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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/The Globe and Mail

Lincoln Alexander, a man of humble birth who fought racism to become a lawyer, a politician and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, died in hospital this morning at age at 90. Alexander is survived by his wife Marni, his son Keith and his extended family. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Discrimination isn't good for anybody – the abusers or the victims – but Lincoln Alexander was one of those stalwart souls who could turn rejections and despicable slurs into a personal challenge to excel. As a boy he learned to "walk tall," as a young man he chose a career where he could be self-employed, as a law student he spoke out when a dean casually used the racist example of "a nigger in the woodpile" to make a point in class, and when mainstream law firms ignored him, he joined forces with another member of a minority to make his independent way.

And always he followed his mother's advice about the advantages of education. Consequently, this son of a hotel maid and a railway porter, became the first member of his family to go to university, the first black Member of Parliament, the first black federal Cabinet Minister, the first black Chair of the Worker's Compensation Board, the first black Lieutenant-Governor, and the first person to serve five terms as Chancellor of the University of Guelph.

Among the many honors bestowed on him for a life of public service – including memberships in the Orders of Canada and Ontario – there was a certain irony in naming the motorway across Hamilton Mountain the Lincoln Alexander Parkway, for he never learned to drive and was actually afraid of traffic. He always sat "in the back, real low so I can't see what's going on," as he cheerfully admitted. Nevertheless, being unable to drive never stopped Alexander from telling his late wife Yvonne wife how to do it, or so his son Keith liked to joke.

Lincoln (Linc) MacCauley Alexander was born Jan. 21, 1922 on Draper Street in Toronto, a block from where The Globe and Mail now stands at Front Street and Spadina Avenue. He was the elder of two sons of Mae Rose (nee Royale), a maid from Jamaica, and Lincoln MacCauley Alexander Sr., a six-foot-four-inch carpenter from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Besides his younger brother Hughie, born in 1924, he had an older half- brother, Ridley "Bunny" Wright, born to his mother in 1920, before she and Lincoln Sr. married He never accepted this child and wouldn't let him in the family house.

The Alexanders, who had come separately from the West Indies, met in Canada, where Alexander worked as a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway on the Toronto to Vancouver run. His job took him away from his family for days on end, but it was steady and stable employment, especially during the Depression.

"Blacks at that time made up a sliver-thin portion of the city's population, and racial prejudice abounded," Alexander wrote in his 2006 memoir, Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy. When the family moved to the east end of Toronto, Alexander can remember knowing only three Black families, a huge contrast with the multicultural city of today. "The scene in Toronto at that time wasn't violent, though you had to know your place and govern yourself accordingly."

He was the only Black child in his kindergarten class at Earl Grey Public School, a circumstance that pretty well continued through high school and university, but he writes in his memoir that he "never raced home from school and cried." Instead, he was determined to earn the respect of his classmates, often by fighting. These "entanglements" taught "me to always walk tall, and with a certain bearing, so people knew I meant business."

The family was religious, and much of their social life centred on their regular attendance at a Baptist church in downtown Toronto. His father, a stern disciplinarian, wanted his son to play the piano (hoping he would become the next Duke Ellington), but the boy preferred track and field, soccer, hockey, softball and even boxing, although he never learned to swim. Tall, skinny and with big feet, he was too gangly and uncoordinated to be a natural athlete.

From his mother he learned to value education and usually ranked in the top ten of his class both at elementary and Riverdale Collegiate when he went to high school. From his father, who would pile his tips on the bedroom dresser, he learned the importance of getting along with people, a trait that the older Alexander took to extremes. A philanderer, he had sexual liaisons at many stops along the train route across the country. That particular jig was up when he infected his wife with a sexually transmitted disease, probably syphilis, when Linc was about 15.

Mrs. Alexander left home and moved, along with her eldest son Bunny, to her sister's place in Harlem in New York City–after a physical altercation, witnessed by Linc, that left her with a broken eardrum from the force of her husband's hand hitting her cheek. That taught Linc another lesson: "Never put your wife in the position my dad put my mom in."

His mother's flight meant there was nobody to watch over Linc and his younger brother Hughie, then 13, while Alexander was travelling the rails. Luckily, a couple named Sadie and Rupert Downs (parents of Ray Downs, who would become an internationally known jazz pianist) took an interest in the boys and cared for them until Mrs. Alexander could afford to send for one of her sons. She chose Linc, the eldest, leaving Hughie to stay with the Downs family. The brothers grew apart and Hughie eventually moved to Boston where he made a living as a plasterer and, having inherited his father's wandering eye, married three times.

Moving to Harlem in New York transplanted him from a nearly homogenous white community into a largely black one in which it was possible to find role models who had risen above manual jobs. This "stiffened my resolve to be more than a porter," he wrote He enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School (then boys only) in the Bronx, the alma mater of writer James Baldwin, among other notables. He wrote in his memoir that he was the only member of his gang who went to high school and, "given the message about education that had been pounded into my head since I was a young child, the fact those kids didn't go to school was an eye-opener for me."

His mother got him a job in the laundry where she worked, but he was fired after two weeks because she refused to show her gratitude by sleeping with the boss. That was another not-so-happy lesson: that life can be unfair and you can lose even though you are not at fault.

He also learned the tough life of the streets in Harlem, and was initiated into smoking, drinking, sex and carrying a switchblade. Partly to protect her son, a resident alien, from being "encouraged" to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces as soon as he turned 18, and partly because she thought he was turning into "a mean son of a bitch," his mother sent him back to Toronto to live with his father in 1939 after Canada declared war on Germany.

About this time he met a "shy, elegant" woman named Yvonne (Tody) Harrison at a dance in Toronto. She was the youngest of four daughters of Robert, a railway porter, and his wife Edythe (nee Lewis) Harrison. Smitten, he resolved to marry her and, because he was still too young to enlist, he took a job as a machinist making anti-aircraft guns at a factory in Hamilton, near where she lived.

In 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his poor eyesight made him ineligible for combat duty. Consequently, he spent the war on this side of the Atlantic as a wireless operator in various parts of the country including Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. After he was discharged with the rank of corporal in the summer of 1945, he went back to Hamilton, and took advantage of a veteran's grant to enter Central Collegiate in Hamilton to complete the credits he needed to enter university.

He enrolled in history and economics at McMaster University in 1946 and quickly arranged to bring his mother back from New York. Alas, she soon began exhibiting symptoms of dementia and had to be institutionalized. She died in Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital on her son's 26th birthday, in January 1948. "My mother was the single biggest influence on me–before my wife," Alexander told Chatelaine magazine in 1986. "I've always regretted that she didn't live to see me graduate from university." It was his mother's familiar mantra, "go to school, you're a little black boy," that he used for the title of his 2006 memoir.

Meanwhile, Alexander had renewed his friendship with Yvonne "Tody" Harrison. They were married on Sept. 10, 1948. He was 26, five years younger than his bride. After graduating from McMaster in 1949, Alexander applied for a job in sales at Stelco, the huge steel company in Hamilton where he had worked summers in the plant. Despite references and pleas from the university and the mayor of Hamilton, Stelco was unwilling to taint its public image by having a black man on its sales force and instead offered him his old summer job.

Rightly affronted, Alexander declined and instead enrolled in law school at Osgoode Hall in Toronto because he realized that being self-employed made the most sense for a "young black man with ambition." During the academic year he commuted weekly from Hamilton, where he and his wife lived uneasily with her parents, and in the summers he worked on the plant floor at Stelco. The Alexanders' only child, Keith, was born in 1949.

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."

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 Beal, 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.