Putting the name of a former politician on a public building — or taking it off a public building, for that matter — has become fraught with controversy these days. Witness what happened last fall, when Queen’s University removed the name of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its law school. Thirty-eight per cent of the alumni consulted were in favour of the move, but 44 per cent were not — and some vowed they’d never donate another cent to a university they felt was mired in politically correct wokeism. The point is, it seems impossible to avoid a lot of unpleasantness when decision-makers want to go down this road.
So it’s particularly astonishing that Ryerson University has just renamed its law school after a former politician — a Conservative former politician at that — and the reaction has been … unanimously positive.
I guess that’s what happens when you name something after Lincoln M. Alexander.
“Linc” (as everyone called him) became Canada’s first-ever Black MP in 1968. He served in Joe Clark’s short-lived government as Canada’s first-ever Black cabinet minister from 1979 to 1980. And five years later, he became Ontario’s first-ever Black lieutenant-governor (appointed by Queen Elizabeth II on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s advice), a role he held until 1991.
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Last week, Linc made history again. Ryerson University put his name on its law school, which is now called the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University. (Yes, Alexander was a lawyer, having graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1953.)
Full disclosure: although Alexander was born in Toronto, he made a name for himself in Hamilton (my hometown) and represented a Hamilton riding in Parliament. He was a huge presence in “The Hammer.” I knew him for most of my life and interviewed him numerous times before his death in 2012 at the age of 90.
I admired the man so much that, when our studio was redesigned some years ago and the brass at TVO asked me whether I wanted any particular pictures put up on the walls, I asked for only two: former premier Bill Davis, who created TVO more than 50 years ago, and Linc.
On April 7, I tweeted out the just-released news of the law school’s renaming. I braced myself for the inevitable smartass comments and backlash, which it seems inevitably come on Twitter.
There was none.
“Tears in my eyes,” tweeted one woman named Phylis.
“In an era when seemingly every new building and school is named after some ultra wealthy magnate, it’s nice to see this,” added Martin Sers, a PhD candidate at York University.
Someone named Charles W tweeted: “This is legitimately making me cry on the GO Train. Can’t think of a more worthy person to name a law school after.”
Kingstonian Hilary Wollis added: “We should all aim to be a little more like Linc in our lives. Fantastic choice.”
“This just brought me goosebumps,” tweeted Kristin Roe. “As a fellow Hamiltonian, I looked up to him throughout my childhood. When I graduated from the University of Guelph, he was Chancellor and presided over my convocation. So exciting for the law students of Ryerson U.”
Jennifer Olchowy tweeted: “The Hon. Linc Alexander's ethics, moral compass, kind and true heart lives on. Well done Ryerson U.”
And on it went. Everyone seemed to love the idea.
“A great celebration for a great man,” tweeted Canada’s United Nations ambassador, Bob Rae.
How much history did Rae and Alexander have? Plenty. In a Zoom feed for friends of Linc’s before the actual naming ceremony, Rae reminded the audience that it was he (then an NDP MP) who’d moved the motion in 1979 to defeat the Clark government.
In 1990, after Rae had become Ontario’s 21st premier, Alexander was the province’s lieutenant-governor and stole the show when he swore into office the unexpected winner of that year’s election.
“Do I know Bob Rae?!” he asked the throng at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, before going on to describe how Rae had ruined his political career. The place erupted in laughter, and even the new premier couldn’t keep a straight face at what is normally a very sober ceremony.
David Peterson was actually the premier when Alexander first assumed his vice-regal
duties in 1985. At Alexander’s funeral service in October 2012, Peterson recalled that Linc’s first official appearance as lieutenant-governor had involved presiding over the annual ploughing match in Stirling — then and now, very much Loyalist country.
“It’s not urbane or multicultural,” Peterson told the audience. “And some of them had never seen a Black man before.”
Peterson went on to tell the story of how a large crowd of farmers, drenched by rain, in soggy, muddy boots, awaited the arrival of their new LG. Alexander showed up in a beautiful $2,000 suit and walked onto a hay wagon that had been turned into a makeshift stage. (“He was devilishly handsome,” Peterson said.)
Then, after a long pause, Alexander surveyed the crowd and said, “Man, you’re my kind of people.”
“And that was the official beginning of the love affair between Lincoln Alexander and 13 million people in Ontario,” Peterson concluded, to applause.
Alexander was married to Yvonne Harrison for more than 50 years, until her death in
1999. In 2011, he married Marni Beal, who has taken it upon herself to keep Alexander’s legacy alive. I think she would want me to remind readers that, while Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day annually on a Monday in mid-January with significant attention, we actually have a similar day in Canada, also in January, that recognizes Alexander and gets significantly less attention. For the past seven years, January 21 — Linc’s birthday — has officially been known as Lincoln Alexander Day, in honour of his pioneering achievements.
Ryerson did negotiate the renaming of Canada’s newest law school with Marni and Alexander’s adult children. When I touched base with Marni after the renaming ceremony, she allowed that “Linc would so love this.”
It’s hard to know how many speeches Alexander gave in his life — as a politician, a lieutenant-governor, and a university chancellor. Undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands. But surely one of his best lines was this one:
“It is not your duty to be average,” he’d say. “It is your duty to set a higher example for others to follow.”
Linc always did that.