on the street, and yes, even in Parliament."

Photo: Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander during his term of office as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991.

Last November, he wrote to the federal Minister of Justice to applaud the Government for the "inclusion of stricter provisions for hate crime and hate on the Internet" in its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-36), but he also voiced concern about "the risk of increased racial profiling at borders and in policing and security work" and that the legislation's definition of terrorism was too broad. Meanwhile, Alexander commended the Prime Minister for "the initiatives you have taken to reassure Muslim and Arab communities in Canada in the wake of the horrific events of September 11th."

Now in his ninth decade, Alexander still serves as Chancellor of the University of Guelph and on the boards of the Ontario Banking Ombudsman, the Ontario Press Council, the Royal Winter Fair, and the Shaw Festival. He has been the recipient of a very long list of prestigious awards and honours, including seven honorary doctorates. He was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 1992. To commemorate his term as Lieutenant Governor, since 1993, the province of Ontario has made awards annually, in his name, to two young people between the ages of 16 and 25 who have demonstrated leadership in eliminating racial discrimination. The new Ontario Provincial Police headquarters is named after Alexander, as are a secondary school in Mississauga, Ontario, two public schools in Hamilton and Ajax, Ontario, and a parkway in his home city of Hamilton. He earned these many marks of recognition, because as race relations consultant Bromley Armstrong stated, "He has opened a lot of doors. He has done it quietly and done it in his own way, without any fanfare, without any parading around or marching with placards."

Last December 13, Alexander's friends gathered at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto to celebrate his 80th birthday and pay tribute to his long career. The idea for the event originated with Progressive Conservative Senator Don Oliver, and when Alexander was told about it, he requested it be a fundraiser for the University of Guelph. The dinner was attended by 650 people, including members of the business elite, current and former politicians, well-known entertainers, former staff from Alexander's days as Lieutenant Governor, university students and some young students from one of the schools bearing Alexander's name. It raised more than $600 000 for scholarships in Lincoln's name for visible minority, Aboriginal and disabled students to attend the university and to increase the diversity of its student body. The scholarships embody Lincoln's own philosophy about the value of his own education and the importance of education to everyone. "Nowadays, kids have to realize that in order to become involved in this wonderful century that we've just jumped into, you have to be educated or else you won't be able to compete."

Photo: Tom Sandler
Lincoln Alexander with his two granddaughters at his 80th birthday party in Toronto.

Among the many warm tributes to Alexander at the dinner was one from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. "The career of Lincoln Alexander has been long and distinguished, spanning both the public and private realms. This event is a wonderful testimony to his many outstanding achievements and dedicated service to community and country." More praise came from another former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Hilary Weston: "With your warmth and generous spirit, you have won our respect, admiration and love. Equally at home in the political arena and amongst people of all walks of life, you have become an inspiring role model and have shown us what it is to be A Good Man." In his video message, then Premier Mike Harris added, "You remind us that determination, hard work and compassion are what make Canada great. Our province and our country are much richer for your presence."

At the dinner, Alexander also received a pair of basketball shoes autographed by Toronto Raptor's star guard, Vince Carter, but despite his size 14 feet, Alexander says the shoes are too big for him. Alexander is Chair of the Raptors Foundation, whose fundraising efforts have provided more than $10 million to registered charities in Ontario that support youth programs and sports initiatives for at-risk children.

Ten years ago, at age 70, Alexander was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. The citation at his induction provides a very good summary of his life: "Motivated by his continuing concern for social justice, he has led an exemplary life as a lawyer, politician and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He has broken many barriers during his lifetime. Known for his good judgement, tolerance, compassion and humanity, he has served the citizens of Ontario well, striving to instil these values in young people and working tirelessly for improved race relations."

SOURCES

Maclean's, December 24, 2001, p. 47.

Canadian Who's Who, 2000

Parliamentary Guide, various editions

University of Guelph


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.