Mr. Speaker, it is my great pleasure to rise to speak to the designation of January 21 as Lincoln Alexander Day in memory of his myriad contributions to Canada: as a young man who fought for his country, as a lawyer, as Canada's first black member of Parliament and first black cabinet minister, as Her Majesty's representative in Ontario, as chancellor of the University of Guelph, as a husband, and as a father.
It is barely two years since the incomparable Linc, as he was known, passed away, though his legacy lives on as strong as ever.
I thank the hon. member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale for sponsoring here the bill of his colleague from the other place, to provide a national day to remember his life and legacy.
I also wish to thank my colleague from Hamilton Mountain for introducing a similar bill, and to all of our colleagues in the last parliament in Ontario, who voted unanimously to recognize January 21 as Lincoln Alexander Day in the province of Ontario.
When I first heard of Lincoln Alexander's passing, I thought of the words of another great statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, who said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.
For all of the adversity he faced throughout his life, he was never dissuaded from serving his community. Undeterred by discrimination and other obstacles, Lincoln Alexander gave so very much, and his legacy as a great Canadian continues to give to this very day.
Canada in 1922, when Linc was born, was not always a terribly friendly place for black Canadians. He recounted in his memoirs that there were very few other black families and that he was always one of the only black students in his grade when going to school.
From that very early age, Linc faced discrimination, but he made it clear he would not let the blind hatred of others define him. He would be the master of his own destiny. He would not be deterred. So he walked tall and did whatever it took to earn the respect of those around him. That drive and determination would stay with him throughout his life and would become one of his defining features.
Too young to enlist as the Second World War began, Linc took a job helping the Canadian effort as a machinist, helping to assemble anti-aircraft guns in Hamilton, Ontario, until he was old enough to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. During that time, he distinguished himself as a wireless radio operator until his discharge at the end of the war in 1945.
From an early age, his mother instilled in Linc an appreciation for how important an education can be, something that stayed with him throughout his life. Using the resources available to him as a veteran, Linc went back to school and graduated from McMaster in 1949.
Confronted with racism and discrimination when he tried to enter the workforce, Linc went back to law school, determined to blaze his own path if others were more content to prejudge him on the colour of his skin instead of his qualifications as a veteran and top-tier university graduate.
He plowed ahead, graduated, and practised law in Hamilton until first trying his hand in politics. While he was not elected his first time in 1965, he managed to be elected as the Progressive Conservative member of Parliament for Hamilton West in 1968. With that, he became the first black Canadian member of Parliament, a clear message to all Canadians that race would not be allowed to impede the call to service. In fact, he said at that time:
...I accept the responsibility of speaking for...all others in this great nation who feel that they are the subjects of discrimination because of race, creed or colour.
Before retiring from the House of Commons after 12 years as an MP, Linc went on to be the first black Canadian cabinet minister, serving as labour minister under then prime minister Joe Clark.
Though he retired from politics in 1980, he was not nearly done with firsts. In 1985, on the advice of then prime minister Brian Mulroney, Linc was appointed the 24th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, the first black Canadian to hold a vice-regal post in Canada.
Over the course of his six years in this post, he demonstrated to all Ontarians his determination and work ethic.
In its obituary of the legendary man, the Toronto Star highlighted that as lieutenant governor, Alexander visited 672 communities, visited 230 schools, received 75,000 guests at 675 receptions, and more, and shook nearly 240,000 hands.
Serving the people of Ontario and Canada drove him. He left an imprint wherever he went and on whomever he met. He always made people feel unique, important and in the moment that one shared with him, that person was the centre of his world. There was such depth of character and integrity there.
When he left Queen's Park and the lieutenant governor's office in 1991, Linc was invested as chancellor of the University of Guelph, where his contributions over an astounding 5 term, 15-year tenure led him to be named chancellor emeritus when he retired in 2007. The appreciation for education his mother had given him as a young boy in Toronto and a young man finding his way in Hamilton held strong and was fundamental to how he approached his position as chancellor. He made an indelible impression on our community in Guelph in that time.
As recent as a couple of years ago, I can recall speaking to Linc at the rededication of the new Lincoln Alexander Hall at the University of Guelph. As always, he was warm and disarmingly charming. At the opening of the hall which now bears his name, I said this:
“The key to the university's engagement in our community as a collaborator and innovator was in part due to the vision and perseverance of the University of Guelph's longest standing chancellor, Chancellor Emeritus Lincoln Alexander”.
“We live in Canada's safest community and enjoy one of the highest rates of volunteerism across our country. Regularly, we are ranked as Canada's most compassionate community and one of the best Canadian cities in which to live - a ranking, due in no small part to the leadership generated by the University of Guelph. A new generation of leaders is being created here in Guelph at this university; a generation that will lead Canada and the world for years to come - a generation that will indeed change lives and improve life - with no better a mentor and role model than that found in Chancellor Emeritus Lincoln Alexander”.
I believe it is wholly fitting that his time in Guelph served as a bookend to his time in public life and as a leader. He had come so far from a time when he fought continually for the respect he deserved. He beat a path for generations of young men and women, black or otherwise, to reach their fullest potentials.
Alastair Summerlee, who just recently ended his tenure as president of the University of Guelph, saw Linc's impact on the community very similarly. He stated:
“Linc was an inspiration to thousands of students, alumni, staff and faculty at the University of Guelph. He had a special word for everybody he met. In an instant, as he talked to you, he made you feel that you were special - a talent that no-one I've ever met can match so elegantly”.
Bill Winegard, a predecessor of mine, put it this way when I asked him to share his thoughts on Linc. He said:
“I knew Lincoln Alexander for many years. I remember joking around with him when he was the minister of labour in the Clark government and when I became a minister, he said, “We both made it, Bill”. He did many great things, which I'm sure many other people took credit for. He was a lovely citizen and I am glad to have called him a friend”.
He broke barriers that, while broken, still exist. His life is a reminder that we must each continue the effort to eliminate prejudice and discrimination whatever the source may be. A dedication of a day in his memory will present us an opportunity to remind ourselves that we must continue his efforts on that day and every day of the year.
He was a friend, a leader, a teacher, a trailblazer, a public servant, and a great man. His loss remains significant, but so long as we live well and foster the values of determination, excellence and inclusivity, we will honour his legacy and he will live on.
It is only fitting that we honour that legacy by commemorating it through Lincoln Alexander Day each January 21.