When Dr. Horace Alexis set up practice in Ottawa in the early 1970s, multicultural meant English and French. There wasn’t much room for a black physician who’d grown up dirt poor in Trinidad.Prejudice was a part of daily life.“That made him stronger,” said his wife, Christiane Millet. “Instead of being angry and bitchy, he said, ‘We’re going to do something.’ He believed in action. He did not believe in bitterness.”
Dr. Horace Alexis, on the right, with his brothers Carlton, centre, and Arthur, photographed in Trinidad in the late 1930s.
Alexis, one of the first black graduates from the University of Ottawa medical school, a tireless supporter of Ottawa’s black community and founder of the Black Canadian Scholarship Fund, died Feb. 7. He was 87.“He led the path for the rest of us,” said Rachel Décoste, a software engineer, author and motivational speaker, whose family was among Alexis’s huge roster of patients.“He gave us a model of a life lived, not just for himself, but to give back,” she said. “I try to emulate it myself.”Horace Clayton Alexis was born May 6, 1931, in Trinidad. He was a brilliant student, who graduated high school at age 16 and dreamed of being a doctor like his older brother, Carlton. But the family was poor so Alexis went to work instead, spinning records as a DJ on Radio Trinidad.He was 27 when he was finally able to follow Carlton to Canada and enrol in pre-med studies at the University of Ottawa. To make ends meet, he worked nights in the post office and weekends with a moving company.After graduation, he ended up in Petrolia, Ont., where he set up his first family practice. But in the mid-1960s, a black doctor wasn’t welcome in tiny Petrolia. A petition circulated pressuring him to leave. He didn’t. Instead, he went to work bettering the community. His practice grew, he was named chief of staff at the local hospital and became head of a local credit union.When he left to return to Ottawa in 1974 so his children would be closer to university, another petition was circulated, this time begging him to stay.“It was the proudest moment of my life,” he told the Citizen in 2008.
Dr. Horace Alexis and his wife, Christiane Millet.
“After people got to know him, they didn’t see his colour anymore,” Millet said. “They just saw a very competent doctor.”Alexis set up his first Ottawa practice on Sunnyside Avenue before moving to Main Street. He was soon the go-to doctor for black families in Ottawa.“In the ’70s and ’80s, there were no studies that proved that medical services were rendered differently according the race,” Décoste said. “But local minorities knew. That’s why almost every black person in town was his patient. He provided culturally attuned care decades before it became a buzz word.“You knew that unless you were the first patient of the day, you had a half-hour or an hour wait. He had more demand than there were hours in the day.”He loved being a general practitioner — “We get to see everything,” he said — and his caring manner and sense of humour made him popular with his patients.“He had such a positive attitude, even patients with a dramatic condition he would make them laugh,” Millet said. “You could hear his laugh all the way to the elevator.”When he closed his practice in 2004, he threw a party.“Horace made fishcakes for everyone and rum punch. He made the best rum punch in Ottawa,” she said.Alexis was married three times. He and Millet met in 1974 on her first day in Canada after immigrating from France when she brought her two-year-old daughter for a medical checkup. It was love at first sight, albeit with a problem: both were married to other people.The two had affairs and breakups for years until they were finally able to marry in 2006.“It was complicated, but when you’re meant for each other …” Millet said. “He said to me, ‘There was not one day I didn’t think of you.’ And it was the same for me. We were meant for each other. We were soul mates, total soul mates.”The couple went on to create a harmonious blended family of nine children and 11 grandchildren.Together, they also created the Black Canadian Scholarship Fund, seeded with $5,000 of Alexis’s own money. In 1996, the couple staged the first fundraising gala for the fund, scissoring up the chicken dinner in their own kitchen on a shoestring budget. The gala has been a December fixture on the Ottawa social scene ever since.The scholarship is unique in that it’s meant for students whose averages are in the 75- to 85-per-cent range, but who may have been dealing with hard circumstances. Décoste remembers one winner, from an immigrant family from Africa, who maintained a respectable 75-per-cent average, while working full-time as a janitor at Bayshore Mall, playing school sports and living in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and four siblings.“After all that you probably don’t have time left to work to get a 90-per-cent average,” she said. “He didn’t have the highest average, but he did have all the potential.”BCSF winners have gone on to become doctors, dentists and lawyers.“I once asked Dr. Alexis, ‘Why did you create this?’ He told me that when he was at Ottawa U, he often went to bed hungry,” his former patient Décoste recounted. “He said ‘I wanted to help people not go through what I went through.’ ”Outside medicine, Alexis enjoyed travelling and he and Millet made frequent visits to Europe and back to Trinidad.“He was a great calypso dancer. He loved to dance. And we would never miss a party. Whether it was a gala or a cocktail party, we were there.”The couple attended the BCSF gala in December, but in early January his health deteriorated. He had a fall in the shower and doctors found he was suffering from an aggressive Staph infection. He died at the Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus, with Millet at his bedside.A memorial service was held Feb. 15 at the Beechwood National Memorial Centre.email@example.comTwitter.com/getBAC
Dr. Horace Alexis (1931-2019) Photo used with permission from Pan-African Publications)
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