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Lincoln Alexander in 2007Jim Ross

These Canadian life stories, of two men both born in 1922, could hardly be more contrasting. Alastair Gillespie was born to a silver spoon. Lincoln Alexander was born black, in an era when race governed destiny.

"I was here when things were really tough," Alexander recalls. "I mean, you couldn't go anywhere. You couldn't get a job. You were spat on. You were discarded like an old shoe."

And yet he delivers a portrait that inspires. He took up his mother's challenge to stay in school, against all odds. History took a dramatic turn in his time. He witnessed it; he exemplified it in Canada as he broke through the impediments of race. The first black to be elected to the House of Commons, the first black Canadian privy councillor when sworn in to the federal cabinet, he became a model and a challenge to visible minority youth when he assumed vice-regal functions as Ontario's lieutenant-governor.

He seized that bully pulpit, he, the son of a Pullman porter and a maid, both immigrants from the Caribbean. His message to youth is relayed again in his book: "He [himself]made it. I can. I will." And he tells his story with a cheerfulness that conquers all obstacles: "I don't look back. I look to the future because the future starts with us. I'm very optimistic."

Alastair Gillespie, by contrast, was born into West Coast aristocracy. His ancestor, George Gillespie, came from Scotland as a fur trading partner of Alexander Mackenzie and was admitted in 1794 to Montreal's exclusive Beaver Club - the family displays the medal with name and date to prove it. Down the generations, the family tree included luminaries of business, ranching and politics, in Scotland, England and Canada.

Alastair's father donated to British Columbia as a provincial park his inherited 1,000 acre property, Matheson Lake. Of his mother, he writes: "She never went to school and was raised by a governess." Alastair, true to family tradition, attended private schools.

Meanwhile Alexander learned at the school of hard knocks. His parents separated; his mother took him from home in Hamilton to live for three years in Harlem, New York, where he learned to survive the mean streets with a switchblade. He grew to six foot three inches; that helped to maintain respect. But he soon dropped out of high school.

War caused their divergent paths to converge. Both served in the Canadian armed forces: Alexander attained the rank of corporal while Gillespie soared as a fighter pilot with officer's rank. After the war, on veteran's benefits, Alexander returned to complete high school and eventually earned a bachelor's degree from McMaster University, then a law degree from Osgood Hall. Gillespie, meanwhile, returned from the war to study commerce and economics at McGill University and then went on to Oxford for two years as a Rhodes Scholar.

Each was smitten on first meeting with the woman who became the love of his life. Alexander's wife, beautiful and dignified, was of modest attainments. Gillespie married into a rich family and went into business. "My friends, and especially my father-in-law, Christie Clark, were very helpful in making the connections that are often critical to business success." Soon he was a millionaire.

In 1968, the year of Trudeaumania, Gillespie won election as a Liberal from Etobicoke while Alexander, as a Progressive Conservative, braved the wave to represent Hamilton West. Both served as cabinet ministers, respectively under Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark. Alexander would be re-elected four times. Gillespie, after re-election in 1972 and 1974, would go down to defeat in the anti-Trudeau elections of 1979. He then resumed a successful business career.

As witness to political history, Gillespie offers the more provocative argument. He was close to Walter Gordon and a charter member of the Committee for an Independent Canada. The 1972 elections made the minority Trudeau government dependent on NDP support. Gillespie became, as minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce, the voice of economic nationalism, responsible under the Foreign Investment Review Act to screen foreign investment, requiring that it provide "significant benefit to Canada." He regrets bitterly that later governments, Progressive Conservative and Liberal, "emasculated" FIRA. The book's greatest contribution is his passionate plea that the federal government use its powers of intervention to develop and retain multinational head offices in Canada.

"Foreign-controlled companies do little research in Canada. In the seventies, the automobile industry was our largest industry, but it did no research in Canada…Had we more business-people in government and fewer theoreticians and free-market ideologues, Canadian business would stand on stronger feet today."

Lincoln Alexander sat long in opposition and served as Minister of Labour only in the brief government of Joe Clark. His story engages for his personal testimony rather than political perspectives. His constituents kept re-electing him for what he was as a human being rather than for his party label or political doctrines. They voted for a humanist, a man committed to the dignity and equality of all humans, be they black, Jewish, oriental, aboriginal or homosexual.

His autobiography, more readable than Gillespie's too often meandering prose, is also history, because he documents through his own life how racial attitudes oppressed but also relented over time in Canada. His is a captivating book, revealing not so much about politics as about our human condition.

Political journalist William Johnson is the author of the biography, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada. In 1966, he marched through Mississippi with Martin Luther King.