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Canada In the fight against racism, MP Howard McCurdy never backed down

Howard McCurdy – seen in an undated photo with his daughter, Leslie McCurdy – was the second-ever African-Canadian member of Parliament, and worked as the NDP’s international human-rights critic.

Leslie McCurdy/Facebook

In June, 1990, when South African luminary Nelson Mandela visited Canada for the first time, he asked to meet Howard McCurdy. Mr. McCurdy was a microbiology professor, the first African-Canadian NDP member of Parliament, and the party's international human-rights critic. The two men shared much in common. As survivors of racism, both were united in their abhorrence of apartheid, South Africa's long-held policy of racial segregation.

During his nine-year term as an MP from Windsor, Ont., Mr. McCurdy was instrumental in Canada exerting pressure on the South African racist system, an influence that extended to the office of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. When he learned last month that the scientist/politician had died, Mr. Mulroney told a former aide of Mr. McCurdy, "Howard and Joe [Clark] were the two that really led the fight in Canada for us to push to maintain sanctions against South Africa." That fight involved Mr. Mulroney standing up against British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It was a conflict that exemplified Mr. McCurdy's motto when it came to racism, "Never back down."

After numerous honours including the Order of Ontario and the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal, Mr. McCurdy was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2012.

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Former prime minister Paul Martin recalled Mr. McCurdy as a great Canadian and fellow Windsorite. "In terms of improving people's lives, he was one of the leading figures of his time."

Former prime minister Joe Clark concurred. "He was outspoken in defending people who either personally, or collectively, were victims of prejudice."

Mr. McCurdy died in his hometown of Windsor on Feb. 20 from cancer. He was 85.

"My dad could be difficult to live with at times," his daughter Leslie McCurdy said. "He was the smartest man I ever knew. Even when he was wrong, he was right. But a lot of times he was right. We always wanted him to go on Jeopardy. No one could beat him at Trivial Pursuit. He had one of those memories … if he heard something once, he remembered it forever."

The same applied to difficult experiences he endured while growing up.

Howard Douglas McCurdy Jr. was born on Dec. 10, 1932, in London, Ont. A sister, Marilyn, followed shortly afterward. When Howard was 9, his father moved his wife, Marian Bernice, and their two children to Amherstburg, an Ontario town near the mouth of the Detroit River, where Howard Sr. worked for the Ford Motor Co.

Although the town aspired to liberalism, its municipal government assumed black people would want their own school. Accordingly, one was built without consultation. The pernicious rub of racism became increasingly clear to young Howard when he wanted to join the Cub Scouts and was told to form a blacks-only troop. Later, as a teen, he worked in a bowling alley setting up pins, but wasn't allowed to play. People of colour weren't permitted to join the golf club. At a local tavern, black patrons were restricted to ordering takeout from a back window with the option to eat their meal in the parking lot. Howard McCurdy's rage began to sizzle.

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Always bookish, and interested in chemistry, Howard listened to his parents when they urged him to excel in school. "They were very intelligent people who told us we had to be better than average," his sister Marilyn said. "We had to be better than the white kids around us."

Mr. McCurdy graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a BA, followed by a BSc from Assumption University (later the University of Windsor). At Michigan State University, where he initiated a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he earned his MSc followed by a PhD in microbiology and chemistry.

Chemistry also existed between him and Patricia Neely, a fellow student who went on to teach interior design at St. Clair College. The couple married in the 1950s and had four children. They, too, emphasized the importance of education to their offspring.

"They were adamant that we kids focus on goals," daughter Cheri said. "There was never a question of will I go to university but rather where will I go to university."

In 1959, Mr. McCurdy joined the biology department at the University of Windsor, where he became the first African-Canadian to be a department head, as well as the first to hold tenure at a Canadian university. He authored 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers and directed 11 theses and dissertations.

A man of snazzy style, he drove a purple sports car, could pull off a jaunty fedora look, and was voted best-dressed parliamentarian in the 1980s. Athletic, good-looking and popular with students, he was active in various organizations, both on campus and in his community – but racism was never far away. Once, as a professor driving in the small Ontario town of Puce, while slowing to look for a street address, he was stopped by police and asked to explain what he was doing in the neighbourhood.

