Dr. Howard McCurdy was 'a man of many firsts'
March 1, 2018
Former Ontario Premier Bob Rae clearly remembers his first meeting with Dr. Howard McCurdy.
Dave Cooke, a longtime provincial representative for Windsor and ex-Ontario Education Minister, made the introduction in the 1970s.
“I was struck immediately by Howard’s warmth, his wit and his passion,” said Rae who led the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) and was the province’s 21st Premier from 1990 to 1995. “He taught me a lot about the history and struggles of the Black community in southwestern Ontario.”
McCurdy, the NDP’s first Black Member of Parliament, died last week. He was 85.
Rae said McCurdy was a key player in civil rights and other political battles and an eloquent advocate for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I vividly recall Howard and Allan Blakeney (late Saskatchewan Premier) debating the issue at an NDP convention,” he said. “It was not a cantankerous debate, but a passionate and principled one. He was a terrific MP and I must say a great supporter of mine when I was Premier…I called him the morning after Barack Obama won the election in the United States and we had a good, long chat about the significance of that win and how big a challenge Obama would face. I loved Howard’s engaging ways. We have all lost a man of eloquence and commitment who mentored many people, myself included.”
The first tenured Black faculty member in Canada, McCurdy was a biology professor for 25 years at the University of Windsor where he was the science department head for five years before being elected to Windsor City Council in 1979.
He served two terms prior to his election to the federal parliament in 1984 as the representative for Windsor-Walkerville. He was re-elected four years later as the MP for Windsor-St. Clair.
Though unsuccessful in his bid for the federal NDP leadership, McCurdy – who published nearly 50 scientific articles – played a major role in 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 traced his activism to his ancestors.
“My family has had a long and proud history of involvement in the human rights movement,” he once said. “It dates back to at least when my great-great grandfather (Nasa McCurdy Jr.) was an agent in the Underground Railroad.”
McCurdy was Canada’s second Black MP after the late 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 McCurdy was the lone champion of African-Canadians nationally during his time in the House of Commons.
“He was an eloquent voice for human and civil rights and a savvy thinker and strategist for advancing visible minorities,” Clarke pointed out. “He was also a great patriot for Canada and anyone who doubts that should read his July 5, 1988 speech in Hansard opposing the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States.”
McCurdy was the first president of the National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC) formed in 1969 a few months after Canada’s largest student occupation at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University).
The organization collapsed 15 years later because of internal and community challenges.
“As a national Black leader, Howard attempted to save the NBCC from perishing, but was only able to keep it on life support, given the regional differences that proved impossible, 40 years ago, to surmount,” said Clarke who first met McCurdy in 1979 at an NBCC convention in Toronto. “He was also a real force in national life, given his attempt to become the first person of colour to lead a national party, the NDP, in 1989. Like the late Rosemary Brown before him, he didn’t succeed, but he was, like her, a trailblazer for Jagmeet Singh. There is so much to say about Howard and a biographer will find a rich life to relate. To put it simply, we are all bereft of a natural leader.”
Zanana Akande, the first Black woman elected to the Ontario legislative assembly and Canada’s first Black female cabinet minister, said McCurdy always insisted that Blacks received equal rights.
“Howard was a determined Black man with a good sense of justice,” she added. “Though he was someone who didn’t seek glory, he certainly is someone who deserves it.”
Historian and curator Dr. Sheldon Taylor noted that McCurdy was a pioneer, visionary and educated talent.
“Howard was also someone who wasn’t only grounded in his Windsor community,” he said. “Of all the politicians you can talk about, he was a politician for Black communities across Canada.”
Taylor curated the ‘Many Rivers to Cross: The African-Canadian Experience’ exhibit produced by the late Mairuth Sarsfield that was showcased in 1992 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
“The day after the opening, Howard stood up in parliament and spoke about the exhibit, ensuring that it was recorded in Hansard,” said Taylor. “That was significant for those of us of African descent because it said we had a major footprint on Canadian soil.”
McCurdy 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 39 years ago, 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 - was 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.
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.
McCurdy also co-founded and served as the first president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 1968 and the Canadian College of Microbiologists and was a mentor to countless young people, including elementary school teacher Yvette Blackburn who was the Windsor West NDP candidate in the 2003 provincial elections and the Scarborough-Agincourt candidate in the 2007 Ontario elections.
“He brought me into the NDP fold and supported me,” said Blackburn who has degrees in political science, education and criminology. “He was well-read, learned and always prepared to talk about issues pertinent to the Black community.”
For community worker Gwyn Chapman, McCurdy was her ‘Canadian father figure’.
“Howard reminded me a lot about my late father and that’s why I gravitated to him,” she said. “He was a strong pillar in my life and someone who saw and expected the best in and from me. He always believed in me and encouraged me to pursue great things. He was such a good man and I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Dental surgeon and art collector Dr. Kenneth Montague said McCurdy was his childhood hero, inspiring teacher, style icon, fellow art lover and loyal friend.
“Growing up Black in Windsor in the 1970s was a complicated experience,” he said. “It was easy to feel like an outsider, especially as the son of Jamaican immigrants. My father, Spurgeon Montague, was an educator who quickly struck up a deep and lasting friendship with Dr. McCurdy and his lovely family. All of the children would hang out, goof around and generally try to stay out of trouble. But we knew that we had each other and it made a difference.
“Years later as a University of Windsor student, I found myself enrolled in Dr. McCurdy’s microbiology course. At the end of the semester, he provided a compelling letter of reference that helped ensure my acceptance to the University of Toronto‘s dental school. Through seven years of university study, he was my only Black instructor. He will be missed.”
The recipient of the Order of Ontario and Order of Canada and a passionate golfer, McCurdy is survived by his wife of 41 years, Dr. Brenda Lee Wright McCurdy, children Leslie, Linda, Brian and Cheryl McCurdy-Ducre and 11 grandchildren.
The visitation takes place on Friday, March 2 from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at Families First Funeral Home, 3260 Dougall Ave. in south Windsor. A celebration of his life will be held on Saturday, March 3 at 3 p.m. at the same venue.
Donations can be made to the Kidney Foundation/Windsor & District chapter or Windsor & Essex County Cancer Centre Foundation.
Clarke will deliver the eulogy.
“This was dad’s request,” said Leslie McCurdy. “Of all the things, this is what he really wanted.”
The eldest sibling will remember her father for his academic brilliance and unwavering dedication to his family.
“He was interested in everything we did,” she said. “He was our sports coach, our guide in science fairs, our tutor and he went to extraordinary lengths to provide material for us to practice and study. He was a man of many firsts and I am so proud of him for standing up and doing things that weren’t done before. I would like to see his name mentioned in a Canadian history book.”
McCurdy’s autobiography, which was almost completed before his passing, is expected to be released later this year.