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Former Ontario Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander at a gala celebrating his 85th birthday at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre in Toronto (Arantxa Cedillo For The Globe and Mail)
Former Ontario Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander at a gala celebrating his 85th birthday at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre in Toronto (Arantxa Cedillo For The Globe and Mail)

Obituary: Former lieutenant-governor took discrimination as personal challenge Add to ...

So, driven more by people than ideology, he decided to run federally in the Hamilton West riding in the 1965 general election. As he admitted in his memoirs, if his political mentor had been a Liberal, “I probably would have become a Liberal, since until that time I had no party affiliation.”

He lost that first election to Liberal Joseph Macaluso by fewer than 2,500 votes. The next time was a different story. Using all kinds of promotional gimmicks, including hiring a marching band to play Alexander’s Ragtime Band, he won his seat in Hamilton West by 342 votes, as one of only four urban Tories to make it through the Pierre Trudeau Liberal sweep of 1968. That win gave him the distinction of becoming the first black person elected to the House of Commons. In his maiden speech on Sept. 20, 1968, he said: “I am not the spokesman for the Negro; that honour has not been given to me. Do not let me ever give anyone that impression. However, I want the record to show that I accept the responsibility of speaking for him and all others in this great nation who feel that they are the subjects of discrimination because of race, creed or colour.”

Mr. Alexander continued to practise law while the Conservatives were in Opposition, but resigned when he became Minister of Labour in Joe Clark’s short-lived minority government in 1979. He voted in favour of the War Measures Act, although he later decided that had been a mistake, “because the issue of limiting rights has far more serious implications that I thought at the time.”

He supported the Liberals in the free vote to abolish capital punishment in 1976 and he threatened to break ranks with his own party to vote in favour of anti-hate legislation, saying “screw you” to the P.C. argument that it would curtail freedom of speech. “Are you saying that you can call my son or daughter a nigger and that is free speech?” he asked during debate on the bill. Heath MacQuarrie, then a Tory MP from Prince Edward Island, stood up and said, “I’m not going to let Linc stand alone on this.” Together they let 17 members of their caucus in support of the government’s legislation.

It was Alexander and Newfoundland MP John Lundrigan who provoked Trudeau into mouthing an obscenity in the House during a discussion of training programs for the unemployed in Feb., 1971, that quickly became known as the “fuddle duddle” incident.

He held his riding for 12 years and five elections, resigning in 1980 to accept an offer from then-Premier William Davis to become Chair of the Workman’s Compensation Board of Ontario. He loved politics, but he loved his wife Yvonne more, and after a dozen years living away from his family in Ottawa, it was time to go back to Hamilton. His last day in the House was May 27, 1980.

In his five years at WCBO, the organization underwent its most extensive legislative overhaul since 1915. Also during his tenure, the WCBO sanctioned the use of chiropractors, over the objections of doctors, and created an independent appeals tribunal.

In 1985, Brian Mulroney, then Prime Minister, recommended to Governor-General Jeanne Sauvé that she appoint Alexander the 24th lieutenant-governor of Ontario. When he, the son of an immigrant railway porter, was sworn in on Sept. 20, 1985, the first black man to hold a vice-regal position in the country, Ontario Ombudsman Daniel Hill, who was also black, said the appointment signified “a new Ontario, the new Canada. It’s a symbol of the fact that racial intolerance is becoming less acceptable.”

Mr. Alexander put three goals at the centre of his mandate: advancing the cause of youth, fighting racism and advocating on behalf of seniors. He loved being Lieutenant-Governor because he loved interacting with people – royalty and commoners alike . During his tenure, Alexander met 290 dignitaries, received 78,283 guests, visited 704 communities, held 715 receptions, visited 2235 schools, shook 240,000 hands, signed 60,000 orders-in-council and cabinet documents and gave royal assent to 551 bills.

His next role was chancellor of the University of Guelph, a position he took on in 1991. After an unprecedented fifth term, spanning 15 years and the conferring of more than 20,000 degrees, he was named University Chancellor Emeritus at a ceremony in June 2007. He was succeeded as Chancellor by broadcaster Pamela Wallin.

A chain smoker since his early 20s, he finally quit his two-pack-a-day habit in 1989. Two years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery to excise the upper lobe of his right lung. Fighting cancer was nothing compared to the death of his wife Yvonne on May 15, 1999 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was devastated.

In his late 80s, Alexander was introduced by mutual friends to Marni Beale, a sales representative for the Hamilton Spectator. Despite an age difference of 30 years, they shared a passion for jazz and were married in the summer of 2011.

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