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In the early sixties, he and his wife, Patricia, invited a group of prominent individuals, including Daniel Hill, later the first Human Rights Commissioner of Ontario, and Alan Borovoy, chief counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, to their home for dinner. The group, which came to be known as the Guardian Club, appointed Mr. McCurdy as its first president. They discussed discrimination in education, housing, employment and society at large.

At the time, black customers in an establishment were routinely made to wait until white customers were served, even if the black customers had arrived first. The same applied in restaurants. As a test case for housing, the Guardian Club sent an African-Canadian couple to view a rental. Shortly afterward, an equally qualified white couple did the same. The white couple was offered the property, even though the African-Canadians had said they would take it. That particular matter got a lot of attention in the press.

The Guardian Club became adept at promoting awareness of racism and acting as advocates on behalf of people who experienced discrimination. It later evolved into the Windsor Human Rights Association, which in turn became the Windsor and District Black Coalition.

While positive action against discrimination was being enacted in communities across Canada, hostility between black and white populations was fermenting south of the border. During a sweltering week in July of 1967, riots broke out in Detroit. Many people there with friends and family in Windsor crossed the border to find safe haven.

Leslie McCurdy, eight years old at the time, remembers edginess and a tense atmosphere in her home. Her parents didn't approve of violence. They believed in working through proper channels.

To that end, after a violent demonstration against an alleged racist professor took place at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal in 1969, Mr. McCurdy founded the National Black Coalition of Canada, an alliance of 28 organizations, including church groups.

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Mr. McCurdy was ideally positioned to advise national community leaders on the appropriate actions and policies to help curtail racism. It was a short step from that platform into federal politics.

In 1984, having served on Windsor city council, he was elected to represent a Windsor riding for the NDP. His election came 16 years after Progressive Conservative Lincoln Alexander became the first African-Canadian to win a seat in Parliament. Mr. McCurdy held his position for two terms, until 1993.

George Elliott Clarke, Canada's poet laureate, worked for Mr. McCurdy as a constituency liaison in the 1980s. He said his boss could be gruff.

"He liked to smoke, puff, yell and throw a glare at anyone who wasn't moving fast enough or thinking quickly enough. Some of his staffers got angry and quit. When that happened, Howard would grow quiet and look sad. I think he liked and cared about them more than he showed," Mr. Clarke said in a eulogy.

He noted that Mr. McCurdy, who liked Ballantine's whisky, also had a mischievous streak with staffers. "He would blow peas at us through a drinking straw he kept in his office." When it came to Mr. McCurdy's fiery eloquence, Mr. Clarke wrote, "The man could talk and out-talk and was dangerous to debate because he always had a lungful of Oxford Dictionary."

By the mid-1970s, Mr. McCurdy's first marriage had dissolved. He then married Brenda Lee Wright, a woman 14 years his junior who had a doctoral degree in immunology and biology. Where Mr. McCurdy could be impatient and demanding, she provided an easy-going counterweight.

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Former NDP MP Joe Comartin, who served as Mr. McCurdy's riding association president for six years, remembers walking behind the couple in a corridor outside the Winnipeg convention hall after Mr. McCurdy lost his bid for the leadership of the NDP in 1989.

"She knew he was extremely disappointed. She stopped and made him look at her. She basically expressed her love and absolute commitment to him and said nothing was going to change that," Mr. Comartin said. "She clearly made him feel better."

After he retired from public life, Mr. McCurdy devoted himself to golf, cooking (particularly Chinese food) and painting flower-like watercolours of the microbes he had studied throughout his academic career. He relished spending time with his grandchildren, never ceasing to demand more from them than he demanded from himself. Grandson Courtlin Ducre remembers having to cut his grandfather's lawn three times before it passed muster.

"He was a great role model," Mr. Ducre said. "And a hard act to follow."

Mr. McCurdy leaves his wife Brenda, four children and 10 grandchildren.

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