Canada's first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, dies at 90
Published Friday, October 19, 2012 10:25AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 19, 2012 4:38PM EDT
TORONTO -- Lincoln Alexander, Canada's first black MP and former Ontario lieutenant governor, has died at the age of 90.
Lt.-Gov. David Onley tweeted the news Friday morning, offering his condolences to Alexander's wife Marni and his family.
The man known to all as "Linc" was a "living legend" in his hometown of Hamilton and a man whose life and career were "a series of groundbreaking firsts," Onley said in a statement.
"At a time when racism was endemic in Canadian society, he broke through barriers that treated visible minorities as second-class citizens, strangers in their own land," he said.
"Lincoln Alexander's whole life was a rebuke to those who would equate ability with skin colour," Onley added. "He overcame poverty and prejudice to scale the professional and political highs."
Outside the provincial legislature, the Canadian and Ontario flags were taken down then raised to half-mast in recognition of Alexander's death.
Alexander served as Ontario's lieutenant governor from 1985 to 1991 -- the province's first black vice-regal -- among his many accomplishments.
Born in Toronto in 1922 to West Indian immigrants, Alexander served as a wireless operator with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, from 1942 until 1945.
Later he settled in Hamilton to be near his future wife, Yvonne, and to attend McMaster University. After graduating in 1949, he applied for a sales job with Hamilton's Stelco steel company. He was turned down by interviewers who said customers wouldn't want to deal with a black man.
But Alexander became more determined in the face of adversity. He graduated from Toronto's prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School in 1953 and ran as a Conservative in the federal riding of Hamilton West for the first time in 1965, but lost.
He was finally elected in 1968, becoming the first black member of Parliament in Canada. He was re-elected three times, in 1972, 1979 and 1980.
He was also Canada's first black cabinet minister, serving the labour portfolio from 1979 to 1980 under the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark.
Alexander left the House of Commons in 1980 to serve as chairman of the Ontario Workman's Compensation Board. In 1985, he was appointed Ontario's 24th lieutenant governor and held the post until 1991, focusing on youth and education.
He transformed the usually hands-off, dignified role as the Queen's representative into that of a friend of the people. To that end, Alexander once estimated he had shaken more than 240,000 hands, visited 672 towns and cities and hosted 675 receptions for 76,000 guests.
He took the workload and the formal occasions in stride.
"Well, I came in as a politician. I have no qualms about saying I don't think anyone can work a room better than I can," he told the Canadian Press in an interview in 1990.
"I've never really been in awe of anyone. When you're 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and good lookin', you know, you're not in awe of too many people," he said.
In 1992, Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario.
After leaving office, Alexander went on to serve as chancellor of the University of Guelph, serving five terms as chancellor at the University of Guelph -- the longest-serving in the school's history.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called him "a truly great Canadian" whose legacy will live on, while Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the country has lost "a remarkable Ontarian and a great Canadian."
"Lincoln was a towering man, and his stature matched his influence," McGuinty said in a statement.
Alexander left an "extraordinary legacy," both in his private life and as a public servant, he added.
"He broke down barriers," McGuinty said. "He made Ontario a better place for all of us, the next generation of public servants and citizens."
Clark said Alexander lifted the spirits and hopes of everyone who knew him.
"He became a powerful symbol of Canadian equality, as the first black Canadian elected to parliament and named to cabinet, and that took an enormous courage and toughness," Clark said in a statement.
"Lincoln Alexander lived life as we should all aspire to live it, with daring, and optimism, and purpose, and impact."
Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire noted that Alexander -- the honorary chief of police -- was voted as the greatest Hamiltonian of all time in 2006.
Alexander made headlines last year when he married Marni Beal, a woman nearly 30 years his junior. His first wife Yvonne died in 1999 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
He spoke openly of their love story, admitting he was hesitant to propose.
"If you go to Toronto, the place is full of interracial couples. Race doesn't mean a damn thing anymore," he told the media in April 2011.
"But an old codger like me marrying a girl 30 years his junior?! I was afraid to ask her."