In Toronto, Alexander often boarded with his increasingly despondent and suicidal father, who was belatedly remorseful about his treatment of his estranged wife and her premature death. Alexander came home from class one day to find police and fire trucks outside the apartment after his father had turned on the gas. The distraught man finally managed to hang himself with his belt at the old Queen Street Mental Health Asylum at 999 Queen Street West, just before Christmas in 1951. He was 59.
By then, Alexander was in his third year of law school, ranking in the top 25 per cent of his class. An incident the following year made him despair that he would graduate despite his superior academic record. Speaking to 250 would-be lawyers, the dean of the law school described a tricky situation as like “looking for a nigger in a woodpile.” At question time, Alexander, all of 6 ft. 3 inches and 200 pounds of him, stood up and asked the dean what he meant by the remark.
When told it was merely a common expression, Alexander retorted: “But you can’t say that because you have to show leadership. You’re in a position of authority, a leader in the community. A leader has to lead and not be using such disrespectful comments without even thinking about them.” Although, he spent the rest of term agonizing that he would fail because of his impertinence, he graduated near the top of his class. Later Alexander believed that by openly challenging the dean’s racism, he “influenced some attitudes in that law class.”
As he had found out four years earlier at Stelco, being a war veteran and achieving academic credentials didn’t count for much for a black man with a law degree in 1953. Fortunately, another member of a minority, Jewish lawyer Sam Gotfrid, Q.C., offered him an articling position.
The only Hamilton firm to offer him a job after his call to the bar was the brother and sister team of Helen and Edward Okuloski. Of Polish descent, they had hung out their own shingles because mainstream law firms weren’t interested in hiring them, especially Ms. Okuloski, who had the added disadvantage of being female. Working with the Okuloskis gave him valuable experience in commercial and real estate law and helped him to build a political base in the Polish and German communities in the east end of Hamilton.
After two years with the Okuloskis, he went into partnership with Dave Duncan, a flamboyant criminal lawyer in Hamilton. Duncan and Alexander was the first inter-racial law partnership in Canada, according to Alexander. In 1958, after six years of practising law, Alexander was finally able to move his family out of his in-laws’ house and buy his own home on Proctor Avenue in the east end of Hamilton. It was where he continued to live for nearly four decades.
The partnership with Duncan split up in 1962 when Duncan took a senior position with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. That same year, Alexander joined Jack Millar, an old McMaster classmate, in Millar, Alexander, Tokiwa and Isaacs, a partnership hat eventually became known as “the United Nations law firm.”
“A Caucasian, a black, Japanese and a Native Canadian,” Alexander wrote in his memoirs. “We were white, black, yellow and red, we used to laugh.”
Three years after joining Millar, Alexander was appointed a Queen’s Counsel, but his interests had already begun to shift from the law to politics. Several years earlier Alexander and his wife had gone as volunteers with Operation Crossroads Africa and visited more than 20 countries on a tour of the organization’s projects.
“The experience was an eye-opener for me not only as a lawyer, but also as a human being, because I began to realize what black people could do,” Alexander wrote. “I saw that, unlike the Hollywood version, these Africans were men and women of significant talents. I became conscious of my blackness. I had come from a white world. New we were in Africa, and I realized we are people of skill and creativity. I was a black man and I was a somebody. I started standing tall.”
Back in Canada, he began making speeches to raise development money for Africa. Then, buoyed by his increasing prominence in his own community and his respect for John Diefenbaker who, as Prime Minister, was campaigning for human rights at home (his Bill of Rights was signed in 1960) and throughout the Commonwealth, Alexander embarked on a political career.
He had support from local Progressive Conservative politicos such as Dave Duncan (his old law partner), Ellen Fairclough (the first female cabinet minister) and Ada Pritchard (who had run provincially for the party in 1963) – and a personal invitation from Diefenbaker, who apparently said to him, “You know, it’s time blacks should sit in Ottawa.”