Ep. 13: A Celebration in Honour of Black History Month



February 24, 2022 19 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. I’m Erin and I have a very special guest with me today.



Jenny: Bonjour. Hello, Erin. I’m Jenny and I’m the Protocol Liaison Officer in the Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations Branch. Thank you for having me; I am very happy to be on the podcast for an episode in celebration of Black History Month.



Erin: And I’m so happy to have you on the episode with me today, Jenny! Today we’re going to explore some of the trailblazers in Ontario’s Parliament and learn about the impact and legacy that they have had in our provincial legislature in honour of Black History Month.



Jenny: Yes! The first Black man to be elected to a political office in Ontario was Abraham Shadd. He was elected Counselor of Raleigh, Ontario in 1859 - a community in Kent County in the Southwest of the province.



Erin: Now, the Shadd family was instrumental in paving the way for Black women in politics as well. Mr. Shadd’s daughter, Mary Ann Shadd, fought for women’s suffrage and was the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper. She used her newspaper to discuss women’s rights and also informed her readers about upcoming suffrage meetings. With the help of Mary Ann Shadd and countless others, some women [including some Black women] gained the right to vote in Canadian Federal elections in 1918.



Jenny: What a family Erin, what a family. Although the Shadd family was no doubt important in paving the way for countless others, our episode for today is going to focus on four other individuals. They have broken down barriers and served in Ontario’s Parliament in various roles and remain trailblazers. First up we have Leonard Braithwaite.



Erin: Leonard Braithwaite was born in 1923. He was raised in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. In 1942, he tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was repeatedly turned away by his local recruitment officer because he was Black. He was finally able to enlist a year later and served with the No. 6 Bomber Command in England as an engine mechanic and safety equipment worker.



Jenny: And after the war, he attended the University of Toronto where he earned a Bachelor of Commerce and Masters in Business Administration. Mr. Braithwaite went on to earn a Masters in Business Administration from the Harvard Business School and also graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School before opening his own law practice in Etobicoke.



Erin: And he began his political career in 1960 in various municipal roles – school trustee and alderman to name a few. Due to his growing popularity in the riding, Leonard Braithwaite was approached by the Ontario PC Party, the NDP and the Liberal Party – all of them wanted him to run as a candidate for their party in the 1963 provincial election. But he ultimately joined the Liberal Party. Then won the riding nomination, and finally began his election campaign.



Jenny: It was difficult going because many people didn’t want to donate funds to a candidate they expected to lose - a Black Canadian had never won in a provincial election before. But thanks to a lot of hard work and enthusiasm from his supporters, Leonard Braithwaite was elected on September 25th, 1963, becoming the first Black person to be elected to a provincial legislature in Canada. What an achievement.



Erin: It truly was. Fun fact: he earned 443 more votes than the next candidate in his riding. Now although he was elected in September, he didn’t give his first address in the House until February. When MPPs are initially elected, there is a commonly held convention that the first time they rise to give a speech in the Chamber, they are given certain courtesies. Fun fact: this practice is sometimes referred to as giving an inaugural address or maiden speech. During a maiden speech, the MPP is usually not interrupted or heckled by other Members and the Speaker may sometimes even grant extra time to finish their statement.



Jenny: And being the first Black parliamentarian in Canada, Leonard Braithwaite used his expertise as a lawyer and experience as a former school trustee when giving his maiden speech on February 4th, 1964. He spoke out against the Separate Schools Act, a law that had permitted racial segregation in Ontario schools for over 114 years. Because of his comments, the Act was amended and racial segregation in the province’s schools was finally repealed. What a beautiful act.



Erin: It was truly an achievement. Now Leonard Braithwaite was re-elected in 1967 and 1971, serving as critic of labour and welfare. As a politician he fought for gender equality and the rights of minorities. In 1971, female students gained the opportunity to work as legislative pages at Queen’s Park, in part due to Mr. Braithwaite’s vocal stance on the matter.



Jenny: In 1975, he lost his seat in the Ontario Legislature but returned to municipal politics. He also returned to his law practice, where he continued to work until his death in 2012 at the age of 88.



Erin: Leonard Braithwaite was and continues to be an inspiration to many.



Jenny: Absolutely.



Erin: He said that the part he played in abolishing the Separate Schools Act and ending segregated Black schools in Ontario was, and I quote, “perhaps [his] greatest accomplishment." End quote. Leonard Braithwaite was the first Black man to be elected to Ontario’s provincial legislature in 1963. But, it would take until 1990 until the province saw its first Black woman parliamentarian elected; enter Zanana Akande.



