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Canada's First Black MP Leaves an Important Legacy

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Notwithstanding Canada's collective commitment to the value and promise of multiculturalism, most black Canadians continue to live out their experience in this country consciously and unconsciously trying to grapple with a single question: "Am I a Canadian who happens to be black, or a black person who happens to be Canadian?"

The existential angst that arises from this civic conundrum is rooted in a paradox that pervades the black Canadian experience. On the one hand, there is a profound desire among black Canadians to fully participate and be popularly recognized as respected, valued and equal members of Canadian society, but on the other, they are faced with the fact that the country they love (with the complicity of mainstream media) has erased blacks from Canadian textbooks and civic consciousness, hyper-criminalizes and over-polices black people, and has become indifferent to black poverty and collective marginalization as a normalized feature of Canadian social, economic and political life.

Given the socio-economic conditions that disproportionately affect black Canadian communities, coupled with the attendant erosion of community values that encourage black collective success, it's only natural that a growing number of ambitious black Canadians feel haunted by a Shakespearian whisper; "To be a black Canadian (as opposed to a black person who happens to be in Canada), or not to be..."

The nature of this false choice was effectively exposed as a fallacy last week as Canada was shaken by two momentous events that should forever reshape and re-centre within our collective civic consciousness the black tile of the Canadian mosaic.

On the backdrop of Canada's official Citizenship Week 2012, the black pages of the Canadian story were re-opened with a new Canadian Heritage Minute that profiles the life and times of Richard Pierpoint.

Pierpoint was a once enslaved black man who won his freedom by fighting for the British during the American War of Independence, and who later fought again for the British to defend its Canadian colonies in the War of 1812 -- this time rallying a regiment composed of other free black men to fend off the American invasion of Upper Canada (now Ontario).

Despite the fact that this new Heritage Minute credulously perpetuates the civic myth that slavery never existed in Canada (it wasn't abolished until 1834, two decades after the War of 1812), its release marks a possible pivotal moment in the development of collectively held notions of Canadian citizenship. This Heritage Minute fundamentally unsettles the commonly accepted distortion of black people being alien to Canadian history prior to the Underground Railroad, and properly recounts the exercise black personhood and full humanity. It shows that blacks have not only acted as subjects with full civic and social agency within Canada, but that they have also actively participated in making Canada the imperfect but beautiful nation that it is today.

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The second of last week's seismic shifts within nationally held notions of Canadian citizenship continues to have its aftershocks felt through the present week, as our country now mourns the passing of a great Canadian hero, Lincoln Macauley Alexander. He died on Friday October 19th, 2012 at the age of 90.

Reading the many tributes to this outstanding Canadian makes it clear that Alexander's exemplary life was lived as an emphatic declaration that blackness and Canadianness can seamlessly exist in synergetic harmony, and that there is a black experience that is inextricably and simultaneously a Canadian experience. Alexander made this clear from his first days in Parliament that this would be the mark of his decades in public service.

In September 1968, as Canada's first Black MP, Alexander boldly proclaimed the following:

"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."

Indeed, Lincoln Alexander achieved inordinate successes through recognizing, valuing, and publicly embracing both his black and Canadian identities.

Even when racial segregation remained a feature in Canadian society, Lincoln persevered to seek empowerment through education. Motivated by his mother's oft repeated admonition, "Go to school, you're a little black boy" (which would later become the title of his memoirs), Alexander went on to graduate from McMaster University in 1949.

Then, when his blackness was outright cited as barring him from a position as a salesman at a large steel company, he elected to attend law school, graduating from Osgoode Hall in 1953. Alexander went on to live a highly distinguished public life that has led him to be dubbed, the "Jackie Robinson of Canadian politics," making a most indelible mark on Canadian life and citizenship, most especially as Ontario's first black vice-regal from 1985 to 1991.

In our national mourning of Alexander, Canadians must not forget that he joins a line of great black Canadian change-makers that have passed away since 2011.

This heroic line of Canadian civic champions includes one of Canada's most fearless civil rights activists, Dudley Laws; Canada's first black Chief Justice, Julius Isaac; the greatest black Canadian hockey player to never break the NHL colour bar, Herbert Carnegie; the gifted Canadian lawyer and political trailblazer, Leonard Braithwaite (to whom Lincoln Alexander is often whispered to have been conservative Canada's counterpoint); and yet another great Canadian lawyer, pan-Africanist, artist, intellectual and citizenship-shaper, Charles Roach, who died earlier this same sad October.

Indeed, Lincoln Alexander has now joined the league of fallen fathers of contemporary black Canadian citizenship. Like Richard Pierpoint a century before them, all these men demonstrated that full civic membership in Canada is not a question of whether to prioritize race or citizenship. To the contrary, they exemplified the symbiotic nature of black Canadian identity, showing it to be an identity that was solid enough to break racial barriers of the past, and hopefully inspiring us to believe that it is this same identity that remains best suited to conquer contemporary realities of black Canadian poverty, unemployment, crime, violence, academic under-achievement and collective nihilism.

Canada's 13th Prime Minister, and the man who encouraged Lincoln Alexander to enter the political arena, John Diefenbaker, once famously announced the following at a 1967 Progressive Conservative convention:

"I was criticized for being too much concerned with the average Canadians. I can't help that; I am one of them!"

While this should resonate with all Canadians, in the memory of Lincoln Alexander, it behooves black Canadians most especially to live actively, vocally, and unabashedly in the spirit of these words with the grace, dignity, courage and commitment Alexander exemplified. Indeed the passing of this legendary black Canadian should encourage us all to live lives that would leave us similarly criticized for our expressed concerns for the lot of the average Canadian, black and otherwise.

In an age of socially destructive hyper-individualism, it's easy to see this as a matter of private concern. However, if Lincoln Alexander's life teaches us one thing, it's that this should be understood as a matter central to the meaning of being Canadian.

...to be, or not to be, that is the question; for us all.