Updated: Feb 17, 2022
Lincoln Alexander – Humanitarian
Lincoln McCauley Alexander was the son of immigrants from the Caribbean. He would become the first Black lieutenant-governor of Ontario, and many other “firsts.” But most of all he was a humanitarian who worked for equality and a better life for all people.
Mr. Alexander was born in Toronto on 21 January 1922. His father, Lincoln McCauley Alexander, Sr was from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and his mother Mae Rose (née Royale) was from Jamaica. Although a carpenter by trade, his father worked as a railway porter and his mother as a maid, job opportunities being limited for Black people in Canada at the time. His parents separated when he was a teenager. Mr. Alexander moved with his mother to Harlem, New York, a predominantly Black area of the city. Just after the start of the war he returned to Toronto. Being too young to enlist, he worked as a machinist in a Hamilton factory, helping make anti-aircraft guns.
He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on 20 October 1942. The RCAF promptly sent him back to school so that Mr. Alexander could bring his education up to that required for his chosen trade – as a radio operator. He served at stations across Canada before being discharged on 17 August 1945 with the rank of corporal.
After the war Mr. Alexander completed his high school education at Central Collegiate in Hamilton. Then, with his veteran's grant, he studied for and received a Bachelor of Arts from McMaster University in April 1949. He then went to Osgoode Hall Law School, graduating in 1953. After passing the Ontario Bar Association exam Mr. Alexander first worked for a small law firm in Hamilton working in real estate and commercial law. In 1955 he partnered with Dave Duncan, a white man, to create their own law firm. When the partnership ended in 1962, Mr. Alexander joined the law firm of Millar, Alexander, Tokiwa and Isaacs, which now had a Black, a Japanese, an Indigenous and white lawyer. Here he practiced criminal law. In 1965 Lincoln was appointed Queen's Counsel, a title given to lawyers who have made a noteworthy contribution to the legal profession.
Also in 1965 Mr. Alexander ran for Parliament, as a member of the Conservative party. He lost by the narrow margin of 2,250 votes in his riding of Hamilton West. On 25 June 1968 Mr. Alexander was elected, the first Black-Canadian to serve as a Member of Parliament. In June 1979 Prime Minister Joe Clark appointed Mr. Alexander as Minister of Labour, the first Black-Canadian to be a cabinet minister. Mr. Alexander resigned in May 1980 when a new opportunity arose to more directly serve the people of Ontario. Premier William Davis appointed him Chair of the Ontario Workers' Compensation Board, another first for a Black-Canadian. He served in this position for five years.
When that term ended, Mr Alexander had another first. On 20 September 1985, Lincoln Alexander was sworn in as the 24th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. He was the first Black person in Canada to hold a vice-regal position. In 1991 his term ended. Mr. Alexander then became the chancellor of the University of Guelph. He held the post for an unprecedented 15 years, until 2007. While in this position he was also named as the first chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in 1996. It began operations in 1997.
Perhaps more importantly than all the “firsts” was the fact that Lincoln Alexander was a humanitarian. He wished to support all people and make them all equal members of society and give them equal opportunity, free from racism and discrimination. As a lawyer he developed a base of support starting in the German and Polish communities in Hamilton. Even at this time Mr. Alexander was vocal about racial injustice. In 1960 he was among a group of Hamilton businessmen who toured Africa. He then spoke publicly about what he had seen and helped raise funds for organizations supporting work on the continent. Mr. Alexander would continue to speak at charity events throughout his life.
While a Member of Parliament, Mr. Alexander stood up against racism, even when it meant voting against his own party's position. He often took the lead and found that others in the Conservative Party followed. As head of the Workers Compensation Board Mr. Alexander supervised the organization's largest overhaul since it was created. He created an independent appeals tribunal; and despite the objection of doctors he approved the use of chiropractors for those requiring help from the WCB. Both changes improved services to Ontarians. As Lieutenant Governor he focused attention on multiculturalism and education, on racism, and on youth and seniors’ issues. He visited 230 schools and 672 communities, and attended over 4,000 engagements.
While serving the people of Ontario Mr. Alexander was honoured by having four schools named after him, in Ajax, Hamilton, Markham and Mississauga. An expressway in Hamilton was also named after him, commonly called “The Linc” after his nickname.
Lincoln Alexander passed away in his sleep on October 2012. His birthday is now recognized as “Lincoln Alexander Day,” first by Ontario in 2013 and then by the Government of Canada in 2014. Ryerson University renamed its faculty of law the “Lincoln Alexander School of Law” on 6 May 2021.