TORONTO – Hundreds of people paid their last respects to Canada's first black member of Parliament on Friday, rising to their feet as a jazzy rendition of Lincoln Alexander's favorite song — "How Great Thou Art" — rang out in an Ontario theater hall.
Alexander, a beloved national figure known to Canadians by his nickname "Linc," became a member of Parliament in 1968 and served as Ontario's lieutenant-governor from 1985 to 1991. He died last week at the age of 90.
Alexander's casket, draped in the Canadian flag with his medals atop, lay center stage at Hamilton Place for a state funeral in his hometown of Hamilton. The inside cover of the funeral program had a photo of Alexander from his days in Parliament with a quote: "Just call me Linc."
"How many people in the world are known by everybody by one name?" said former Ontario premier David Peterson. "Madonna, Prince, Cher and Linc. And how many people's names describe exactly what they do? That's what Linc did — he linked people to people, community to community and culture to culture — in a way that was unique to him."
"There was something magic about that heart, that was totally unique to Linc," he said.
The crowd laughed when Peterson described his friend as a snappy dresser who made sure his shoes always shined on his size 14 feet and was a self-described ladies' man.
Born in Toronto to West Indian immigrants — a hotel maid and a railway porter — Alexander became the first member of his family to go to university. He went on to become the first black member of Parliament, the first black federal Cabinet minister, the first black chair of the Worker's Compensation Board, the first black lieutenant-governor, and the first person to serve five terms as Chancellor of the University of Guelph — the longest serving chancellor of the school.
Alexander was a wireless operator with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II before he attended law school, where he was the only black student among 260. He graduated in the top quarter of his class.
As a law student, he spoke out when a dean casually used a racist slur to make a point in class. When mainstream law firms ignored him, he went on to become partner at Canada's first interracial law firm, Duncan and Alexander, becoming one of five black lawyers in the province at the time.
The statuesque man with a thunderous voice and a hearty laugh would credit the virtues of education for shaping his life. He said he followed his mother's advice: "Go to school, you're a little black boy," which became the title of his 2006 memoir.
"'I'm relying on you,' he'd whisper to the students coming from the West Indies," said Dr. Alastair Summerlee, the president of the University of Guelph, who said he encouraged Alexander to pen his memoir. "Our chancellor had always championed what is right and moral. He understood how education could open doors and change lives."
Alexander is survived by his wife, Marnie Beale, a son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He married Beale last year, 12 years after the death of his wife of 50 years, Yvonne.