Howard McCurdy blazed a brilliant trail, but his work is not done

Howard McCurdy with his daughter Leslie. The elder McCurdy, a political, academic and civil rights trailblazer, passed away last week at age 85. (LESLIE MCCURDY/FACEBOOK)

We lost a great Canadian political trailblazer and civil rights activist last week.

It is difficult to find the words to honour the powerful legacy left by Howard McCurdy following his passing at the age of 85. The mark he made on Canadian politics is impossible to measure.

McCurdy served two terms as the second Black Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, he is also the last Black politician to pursue leadership of a federal party when he put his name forward for NDP leader in 1989.

Born in London, Ont., McCurdy spent his formative years in Amherstburg, Ont. His political action began early as a teenager, organizing alongside civil rights activists in the pursuit of a more just society and a better future for his family and his community.

He was elected as an alderman in Windsor in 1979 and served two terms before his time representing the federal ridings of Windsor-Walkerville and later Windsor-Lake St. Clair. His contributions during each period of his political career garnered respect from political colleagues, media that covered the issues he advocated for, and local community members alike. His accolades for this work include both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

McCurdy was an academic before the start of his political career. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Western University, later a Bachelor of Science from Assumption University in Windsor, and continued his studies toward a PhD in microbiology and chemistry from Michigan State University.

McCurdy was the first Black tenured faculty member at a Canadian university, serving 25 years as a professor at the University of Windsor.

During his time at Michigan State, McCurdy founded and served as president of the university’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization sought the elimination of race-based discrimination and the advancement of political, educational, social and economic equality of rights.

McCurdy traced his own ancestry back 150 years, arriving in Canada through the Underground Railroad, and instilled in his children and his community an appreciation and understanding of their history. His talented daughter Leslie McCurdy continues to bring the voices of our ancestors alive in beautiful live performances.

He continued in his pursuit for equality and fought against anti-Black racism with the founding of the Guardian Club in Windsor in 1962, and later the founding of the National Black Coalition of Canada in 1969. These organizations laid groundwork that Black Canadian organizers continue to build on today, both locally in Windsor and across the country.

Leading from within institutions is hard work. McCurdy was a thoughtful and brilliant leader who carried his lived experience as a Black man in Southwestern Ontario to every political table and corridor he encountered. He organized and bridged the experiences of Black Canadians across the country. He built genuine and lifelong relationships with his own community members, political influencers and decision makers across party lines.

We’ll never know every private conversation McCurdy had leveraging his political relationships in efforts to address issues that affected Black Canadians, but it’s clear from his public remarks he was committed to moving the needle forward. He set a fierce example of the importance of standing in your truth and bringing not only your own experience, but also the stories and lived experiences of community members to your work. I’m thankful for advocates across the country today, working both within and on the outside of institutions, who have been inspired by his tireless work.

While debating the government’s Employment and Equity Act on Oct. 21, 1985, McCurdy delivered a moving speech to remind his colleagues that though Hon. Lincoln Alexander, the first Black Canadian MP, stood as lieutenant-governor of Ontario, the battle still had not been won.

“My political career began when I was 13 years old … it began when I could not shoot pool in the pool hall in my town and I could not bowl in the bowling alley where I set pins.”

In a 2012 interview, McCurdy recalled how far we’ve come while acknowledging how far we still have to go to improve the lives of Black Canadians.

His legacy reminds us that while it is important to celebrate our success fighting anti-Black racism in Canadian communities and institutions, there is still more work to be done.

Tiffany Gooch is a Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, February 25, 2018)