10/19/2012 10:12 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

Lincoln Alexander Dead: Canada's First Black MP, Former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Dies At 90


TORONTO - Lincoln Alexander, whose unstoppable energy and fierce determination lifted him from humble beginnings to smashing racial barriers as Canada's first black MP, has died at the age of 90.

The formidable man known to all as "Linc" was a living legend in his hometown of Hamilton, Ont., and a statesman whose life and career were a series of groundbreaking firsts, Lt.-Gov. David Onley said Friday.

At a time when racism was endemic in Canadian society and visible minorities were treated as strangers in their own land, Alexander's life was a "rebuke" to those who equated ability with skin colour, he said.

"He overcame poverty and prejudice to scale the professional and political highs," Onley said.

He will receive a provincial state funeral, Onley said, the second in Ontario's history — the previous one was for former premier John Robarts in 1982.

Alexander served as Ontario's lieutenant governor from 1985 to 1991 — the province's first black vice-regal — among his many accomplishments.

Born in Toronto in 1922 to West Indian immigrants, Alexander was a wireless operator with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, from 1942 until 1945.

He settled in the steeltown of Hamilton to be near his future wife, Yvonne, and to attend McMaster University. After graduating in 1949, he applied for a sales job with the Stelco steel company, but was turned down by interviewers who said customers wouldn't want to deal with a black man.

Alexander became more determined in the face of adversity. He graduated from Toronto's prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School in 1953.

In 1965, he ran as a Conservative in the federal riding of Hamilton West, but lost.

He was finally elected in 1968, becoming the first black member of Parliament in Canada, and was re-elected three times, in 1972, 1979 and 1980.

He was also Canada's first black cabinet minister, having the labour portfolio from 1979 to 1980 under the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark.

Alexander left the House of Commons in 1980 to serve as chairman of the Ontario Workman's Compensation Board. In 1985, he was appointed Ontario's 24th lieutenant governor and held the post until 1991, focusing on youth and education.

He loved interacting with young people, a joy that was always on display when he attended the Lieutenant Governor's Games at Toronto's Variety Village, Onley recalled.

"He would just get down on the tumble mats with the kids and dive into the chicken nuggets and the sandwiches and the cans of pop," said Onley, who was a reporter at the time.

Whether he represented the Queen or the people of Hamilton West, Alexander didn't stand on ceremony. Even in the last years of his life, he could be seen zipping around Hamilton on his motorized scooter.

"I have no qualms about saying I don't think anyone can work a room better than I can,'' he told the Canadian Press in 1990.

"I've never really been in awe of anyone. When you're 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and good lookin', you know, you're not in awe of too many people."

Alexander received racist letters and phone messages during his time in office, Onley said. But he was determined to stand up to prejudice and fought it throughout his career.

He saw education as the key to overcoming any barrier, Onley said.

In 1992, Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario.

After leaving office, Alexander went on to serve as chancellor of the University of Guelph, serving five terms as chancellor at the University of Guelph — the longest-serving in the school's history.

But he never really left, said Onley. He was the star of any reception or event he attended.

No matter who was in the room, everyone clustered around Alexander when he was around to "bask in his kindness and his humour," Onley said.

"I often said when I was in such situations — and when Linc was there so that everyone could hear it, especially Linc — that Linc's problem was he thought he still was lieutenant-governor," he said.

"He enjoyed that line very much."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called him "a truly great Canadian" whose legacy will live on.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said Alexander left an "extraordinary legacy," both in his private life and as a public servant.

"He broke down barriers," he said. "He made Ontario a better place for all of us, the next generation of public servants and citizens."

Clark said Alexander lifted the spirits and hopes of everyone who knew him.

"He became a powerful symbol of Canadian equality, as the first black Canadian elected to parliament and named to cabinet, and that took an enormous courage and toughness," Clark said in a statement.

"Lincoln Alexander lived life as we should all aspire to live it, with daring, and optimism, and purpose, and impact."

No matter where you sat on the political spectrum, Alexander was ready to reach out, said Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

As a budding politician campaigning for the first time in her hometown of Hamilton, he popped up along the campaign trail, telling her, "I think you can win this!"

Alexander was a tall man, but it didn't come close to the "huge presence" he always carried with him, she said.

"Over the last several years, of course Linc had become a little more frail and a little more weak," Horwath said. "But that didn't matter."

"He showed the country, he showed the community, he showed Ontario that the colour of a person's skin has no bearing on the heights that they can achieve in life," she added.

"For that I think we owe him a great debt of gratitude and thanks."

Alexander made headlines last year when he married Marni Beal, a woman nearly 30 years his junior. His first wife died in 1999 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

He spoke openly of their love story, admitting he was hesitant to propose.

"If you go to Toronto, the place is full of interracial couples. Race doesn't mean a damn thing anymore," he told the media in April 2011.

"[But] an old codger like me marrying a girl 30 years his junior? I was afraid to ask her."

Alexander's death wasn't unexpected, Onley said. He suffered an aortic embolism last winter after he returned from vacation and underwent emergency surgery.

He's survived by his son, Keith, and two granddaughters, Erika and Marissa.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Alexander left the House of Commons in 1985. In fact, he resigned in 1980.

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