Jenny: She was born in 1937 in the Kensington Market area of Toronto as well. Her parents came from St. Lucia and Barbados, where they had worked as teachers. They weren’t able to continue their careers in Canada, because at the time, Black people were not allowed to hold teaching positions. Her parents were the inspiration behind her desire to go into teaching herself. She received a Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Education from the University of Toronto, and also went on to complete Teachers’ College at the University of Toronto. She was a teacher and school principal for many years while also volunteering extensively for the United Way, Meals on Wheels and the Federation of Women Teachers.



Erin: As if she wasn’t busy enough though, she finally decided it was time to get more involved. She said, and I quote, “I was getting frustrated with the fact that things weren’t changing fast enough. Instead of criticizing, I decided it was time to get more involved. It was time to put up or shut up.” End quote. So, in 1990, she decided to run in the provincial election. No one was more surprised than her when she found out that she had won her seat. Fun fact: she won in her riding with a margin of just over 1,000 votes. With her election, Zanana Akande became the province's first Black female legislator; and she also became the country's first Black female Cabinet Minister. While serving in Ontario’s Legislature, she held the position of Minister of Community and Social Services and later, the Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier.



Jenny: As a woman, I am blown away, Erin. Well during her term in office, she oversaw many updates to the welfare and shelter system in the province and was also instrumental in the creation of the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat and the province's first mandatory employment-equity legislation - which would go on to institutionalize rights for women in the workplace. Thank you. Haha.



Erin: No doubt. But perhaps her proudest achievement, was the design and implementation of the Jobs Ontario Youth Program – an initiative that provided young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to find meaningful summer employment.



Jenny: And she has continued to advocate for those most vulnerable, while being an active member of the community; she served as president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and Canadian Alliance of Black Educators and was the recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Award for Education.



Erin: As of 2009, Ms. Akande is retired but, she continues to serve as a volunteer on various boards and community organizations. Fun fact: she has also been awarded a Key to the City of Toronto.



Jenny: I would like to have one too!



Erin: Maybe one day.



Jenny: Maybe one day. Well, on that high note, our next trailblazer was also known to be a strong supporter of his local community and continues to have strong ties to the City of Toronto - specifically to Scarborough; his name is Alvin Curling.



Erin: Alvin Curling was born in 1939 in Kingston, Jamaica. He attended the University of Technology in Kingston before immigrating to Canada in 1966. In Canada, he also attended Seneca College and York University and decided to pursue a career in education as the Director of Student Services at Seneca College. His other passion was advocating for adult literacy which saw him serve as President of the World Literacy of Canada organization from 1981 to 1984.



Jenny: Beautiful. And with his interest in politics growing, he decided to run in the 1985 provincial election in the riding of Scarborough North [the largest riding at the time population-wise].



Erin: Well, he won his riding with 30,504 votes – the highest number of votes ever recorded for a single provincial candidate at the time. Fun fact: there was a difference of almost 8,000 votes between Mr. Curling and the next candidate.



Jenny: He was appointed Minister of Housing in June of 1985, making him the first Black Canadian to hold a cabinet-level position in Ontario. During his time as minister of Housing, he expanded Ontario’s rent control program, and announced an extensive new initiative for urban housing. He was re-elected in 1987, when he was appointed Minister of Skills Development with a specialization in literacy. He then went on to win multiple elections and served in various critic positions always highlighting his primary passions of helping youth and communities, and improving social services overall.



Erin: Then came the General Election of 2003. The first order of business in the Legislature after a General Election is always to elect a new Speaker. Alvin Curling was nominated by his peers in the Assembly and was ultimately elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 2003 - making him the first Black Speaker in Ontario's Parliament.



Jenny: Throughout his parliamentary career, he dedicated his time in office to advocating for minority voices by championing inclusiveness, the important role of public service, and human rights.



Erin: In 2005, Alvin Curling accepted a diplomatic posting to serve as Canada's Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Since retiring from politics, he has served as Co-Chair of the Government’s Task Force on the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence. In 2014, he was made a Member of the Order of Ontario for having, and I quote, "played an important role in shaping government policy addressing youth violence". End quote. Fun fact: Alvin Curling has an elementary school and a street named after him – both are located, as you might guess, in his home riding of Scarborough.



Jenny: The final figure, Erin, that we are going to look at today led a long and fulfilling life though not without challenges.



