Farewell to the Linc: It’s up to Us Now

Linc on the Town I

As this goes to post, the Right Honourable Lincoln Alexander died yesterday morning at the age of 90. That’s him there, above and below, in the only two pictures I have ever taken of him; looking like some average senior citizen moving about city streets on his electric scooter. Whether you live in Hamilton or not, if you don’t know who he was and what he accomplished in Canada, you should look him up and find out.

I fantasized about meeting him; the hope of being allowed to make a better in studio portrait than these clumsily executed but still honest (reflective of the frank way he typically expressed himself) street photos I made a year earlier while driving by in my car. I never got the chance to realize my dream.

JFK was assassinated in 1963 for various theoretical reasons, one being his political stances in favour of equal rights between people of different colour and opposing racial segregation (even though it’s been said that he and RFK warmed up to the idea of desegregation reluctantly). By 1965, Malcom X, a key figure in American history surrounding the fight against racial oppression was murdered by black assassins of the Nation of Islam—of which Malcom X was a former member, with the motive to quell the popularity that X had developed, which caused many members of the Nation to follow him. On April 4, 1968, the same year that Lincoln Alexander became Canada’s first black federal MP, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for his highly self-sacrificing campaign for civil rights which impacted the official political policies and fairness laws of world nations, not just the US.

During the 60’s, the institutional racism of the US was just as rife in Canada—save for the lynching and riots, so for Linc, as he’s often called, to achieve his place in federal politics with the Progressive Conservative Party indicates something very special about the Hamilton West riding at that time.

Mind you, in further considerations of our neighbours to the south, the first two African-American members of the US Congress were Hiram Rhodes Revels and Joseph H. Rainey. Both had been selected to fill their federal positions in 1870. That’s only five years after the American Civil War—a war primarily over African-American slavery, and one year before the Civil Rights Act (still, it was only a few years before Lincoln Alexander became a federal politician in this country that Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. became the first African American to become a powerful politician in US Congress).

As a proud black Canadian and resident of this fine, officially declared, world city I will never cease to be amazed and inspired with the fact that I lived to see the US elect its first African American President (and I’ll remain more proud of Senator John McCain than I ever was before he ran against Barack Obama). Canada has yet to have a Prime Minister who isn’t obviously Caucasion but we have already had our first female PM, many years ago, even though Kim Campbell’s term as our national leader lasted only five months.

The boundaries of Hamilton West were redefined a few times since Linc became an MP until the riding was abolished in 2003. It was finally redistributed between the Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Westdale, Hamilton Centre and Hamilton Mountain ridings.

According to an August 4, 2005 Congressional Research Service Report, many black men and women of America had achieved US Congressional status long before Hamiltonians put Lincoln Alexander firmly in the House of Commons. I know many opinions can surface from all of this. It inspires a rhetorical question, is the Hamilton of today worse than, the same as or better than, racially, the Hamilton of the 60’s? This hasn’t even yet addressed the other ethnic groups of this city, perhaps especially the social and political treatment and opportunities of the true Native Canadian population. Could one of them be chosen to represent this city or province? Could one of them be the majority favourite to lead this country? I hope and pray that I live to see that day.

I’ve heard a small number of older generation blacks in this town criticize Lincoln Alexander by saying that he never really did anything to improve life for Hamilton’s black community or black Canadians overall. I listen to that and, while being completely unable to determine if there’s any truth whatsoever to their opinion, have asked the rhetorical question, why should he?  I think a political leader anywhere in this country should think and act to improve life as equally as possible for citizens of any demographic. Not provide preferential treatment for people who happen to be of the same race, ethnicity, religion, economic status or what have you.

Yes, there is still egregious institutional racism and other forms of bigotry that warrants the introduction of unequal measures in order to force the establishment of an equal playing field (again, institutionalized inequity and related conflicts are not limited to those typically equated to between blacks and whites, it affects all kinds of people who aren’t even of these particular social groups) but there is a point to where it starts becoming more tribalistic and static in nature, and nothing but inequality for all. Someone of good conscience, at some point, must stand up and be the genuine initiator of putting society on the road to true equality, despite the obvious risks with those who prefer to differ. No matter how unlikely, hopefully more, over time, will take up the better stance by following the first one’s example, so that we can finally phase out measures such as affirmative action laws.

I find that indignation leading to notions of favourable bias is not as prevalent in Hamilton as they used to be but still quite common among all kinds of social groups. This is a town, after all, that still has churches with mostly black congregates or mostly white. Not many actually have a fairly even mix, or seem to give serious encouragement to the concept.

Linc on the Town II

So, did Lincoln Alexander truly function as a political leader with altruistic purpose or is he one of those individuals who benefited from affirmative action laws but didn’t return the favour to others who continue to struggle against bigotry? Yeah, the term is “sellout” in street vernacular. I can’t answer those questions either.

