Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to rise in the House today to speak to Bill S-213, an act respecting Lincoln Alexander Day. I could not be happier that the bill has finally made it to the floor of the House of Commons for debate. What a long and tortuous road it has been.
I remember when I first got the call from Lincoln Alexander's widow, Marni Beal, asking for my help to establish a national day in Linc's honour. I immediately agreed that it was a stellar idea and I was sure that it would get support across party lines. However, I did ask Marni why she was coming to me instead of one of the Hamilton area Conservative MPs, since Linc of course had been the Conservative member of Parliament for Hamilton West. Marni said she had indeed contacted them but no one had committed to moving forward with it and she was really looking for a champion to get the ball rolling.
I told her I would be honoured to play that role. Naively, I thought proclaiming a day in Linc's honour would be a piece of cake. At first, when I talked to some Ontario MPs from all political parties, including cabinet ministers, everyone was on side. The only hitch was how to go about doing it. Since everyone appeared to be in agreement, the simplest way of making it happen would be through a motion that the House would adopt unanimously. Lincoln Alexander Day could be proclaimed in minutes, as opposed to sending a bill through the drawn-out legislative process.
The government House leader, himself an Ontario MP, confided that although he was okay with that approach, he wanted to make sure that he would not be in the House when I moved that motion since he had told some of his caucus colleagues that they should not move similar motions but rather should introduce them as private member's bills.
Fair enough. I waited until he left the House and then rose to say the following:
Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. There have been consultations among the parties, and I believe if you seek it, you would find unanimous consent for the following motion: I move that this House designate January 21 as Lincoln Alexander Day.
Imagine my surprise when some Conservative members said “no”. Clearly, all of the verbal assurances that this was a matter where we could rise above partisanship and simply do the right thing as parliamentarians had meant absolutely nothing. Obviously, there was nothing left that the Conservative Party would not try to use to its own narrow partisan advantage.
I got in touch with Marni and told her what had transpired. It now looked like a bill would be the only option for moving ahead. Right after question period on December 9, I introduced Bill C-563, an act respecting Lincoln Alexander Day. The bill would make January 21, which was Linc's birthday, Lincoln Alexander Day.
I was still cautiously optimistic we might be able to pass the bill in time for the day to be observed this year. That hope was quickly dashed when I learned three hours later that the Conservatives tabled an almost identical bill to mine in the Senate. I say “almost identical”, because in their haste to introduce something of their own, they screwed it up. The English version proclaimed January 21 as Lincoln Alexander Day, but the French version made it July 21. Would it not have been easier just to support mine? Not if one's only goal is to score political points, even if that means scoring on one's own net.
Senator Meredith did that twice. First by getting the date wrong in the French version of the bill and then by gloating on Twitter that the bill had become law after it was passed in the Senate. However, he forgot one important thing. A bill doesn't become law in Canada without being passed by the House of Commons.
After getting third reading in the Senate, it had to come here, sponsored by a member of Parliament. Of course, that MP is a member of the Conservative caucus. Mission accomplished. The Conservatives can now claim credit for enacting a national day in honour of Lincoln Alexander.
The thing is, I do not care, or ever did care, about who got the political credit. In fact, I mentioned earlier that from the very beginning I had asked Linc's widow whether she would not rather have a Conservative MP move the bill forward. I just wanted to make sure it happened. Now it finally is. My only regret is that we could not rise above partisanship to make it happen in a more timely way. We missed the opportunity to formally recognize Lincoln Alexander Day this year, and I think that speaks poorly of how we fulfill our roles in this place.
In that regard, we could all stand to learn from Linc. For him, public service was just that. It was all about serving the public and not an end in itself. Born in Toronto in 1922, the son of a maid and a railway porter, Linc embarked on an exemplary life path that involved military service for his country, a successful political career, a thriving law career and vocal advocacy on subjects ranging from anti-racism to the importance of education.
Anyone who has read his biography “Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy” will know that a remarkable series of events helped shape the charismatic and influential leader whose impact continues to be felt today. From facing down racism to challenging the postwar Ontario establishment, serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, becoming Canada's first black member of Parliament and our country's first black cabinet minister, entertaining royalty as Ontario's lieutenant-governor, and serving as chancellor of the University of Guelph, Linc's is the ultimate, uplifting Canadian success story. He was the embodiment of public service at its finest.
Others who have spoken in this debate have already listed Linc's long list of credentials and accomplishments, and I don't want to repeat them all here. For anyone unfamiliar with Linc's legacy, they need merely read the preamble of my bill. It is a very succinct expression of a man whose spirit in so many ways was too expansive to capture in words.
Sandra Martin also wrote a superb obituary that was published in The Globe and Mail. It beautifully describes and honours the life of a man who did so much to advance the cause of Canada's youth, fight racism, and advocate on behalf of seniors.
However, in what little time I have remaining in today's debate, I want to reflect on the Linc I knew personally. I first met him when I was an intern at Queen's Park from 1989 to 1990. Linc was the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario at the time, and always made time to meet with each year's new crop of interns. Our academic advisers and Linc's aide-de-camp primed us for the meeting. Our heads were spinning with protocol. From something as simple as knowing how to pronounce “lieutenant-governor” to being told when to rise and how to greet him, to what we could and should not ask, we were ready, and just a little bit nervous. This was the Queen's representative after all.
After we had all assembled in the foyer, we looked to the top of the grand staircase and down bounded this energetic giant of a man. We politely greeted him in the way that protocol demanded, and with a twinkle in his eye, he said to us what I have heard him say to hundreds of people since, “Just call me Linc”. With that, all of our shyness and awkwardness went out the window. We spent almost an hour with a man who seemed more interested in our education, dreams and goals than he was in talking about himself, yet he shared just enough of himself to leave us awed by his grace and dignity and inspired by this larger-than-life role model.
As The Globe and Mail so rightly pointed out on his passing, Linc loved being lieutenant-governor because he loved interacting with people, with royalty and commoners alike. There were no airs about Linc. He was everyone's friend. I remember him calling a heckler to order during a heritage awards ceremony at the Scottish Rite in Hamilton. In a packed hall, it could have been a moment of tension and strife, but instead Linc handled the situation in such a self-deprecating way that he left the audience laughing, the heckler silenced but smiling, and no one in doubt about who owned the stage. For me, I must confess it was the highlight of the event. His exact words still make me chuckle.
Of course, all of us in Hamilton chuckle at the fact that an expressway that bisects my riding of Hamilton Mountain is called the Lincoln Alexander Parkway. Linc never learned to drive and in truth he was afraid of traffic. However, that did not stop him from cruising up and down the main streets of Hamilton in his motorized red scooter after he retired. His body may have been starting to show its age, but there was no way it was going to keep him from getting out and about.
More often than not, it was now Linc who heckled dignitaries at public events. I remember speaking at the opening of Bay Gardens, and Linc heckled one of us there. I so desperately wanted to grab the mic and use the same line that Linc had used at the Scottish Rite. I think he would have laughed like hell if I had reminded him of the reference, but my sense of protocol did not let me do it and I still kind of regret that to this day.
Right to the end, Linc was a force larger than life. He taught us all to never give up and to always use our skills to improve the world. He was an inspiration and a role model. By proclaiming a day in his honour, future generations of Canadians will learn about him and from him. As a man who prized education above all else, that opportunity to learn is the most fitting tribute of all, so let us finally get this bill passed.