Opinion

'It is not your duty to be average': Here is why we celebrate Lincoln Alexander's legacy

Lincoln Alexander Day reminds Canadians to set a high example for others, writes Patrick Twagirayezu.

Lincoln Alexander Day reminds Canadians to set a high example for others

Lincoln Alexander was Canada’s first black MP, but those who met him also remember him as a proud Hamiltonian, a music fan and a proponent of education. (Flannery Dean/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Patrick Twagirayezu, a recent graduate (Magna Cum Laude) of the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law. He works as an articling student in labour and employment law at Emond Harnden LLP, as well as with numerous organizations in the Ottawa community on issues relating to youth poverty and civic engagement. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Canadians celebrate Lincoln Alexander Day on Jan. 21, and there is a lot of value in revisiting the indelible mark this remarkable man has left on the country.

I first heard of Lincoln Alexander while working on a project in elementary school. At the time, I didn't have the maturity to comprehend his important role in Canada's history, but one thing did register – like me, and many of my friends, he was the son of immigrants.

And like many immigrants, Alexander's parents made unimaginable sacrifices so that he could have a better future.

Later on during my teenage years, his journey acted as a blueprint. By working hard, pursuing an education, and giving back to the community, he showed how one can honour one's parents' desire to see their child succeed.

As Alexander once wrote, "It is not your duty to be average. It is your duty to set a higher example for others to follow."

Humble beginnings

Lincoln Alexander, one year into his first term as an MP, talks about what he has learned. 2:09

Lincoln Alexander was born on Jan. 21, 1922, to West Indian immigrants living in Toronto. His father was a railway porter and his mother a maid.

In a memoir entitled Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy, Alexander recounted the importance his parents placed on education as a good means to building a better life.

Not only did he heed his parents' words, he would do so with an unwavering commitment to excellence. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, he became the first member of his family to attend university, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University. Thereafter, he attended Osgoode Hall Law School and was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1953.

In 1968 he became the first black member of Parliament, and in 1979, the first black federal cabinet minister.

After leaving federal politics, he became the first black Chair of the Worker's Compensation Board in 1980.

Alexander was appointed as the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in 1985. At the time, no other visible minority in Canada had served in a position of that nature.

He would later go on to serve an unprecedented five terms as Chancellor of the University of Guelph from 1991 to 2007.

WATCH | The National's tribute to Lincoln Alexander on the day he passed away, Oct. 12, 2012:

Canada's first black Member of Parliament died today. Margo McDiarmid looks back on the life of Lincoln Alexander. 2:24

Setting a high example

The many community projects that I've had the chance to work on have galvanized me to share the power of Alexander's example.

While assisting in after-school programs in low-income neighbourhoods, I met a number of young people who, like me at their age, had developed a certain level of cynicism because of their circumstances. I would often invoke Alexander when speaking to them, and explain how he inspired me.

I emphasized that Alexander did not allow himself to be defined by his circumstances, and that because of his example, my friends and I believed at an early age that we did not have to be defined by ours.

Such is Alexander's impact on the lives of young black men coming from environments in which positive role models are not always easily accessible. These environments often create a sense of powerlessness in the face of difficult socioeconomic forces, a feeling that can lead to poor decision-making.

The narrative is a familiar one – young men from low-income neighbourhoods being shepherded along the wrong path as a result of their circumstances.

Without basic structures for support, it can be difficult to imagine a better future for oneself; and yet, Alexander's life illustrates that there can be agency in facing these challenges.

Gallery | Canadians reminisce about Lincoln Alexander after his passing in October 2012:

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      Alexander's inspirational life should not be limited to its impact on black Canadians.

      Rather, his legacy stands for the broader proposition that Canada is a country in which many things are possible through hard work and perseverance.

      In my first summer job as a university student, I had the opportunity to work as a tour guide on Parliament Hill. I can recall one particular tour I gave that included a family of new immigrants. They approached me afterwards to ask questions, and our conversation naturally led to Alexander and his role in Canadian history. To share his story inside the halls of Parliament remains to this day one of my most cherished memories.

      While working to help new immigrants adapt to Canada by connecting them to volunteering opportunities, the discussions I've had with them at times revealed a certain anxiety about what type of future their children might have in this strange land.

      In these moments, I would talk about Alexander and his parents to explain that, despite their difficulties, this is a country in which their kids can ultimately succeed.

      Students at Lincoln M. Alexander Public School in Hamilton are seen here on the first Lincoln Alexander Day on Jan. 21 1995. Students are encouraged to represent the same values the politician held throughout his life, through its motto Share, Care, Believe, Achieve.

      Alexander's tireless commitment serves as a lesson that optimism should always be the mantra of those seeking to do their part in building a better Canada.

      However, he also understood that civic excellence is not an exercise in blind praise, but rather a continuous exercise in trying to improve our country by acknowledging its shortcomings. As he once said, "Canada [is] the greatest country in the world, but it isn't perfect."

      In many ways, Alexander exemplifies the brave people that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of when he alluded to those who "work while others sleep, who dare while others fly."

      Lincoln Alexander Day is a reminder to all Canadians to commit ourselves to setting a high example for others to follow.


      About the Author

      Patrick Twagirayezu is a recent graduate (Magna Cum Laude) of the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law. He works as an articling student in labour and employment law at Emond Harnden LLP, as well as with numerous organizations in the Ottawa community on issues relating to youth poverty and civic engagement.

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