His being the founding Chair of the CRRF (Canadian Race Relations Foundation), which in its 2005 study, ‘The Labour Market Experience of Social Work Graduates: Exploring the Role of Affirmative Action in Education’, and 2006 Annual Report both acknowledged that that affirmative action, “is still going to be needed,” and his autobiography ‘Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy’ may hint that he wasn’t a sellout (the fact that he served Canada as a lifelong representative of a political party that has a history of trying to dismantle social programs like affirmative action doesn’t help his image in the eyes of at least black Canadians). I expect though, that the minority who insist on vilifying him and saying that he wasn’t politically altruistic will be quite content to tell me to go “fuddle duddle” myself!

All I can say is that he must have done something right because the majority of this city–regardless of voter colour, named him the “Greatest Hamiltonian of all Time” in June 2006. That’s not tokenism either. Not when people are voting of their own free will, when they don’t even have to, and stand to gain absolutely nothing from it.

I’ll also tell you this; if there is anything he did in his political career that has or could benefit–specifically, blacks, it is his accomplishment of extraordinary firsts in this country, like Hiram Rhodes Revels and Joseph H. Rainey in the US, which paves the way for future generations of black Canadians to follow in his footsteps, and improve on what he started. Even as members of any other political party established in this country.

The Stats-Can report Ethnocultural diversity in Canada: Prospects for 2017, published in 2005, and related studies and journals estimate that by the time Canada celebrates its 150th birthday in 2017, 1 in 5 Canadians will belong to a visible minority of non-European descent. The Chinese and Southeast Asians are expected to remain the largest ethnic groups at that time as they have been since 2001. The Aboriginal population–specifically belonging to the North American Indian population, Métis and Inuit groups, could account for approximately 4.1% of Canada’s population (the 2001 Census showed that 28% of Aborigines lived in an urban center like Hamilton but statistics don’t seem available to indicate how many may be in such locals by 2017, although reports suggest there will be a substantial increase of Aborigines in the major cities).

While Stats-Can cautions in its aforementioned report that its numbers “are not to be regarded as predictions, but rather as one of several aids available to program planners and policy-makers”, its daily report of December 4, 2007 indicates that the 2006 Census revealed that these numbers are already well on their way to reality.

Some factions are indeed using the data to encourage the acceptance of ‘inclusive workplace’ programs throughout Ontario businesses.

By 2017, Hamilton could have 125, 000 visible minorities (15% of the current local population) as opposed to the 64, 000 (9% of the current population) it had back at the start of the new millennium.

As usual, I listen to the streets. Get a sense of the vibe through the casual conversations of the average person who isn’t engaged in official analytical research, and just decides to throw out their personal informed or baseless opinions for nearly anyone to hear. With these prospects, it seems many are hoping for the best but expecting the worst from it all.

I think it doesn’t really matter what the ratios of demographics are at any given time. There will always be positive and negative aspects of the community. Those that are negative will be the same old vices that have plagued the earth from time in memoriam. Poverty, mental illness, crime, escapism through insobriety, and isolationism cultivated by those who come to this country to reap in its privileges but refuse to associate with others outside of their ethnic groups (or learn the principal tongues of English and/or French) will likely remain as the leading pitfalls of local society, no matter its constitution.

Unfortunately, none of this means that Hamilton is a city at peace with itself socially. Please forgive me if I ever sound preachy but all the usual hatreds are here, take your pick: hatred of blacks, hatred of whites, hatred of men, hatred of women, hatred of transsexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals. There are the hatreds of the old, young, fat, skinny, accepted, rejected, average, outgoing and nerdy, educated, uneducated, rich, poor, healthy, sick and dying, good natured, strong, weak, religious, atheists, foreigners, naturalized citizens, and other hatreds that are too numerous to list.

In 2007, I went to shoot the local Caribana parade which consists of mostly but not exclusively black people. As they were gathering their teams and setting up their massive costumes behind City Hall, a white guy sauntered through scowling and grumbling under his breath, “Fuck off with your Caribana! We don’t need your multicultural crap (nobody really paid him too much mind)!”

Many of us make extra special effort in trying to justify our inane bigotries. People will go out of their way to tell some complete stranger that they don’t like how that stranger is different, and therefore doesn’t deserve to live. They’ll certainly act on their assumptions too, and try to justify those actions as well.

Here’s one that I’ve heard so many times from different people over the years; everybody has and shows hatred to someone else at some point in their lives. While that may be true, I find that we too easily rely on such an opinion as an excuse for not putting in real effort to treating one another with sincere respect. We don’t declare to ourselves, and our family and friends who we abuse others with, I have been a disgrace, and although I can’t fix the damage that I’ve done I will not continue to hurt others like this from this day forward, and steadfastly live by that declaration.

Goodbye Linc, and God’s speed. You did your best, we have benefited and now it’s time for us to continue the effort to succor and govern the equality that you have helped to establish in this land.

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