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Thank you to Brett Hedges, who donated to the podcast and requested an episode about Howard McCurdy, a fascinating individual. So, let’s explore his life!
Born on Dec. 10, 1932 in London, Ontario, Howard McCurdy was the descendant of Nasa McCurdy. Nasa was an agent on the Underground Railroad and he would help bring many African-American slaves escape into Canada.
When Howard McCurdy was nine, his family moved to Amherstburg, Ontario and it was there he would begin to experience his first taste of racism.
As a child, he attempted to join the Cub Scouts but was excluded and told to form a Black-only troop. This discrimination at a young age would push him to fight against racism for the rest of his life.
At the University of Western Ontario, McCurdy received a Bachelor of Arts and then attended Assumption University where he earned a Bachelor of Science.
At Michigan State University, he would earn a Master of Science and a PhD in microbiology and chemistry.
In 1956, he nearly made the Canadian Olympic team but he couldn’t afford to go to training camp in Vancouver. He was highly skilled at the high jump, long jump and sprinting.
In 1959, he would come back to Assumption College and joined the Biology Department where he became the first Black Canadian to hold a tenure track position at a Canadian university.
When the New Democratic Party was formed in 1961, it was McCurdy, who spoke at the founding convention, that chose the name of New Democratic Party.
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“Howard McCurdy of the Amherstburg New Party Club urged the recommendation go back with direction that the name New Democratic Party be considered, possibly put on the ballot.”
Many in the party wanted to call the party “New Party” but McCurdy felt this was foolish.
McCurdy stated that a married couple would not call their new baby by the title of “new baby” for the rest of its life.
In 1962, McCurdy founded the Guardian Club, an organization to fight racial discrimination in Windsor.
In 1969, he founded and became the first President of the National Black Coalition of Canada. McCurdy would criticize white liberals, stating that it was time white liberals stopped trying to choose leaders for the blacks. He added that white should join hands with blacks in fighting for a better society. He would state quote:
“Nothing has been said to indicate the white liberal is no longer a friend or an actual ally. All we’re asking is, that you listen more carefully to our views of what you should be doing.”
From 1974 to 1979, McCurdy served as the Department Head and from 1976 to 1980, he was the President of the Canadian College of Microbiologists, an organization he would found.
The decision to quit the university came down after the department’s selection committee, which was in charge of reappointing him as the head of the department or finding a successor, had in his words quote:
“refused after many meetings either to recommend or reject my candidacy or even to invite me to an interview.”
Among students, there was a petition drawn up where they gave their overwhelming support for McCurdy in the department, which had grown at a massive rate during McCurdy’s time as the head.
At the time, McCurdy was the only Canadian-born Black PhD to teach at a Canadian university.
When he quit his position at the university, he stated that it was not a tactic but an impulsive statement of personal dignity.
Over the course of his teaching career, he would author more than 50 scientific papers.
In 1979, McCurdy began his move into politics when he was elected as an alderman for Windsor, where he would serve for two terms.
In the 1984 federal election, he made the decision to run for Parliament. The Windsor Star would state quote:
“To some, Howard McCurdy is pompous and arrogant. He says he simply refuses to conform to stereotypes, as a professor, a councillor and a black man.”
McCurdy would respond to this by stating quote:
“To some people I guess I don’t correspond to stereotypes. I have by no measure ever considered myself to be inferior to anybody. But I don’t consider myself to superior to anybody. Some people say that I’m sharp-tongued and other people that like me say I’m articulate.”
McCurdy would be elected in the riding of Windsor Walkerville as a member of the NDP, becoming the second Black Canadian to serve in the House of Commons, and the first for the NDP. He was able to take 36 per cent of the vote in his riding. With four degrees to his name, he also may have been the most educated member of parliament at the time.
In 1986, speaking to Macleans magazine, McCurdy would state quote:
“This country has changed dramatically. Canada is doing quite well on civil rights but there is still not a single black in this country who has not been subjected to racism.”
Within the House of Commons, he was known as someone who would not hesitate to attack the government. In a Maclean’s article from Sept. 8, 1986 called Stars on the Horizon, it states quote:
“The forceful 54-year-old McCurdy entered the House of Commons in 1984 as the only Black MP. Since then, he has embarrassed the government with a succession of disclosures, including last March’s revelation that a former minister planned to use government funds to recruit new party members. His passionate and compelling opposition to the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa has won praise across the nation.”
In 1988, McCurdy was able to defeat his opponent by 14,000 votes for a landslide victory.
One year later, as the federal NDP were looking for a new leader after NDP icon Ed Broadbent, many would put their names in including Svend Robinson, the first openly gay MP in Canadian history.
McCurdy would state quote:
“Can a gay man lead a political party in Canada in 1989? A black? A woman? The country is ready for a woman as leader, but I am not so sure about the others.”