Erin: That’s very true Jenny. Although an elected official in his own right at the federal level of parliament, Lincoln Alexander is most notably remembered in Ontario for becoming the first Black person appointed to a viceregal position in all of Canada.



Jenny: Born in 1922 to immigrant parents, Lincoln Alexander grew up in the East end of Toronto before moving to Harlem with his mother. With the start of the Second World War, he returned to Canada but was too young to enlist in the armed forces.



Erin: In 1942 he was finally able to join the Royal Canadian Air Force where, because of poor eyesight, he served on the Homefront as a wireless operator. He left the armed forces with an honourable discharge in 1945 after receiving a lack of support from superior officers due to his race.



Jenny: And after the war, he attended McMaster University where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree before he graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He opened his own legal practice in Hamilton but soon turned to politics. He ran and was defeated in the 1965 federal election but was successful three years later in the 1968 federal election - making him Canada’s first Black person elected to the House of Commons.



Erin: And, he didn’t stop there. He made history yet again in his final year in Parliament, when he became Canada’s first Black federal Cabinet Minister, having been appointed Minister of Labour. While in office, Lincoln Alexander had a strong sense of morals and didn’t shy away from voting in support of issues that he felt were truly important – regardless of party politics.



Jenny: And in 1980 Erin, he was asked by the Premier of Ontario himself to serve as Chairman of the Ontario Worker's Compensation Board. As a result, he resigned his seat in the Federal Parliament and accepted the new role. After so many years in the public service, there didn’t seem to be too many roles that he hadn’t had – but there was one.



Erin: You’re right Jenny. On September 20th, 1985, upon the advice of the Prime Minister, the Governor General of Canada appointed Lincoln Alexander as Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor. He was the first Black Canadian to be appointed to a viceregal position in Canada. Fun fact: as the Queen’s Representative, each Lieutenant Governor champions causes and ideas that are personal and important to them. In his role as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Mr. Alexander was able to take an active role in the multicultural affairs of Ontario – making his mandate threefold: to fight against racism, advance the cause of youth, and advocate for seniors throughout the province. In fact, an awards program for young people who demonstrate leadership in combating discrimination and racism within their school or community was established in his name. Fun fact: while in his viceregal role, Lincoln Alexander visited 672 communities, held 675 receptions, received roughly 75,000 guests, attended over 4,000 engagements, and visited more than 230 schools. Now I gave to day, he sounds like a very busy guy.



Jenny: I’m sure he was Erin, I’m sure he was. And in 1991, when his term of office was up, he accepted a post as Chancellor of the University of Guelph, where he served an unprecedented five terms. He also served as the Chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, in the early 2000s, where he remained an active spokesperson for race relations and veterans' issues. He has been awarded numerous titles and designations; most notably being appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1992.



Erin: Lincoln Alexander passed away in 2012 at the age of 90. However, his legacy is vast; there are multiple schools named in his honour, a portion of a municipal expressway in Hamilton bears his name, and his birthdate was proclaimed “Lincoln Alexander Day” in Ontario by a piece of legislation. When asked if he had any advice on how to lead such a diverse and fulfilling life he said, and I quote, “All I try to do, is to do a job and to do it well.” End quote.



Jenny: An advice that I will surely follow. Absolument. And we only had time in this episode Erin, to talk about a small sample of the many important and inspiring individuals who have walked the halls of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. While the four individuals we discussed today have no doubt helped pave the way for many others, they are surely not the last. Leonard Braithwaite, Zanana Akande, Alvin Curling and Lincoln Alexander were each instrumental in helping to shape Ontario’s Parliament as we know it. All trailblazers in their own right, they remain an inspiration and role models to many. Certainly, to me. Their impact will no doubt continue to resonate for generations to come.



Erin: No doubt. And as with all of our podcast episodes, we can’t end today without doing a fun fact count…so today’s grand total is…8! And Jenny, I want to thank you for joining me today for this very special episode in celebration of Black History Month.



Jenny: Thank you Erin. Merci. It was such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.



Erin: Well, the pleasure is all mine. But tune in next time to learn more fun facts about Ontario’s Legislature.



Jenny: And Happy Black History Month. Bonne fête du mois des noirs.



Erin: And to you as well. Thanks for listening to ON Parliament, where we help spread the word on Parliament. Got to go, I think I hear the bells.

The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing. For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter  and Instagram : @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter : @parloneducation. Thanks again, and see you next time.