Dr. Horace Alexis has left lasting legacy
March 6, 2019
When Maggie Fondong’s guidance counsellor encouraged her to apply for a new scholarship in 1998, she did and was rewarded with $40,000 over four years through the Black Canadian Scholarship Fund (BCSF) that Dr. Horace Alexis helped to create two years earlier by investing $5,000 of his own money.
Just one scholarship was presented the first year.
“That was huge because it allowed me to focus on my education without having to go out and get a part-time job,” said Fondong who graduated with honours from Trent University in 2002. “It also told me that there are people in the community who saw my potential and were willing to make an investment in me.”
Alexis’ impact on Fondong extended beyond the scholarship.
After learning she was seeking a part-time summer job at the end of her third year in university, he hired her to work in his medical office.
Leaving Trinidad & Tobago in 1958 on a scholarship to study medicine in Canada, Alexis passed away on February 7 in his 87th year.
A senior researcher with the Veterans Ombudsman office in Ottawa, Fondong still harbors fond memories of her time working for Alexis who was a recipient of the University of Ottawa 2016 Alumni Association Award of Excellence.
“He was very friendly, encouraging, helpful and personable,” she said. “It was obvious that he wanted young people to succeed and he would do whatever it took to assist you.”
Administered by the Ottawa Community Foundation, the scholarship fund was near and dear to Alexis who did his medical studies at the University of Ottawa and interned at Toronto Western Hospital in 1967 before starting a practice in Petrolia, a small town in southwestern Ontario.
“He felt it was exceedingly important for Black youths to pursue post-secondary education,” said Rev. Elizabeth December-Lovell who chairs the foundation. “He not only felt that way but he put something in place to ensure a legacy was left for youths to have an opportunity for higher education.”
A total of 54 scholarships worth $312,000 have been awarded in the last two decades.
December-Lovell, who moved to Ottawa from Toronto 35 years ago, was among hundreds of Alexis’ family physicians.
“His office was always open for you to go and chat with him if you were having some challenges,” she said. “If he was unable to help, he would connect you with someone else.”
Freelance writer Oscar Wailoo, who resided in Ottawa for a decade in the 1970s, credits Alexis with saving his life.
“It was around 1975 and I was weak and feeling very sick,” he said. “Something just wasn’t right and I called a friend (the late Donald Abrams was a diplomat at the Guyana High Commission in Ottawa) to come and take me to see a doctor. He took me to Dr. Alexis who advised that I had to go to a hospital right away because I was losing blood rapidly and could succumb to a heart attack.”
Diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, Wailoo received several blood transfusions while hospitalized at the Ottawa Hospital Riverside campus.
“In my interactions with Dr. Alexis, I found him to be very personable, pleasant and professional,” Wailoo added.
Alexis’ decision to set up practice in Petrolia after his internship ended was met with opposition.
“There was a petition to run him out of town because a Black doctor in the 1960s wasn’t welcomed,” said software engineer and motivational speaker Rachel Decoste who was born and raised in Ottawa.
Picking up his bags and leaving town wasn’t an option for Alexis.
Instead, he became immersed in the community, becoming head of its credit union, a member of the Sarnia Victorian Order of Nurses and Chief of Staff at the Eleanor Engleheart Hospital.
Alexis, who enjoyed dancing and travelling and was a standard-bred horse owner, spent seven years in Petrolia before returning to Ottawa and establishing a private practice in 1974.
“In the 70s and 80s, there were no studies that proved that medical services were rendered differently according to race,” Decoste said. “But local minorities knew and that’s why almost every Black person in town was his patient. He provided culturally atoned care for decades before it became a buzz word.”
He was part of a group that raised funds for the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University before starting the BCSF.
“The scholarship fund has helped dozens of Black students, many of them immigrants,” Decoste pointed out. “I remember a kid who won in 2008 and his family who were refugees from an African country. The five children and their single mom lived in a two-bedroom apartment and this kid worked as a janitor at Bayshore Mall while attending high school to provide for his siblings. I once asked Dr. Alexis why he started it and he told me he often went to bed hungry when he was a medical student. He said he had a small family to feed and he struggled to make ends meet. The scholarship fund was meant to pay it forward for future community leaders.”
Rushelle Richardson said the generous educational scholarship she received in 2013 changed the trajectory of her life.
“With my mother being single and having no money to help me with my university education meant that I would most likely have been unable to continue university studies beyond my first semester had I chose to pursue one of the four programs I was accepted into,” she said. “This is where the scholarship came in handy. It provided not only the remaining funds ensuring I was able to start and complete my first year relatively free of financial burden, but it opened the door for countless networking opportunities in my community.”
Meeting Dr. Alexis on multiple occasions at BCSF events left a lasting impression on Richardson.
“He was courteous, professional and very interested in the scholarship candidates and recipients,” she added. “I will remember him for the air of confidence he exuded when he entered a room. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities afforded me by his foundation.”
Richardson, who graduated from Trent University & Queen’s University concurrent education program with an honours degree in Hispanic Studies, is preparing for graduate school.
By providing young people with the opportunity to get higher education, it was Alexis’ hope that a ripple effect would be created that would have a positive impact on future generations.
“It’s like a flower opening slowly and you only have to wait to see the whole expanse before you,” he once said.
Alexis is survived by his wife Christiane, seven children – award-winning writer Andre Alexis is the eldest -- and older brother Dr. Carlton Alexis, a former Howard University interim president who served in the United States Army medical battalion for five years up until 1961 and was discharged with the rank of captain.