While Brandonites and Manitobans from all walks of life celebrated the life of former Brandon city councillor Errol Black Thursday, nothing could better describe how much Black meant to them than the actions of his son Thomas.
At the end of the service, with the John Lennon song "Imagine" playing over the sound system, Thomas Black was handed the urn containing his father’s ashes on the stage at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium. He grasped it with both hands solemnly, as though to hug the patriarch of the family one last time.
Black, who died on Saturday after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 73, was remembered by longtime friends, trade unionists, New Democrats and his beloved East Enders for his contributions to the city and province.
With his voice breaking often from emotion, Premier Greg Selinger shared with the approximately 600 people who attended the service that Black played a significant role in creating positive changes to public policy and fighting for what he believed in.
"I thought he always had a unique character of being able to be outside the situation pushing you while at the same time being inside and trying to make it better," Selinger said, with voice shaking. "He called to our better angels. He acted as a role model on how to get things done."
In what Selinger called a "classic Errol Black" moment during his time as Riverview ward councillor, the Premier recalled how Black had pushed to have players from the Brandon Greys senior men’s baseball teams from the 1940s and 1950s recognized. Not were these teams Black watched as a youth, but many of the players had been part of the Negro Leagues and the Greys even had a Cuban player. As he kept in touch with the players, he brought them to an August 2005 city council meeting so they would get the recognition he believed they deserved. However, in one of the many times then mayor Dave Burgess ruled a Black motion out of order, it led to this exchange.
"The Mayor ruled the request out of order and this of course led to a classic moment where Errol challenged the chair and in a moment probably surprising even Errol, winning the challenge and getting to introduce the players to city council and getting city council to note in the minutes the players were recognized, given pins and introduced to the community," Selinger said. "It was a good example of Errol challenging authority and at the same time being engaged in the governing process."
Selinger later noted that Black had not only helped to get the Brandon Greys team inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Not being satisfied accomplishing that much on a point of privilege, he moved that the (city) council contribute $1,000 to bring them all to Morden for the induction ceremony and got the money out of city council," Selinger said.
"And any of you on city council know that’s no easy accomplishment either. I’m not sure what the Brandon Sun had to say about that, but I have a feeling I’ll hear about it right after this."
While Black is remembered as one of Manitoba’s best-ever trade unionists, and several top members of the province’s union movement were in attendance,
Black’s children fondly remember their dad and the family time he shared with them. After his diagnosis with ALS, Black made a trip east to visit family and they went to Niagara Falls this past summer.
"We went to the butterfly museum, which him being the nature guy, he really appreciated," Thomas Black said. "And if you have been to Niagara Falls, you are familiar with the Maid of the Mist, a boat ride, so we decided let’s do that. It wasn’t really good weather and if you have been on the (boat) there are only two possibilities. One, you get soaked, or the other is you go and hide, look at the falls and stay out of the water. Well of course my father grabbed my mother and brings her out on to the deck and proceeds to get completely soaked. I’m thinking he’s insane, but he’s having a blast nonetheless. That really was my father. It sums him up. He’s embraced life under whatever circumstance there may be, took on challenges, constantly pushed the envelope at every opportunity and had a lot of fun doing that."
Black’s longtime friend, Wayne Fines, said his pal was "100 per cent East End."
"Hard-working, blue collar, honest," Fines said of his friend, who had the nickname Blackie.
Fines said there were several instances where Black attempted to get his friends out of sticky situations where neighbourhood rivalries were factors and would back them whatever the cost. At one teen dance when a neighbourhood rival entered the hall and spoke ill of the neighbourhood, Black defended it.
"In flies in our fearless leader, Blackie," Fines said. "Bang. Boom. Thump. Ouch. And it’s over. It’s not good, Pummeled. Blackie got pummeled. I’m proud to say it wasn’t the last time he got pummelled. But whatever the odds were against him, he never backed down if the cause was right."
In one instance, that also meant jumping on to a slow moving passenger train with Fines to avoid a sticky situation, where they were approached by the train’s conductor.
"Where did you boys get on (the train)?" the conductor asked the duo.
"Regina, good sir," Black confidently replied.
"We have not been to Regina," the conductor said, leaving the two to scram from the train to head back home.
Other speakers included members from the trade union movement and left-wing political colleagues such as Jim Silver and Brandon and District Labour Council president Jan Chaboyer, former Brandon East NDP MLA Len Evans, and family members Dennis Black and Kyla Shoemaker.
Black is survived by his wife Margaret, sons Sean, Dennis and Thomas, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Statements were read from dignitaries unable to attend the Errol Black memorial service in person, such as former governor general Edward Schreyer, former Manitoba premiers Howard Pawley and Canadian Ambassador to the United States Gary Doer.
The service was well attended by Black’s political contemporaries such as former mayor Reg Atkinson and former city councillors Arnold Grambo, Don Jessiman and Doug Paterson. Current NDP MLAs also attending included Premier Greg Selinger, Drew Caldwell (Brandon East), Speaker Daryl Reid (Transcona), Rob Altemeyer (Wolseley), James Allum (Fort Garry-Riverview), Labour Minister Jennifer Howard (Fort Rouge). Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer and Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin were also in attendance.
Brandon’s current city council contingent at the service included Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, Coun. Jeff Fawcett (Assiniboine), Coun. Corey Roberts (Rosser), Coun. Murray Blight (Victoria), Coun. Jeff Harwood (University), Coun. Jim McCrae (Meadows), Coun. Garth Rice (South Centre), Coun. Len Isleifson (Riverview) and Coun. Jan Chaboyer (Green Acres). Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond) and Coun. Shawn Berry (Linden Lanes) did not attend due to work commitments.
Many others from the Brandon University community, where Black was an economics professor for three decades, and the labour movement were in attendance.
words of tribute
"There is a theme that runs through everything Errol did. He had a belief in people. He had a belief in community and the power of us all acting together for the collective good."
— Jim Silver, Canadian Centre
for Policy Alternatives.
"He remained (at Brandon University) for 30 years, over which he became an outstanding economics professor. But he also became a social activist dedicated to helping others and he was always on the side of the underdog."
— Former Brandon East NDP MLA Len Evans.
"Errol and I may both have thought when I rejoined city council in 2006 that there would be lots of opportunities for a donnybrook, but it didn’t happen. … I think if the cause was his, he didn’t care who he worked with as long as he could advance it forward. I felt I was getting respect from him and I hope he felt he was getting mine."
— Coun. Jim McCrae (Meadows)
"He’s done a lot of really good things. You talk about the social justice issues, but we also talk about environmental issues and … a lot of the legacy Errol left behind, we are still working with. I learned from him you never give up."
— Coun. Len Isleifson (Riverview)
"He was extremely skilled at presenting material to the general public in a manner they could understand."
—Brandon University professor and Brandon University Faculty Association member Bill Paton
"(I learned) to be constant in your principles, integrity, to have firm convictions and to always stay true to your principles. Errol Black and Len Evans are the two most important people in my life in terms of politics."
— Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell
"With all of the years Errol and I worked together, trying to convince people in power to change their ways, to the power of word and strongly-worded letters, I have had an extremely difficult time trying to find the words to express the loss of my dear friend and the words that capture the love and respect I have for Errol."
— Coun. Jan Chaboyer (Green Acres), President of the Brandon and District Labour Council