Order of Ontario honours recognize life of service
Long overdue, and the Order of Canada should be next very soon.
That’s the overwhelming consensus after activist, teacher and politician, Dr. Howard McCurdy, was appointed to the Order of Ontario. A Biology professor for 25 years at the University of Windsor where he was the first tenured Black faculty member in Canada, McCurdy was elected to Windsor City Council in 1979.
He served two terms before being elected the Member of Parliament for Windsor-Walkerville in 1984. He was re-elected four years later as the federal representative for Windsor-St. Clair.
“To be named to the Order of Ontario is an honour and validation for the things I have devoted my time to,” said McCurdy who was in the audience at the Cobo Hall in Michigan on June 23, 1963 when the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his Great March on Detroit speech.
“I am also glad that my scientific accomplishments have been recognized in addition to my civil rights and political activism.”
While he was unsuccessful in his bid for the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada leadership, McCurdy – who has published 45 scientific articles – is credited with raising the political consciousness of Blacks across Canada.
The McCurdy family’s arrival in Canada coincided with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 and he traces his activism to his ancestors.
“My family has had a long and proud history of involvement in the human rights movement,” he said. “It dates back to at least when my great-great grandfather (Nasa McCurdy Jr.) was an agent in the Underground Railroad.”
The founder and first president of the Canadian College of Microbiologists, McCurdy was the NDP’s first Black MP and the second Black federal member of Canada’s parliament after Lincoln Alexander.
Poet, playwright, literacy critic and university lecturer, Dr. George Elliott Clarke, who campaigned for McCurdy and was his parliamentary assistant in Ottawa for four years up until 1991, said African-Canadians owe the former MP a great debt for the power and panache of his representation during the nine years that he was the only Black in the House of Commons.
“He never shrank from being a clear and strong voice in favour of our collective advancement, even when it was not politically advantageous for him to be that voice,” said Clarke who first met McCurdy in 1979 at a National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC) convention in Toronto.
“No appointment or election has ever prevented Howard from speaking the truth to power and doing so with irrefutable intelligence and panache. No other African-Canadian MP has ever spoken so cogently and boldly in relation to the struggle for real equality. In short, he has never quieted and never seduced to betray his fundamental principles and priorities…He has been a leader in every way from the style of his wardrobe to the cut and thrust of his speeches and the fine-thinking of his politics. Every Black politician in Canada needs to study his speeches and follow his shining example.”
McCurdy, 79, was one of the few politicians that the Dalai Lama met with privately during a visit to Canada in the early 1990s and he also travelled to South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela during the transition from apartheid to democracy.
Though elected to public office for the first time 33 years ago, McCurdy has been politically active for most of his life.
Denied access to bowl or play pool and golf at public courses because of his skin colour, he led a campaign as a teenager back in the 1940s for an anti-discrimination by-law in his then Amherstburg hometown. Later, while at Michigan State University, he served as president of that institution’s National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) chapter and helped establish the NBCC.
From 2003 to 2005, he was president of the Windsor & District Black Coalition, a group which was known as the Guardian Club when he co-founded it in the 1960s.
The father of four hopes to complete his autobiography next year.
This year’s group of Order of Ontario appointees also includes Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO) executive secretary-treasurer, Ucal Powell, three-time Toronto mayor, David Crombie and former Ontario Opposition leader, John Tory.
“I was shocked when I received the call last November,” said Powell. “I had no idea that my name was put forward for this prestigious honour which means a lot to me.”
A graduate of St. Andrew Technical High School who migrated to Canada 43 years ago, Powell’s union represents nearly 20,000 workers in a variety of skilled trades, including carpentry, drywall and resilient flooring.
A carpenter by trade, he joined the union a year after coming to Canada in 1969.
Powell is a founding member of 31 Division Community Police Liaison Committee bursary program, which is designed to assist young people interested in obtaining marketable skills through education and apprenticeship, and the Humber River Regional Hospital Foundation’s board of directors.
Through Powell, the province’s Carpenters Union recently presented a $50,000 cheque (approximately Jam$4.5 million) to the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE). It was the largest ever single donation ever made to PACE which has adopted more than 350 basic schools and early childhood institutions in Jamaica and impacted the lives of nearly 55,000 children over the last 25 years.
Tory, a former MPP and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is an advocate for the underprivileged and supporter of many initiatives and causes in the Black community.
This year’s appointees were chosen for their contribution to the arts, law, science, medicine, history, politics, philanthropy and the environment.
“The Order of Ontario is the highest provincial honour bestowed on an individual,” said Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley, who will invest the appointees this afternoon at Queen’s Park. “With it, we recognize the greatest minds, forward-thinkers, humanitarians, activists and pioneers in our province. These people change lives here and the world over.”
A total of 567 provincial residents have been appointed to the Order of Ontario since its establishment in 1987.