He would be all too right in his assessment.
McCurdy would make the decision to run for the leadership. He was considered a front runner and was polling at second behind Audrey McLaughlin for much of the campaign. He would say during one interview, quote:
“It looks excellent. We feel we are in second place right now.”
He would say in a speech to delegates at the leadership convention on Dec. 2, 1989 quote:
“We follow the principles that we have been taught by all the great religious leaders and that is that we must care for one another.”
He would finish with 10.7 per cent of the vote after the first ballot but he withdrew his name after that round. Audrey McLaughlin would become the new leader of the party.
One reason for his loss, considering he was a front runner, was the fact that McCurdy was battling the flu during the leadership election and that prevented him from delivering one of his typical high-octane speeches to the delegates.
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“The Windsor-St. Clair’s MPs passionate address did not strike the chord in the convention crowd that his campaign had been hoping for.”
Montreal area delegate Phil Edmonston stated quote:
“Expectations have been built up so much and he just didn’t meet them.”
McCurdy would state that the speech he gave was not one of his best, and he did not speak on the main topic of the day, the Meech Lake Accord, because he as not feeling well.
McCurdy would state of his loss in the leadership election quote:
“Among the visible minorities who are here, there’s a great deal of disappointment given the expectations that were built up. It wasn’t just empty air. It was on the basis of what we were told and the polling that we did.”
After he pulled out of the running, McCurdy put his support behind Steve Langon, another Windsor MP, who was described as a rival and rarely a friend.
While in the House of Commons, he was not free of racism unfortunately.
During one debate, Progressive Conservative MP Jack Shields would yell “Shut up Sambo” at McCurdy during one debate in the House of Commons. Shields would apologize to the House but not to McCurdy specifically. McCurdy would state that this was not just disrespectful to him, but to all Black Canadians.
In 1990, McCurdy would have a private meeting with Nelson Mandela during his visit to Canada soon after his release from prison. Mandela told McCurdy that Canada must keep sanctions against South Africa over apartheid. This was the third time that Mandela had met McCurdy. The two had met at the Namibia Independence celebrations and in Nigeria where McCurdy negotiated arrangements for the Canadian Nelson Mandela Fund, which would help Mandela with his political activities in South Africa. McCurdy said quote:
“He seemed no different than the last two times I saw him. I’ve been reading the press reports about the concerns about his health but I sat there admiring his great physical condition.”
Until Apartheid ended in South Africa, McCurdy was one of the most vocal Canadian politicians for keeping sanctions in place. It was for this that Mandela would personally thank McCurdy and call him a civil rights hero.
When Namibia became the newest country in the world in March 1990, McCurdy was selected as one of two MPs to represent Canada at the ceremonies in the country.
McCurdy would be defeated in the 1993 election. He would state on the night of his loss, quote:
“Just because I am smiling don’t misunderstand. I hate more than anything in the world to lose. But it makes it so sweet the victory when you come back to win again.”
In 1995, McCurdy campaigned for the Ontario New Democratic Party nomination for the Windsor-Sandwich riding but lost in a shocking defeat to Arlene Rousseau.
Even outside of being in Parliament, the issue of minorities in politics would always be close to his heart.
McCurdy would pass away on Feb. 20, 2018 at the age of 85.
Langdon, his old rival, would state that McCurdy was quote:
“A symbol of change, of diversity, of brilliance.”
His daughter Leslie would state quote:
“I think if people knew about it, and if we celebrated personalities in Canada the way they do in the United States, my father would be Canada’s Martin Luther King. Because he was an excellent speaker and spoke about civil and human rights all over the world.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh would say quote:
“Very saddened to hear about the passing of Howard McCurdy. He was a trailblazer, a powerful civil rights activist, our party’s first Black MP and a role model from my hometown of Windsor.”
Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to Parliament, would say of McCurdy quote:
“Howard was smart, bright and articulate. He was passionate about Black community issues and did not mince words. He was fearless at challenging injustices and always spoke to truth.”
Over the course of his life, McCurdy received several awards. In 1967, he was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal, and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of Ontario, and later that year also received the Order of Canada.
I will end this episode with the McCurdy’s citation for the Order of Canada. It states quote:
“Howard McCurdy is a champion of human rights. While serving as a professor of microbiology and chemistry at the University of Windsor, he worked to break down racial barriers in his community. He founded the Guardian Club, which raises awareness about racism and discrimination, and served as the first president of the National Black Coalition of Canada. His desire for equality eventually carried him into the political realm, where he was highly regarded both for his scientific expertise and for his commitment to social justice.”
Information from Macleans, Windsor Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Wikipedia, The Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, CBC, Global News, CTV, Calgary Herald,