In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
David Lewis, influenced by his upbringing in a Russian shtetl and his father’s involvement with an anti-Communist socialist movement, helped shape Canada’s political landscape as we know it today.
Lewis, born Losz in 1909, grew up in what is now Belarus. Lewis’ father, Moishe, was involved with the Jewish Labour Bund, a socialist party that called for equality for all, and national rights for the Jewish community.
It was his father’s vocal opposition to the Bolsheviks that landed him in jail, and prompted the family to immigrate to Montreal in 1921.
After Lewis graduated from a Montreal high school, he enrolled at McGill University studying arts and law.
When he won a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford in 1932, he lead the Young People’s Socialist League and gave lectures sponsored by the anti-Communist socialist club.
Throughout his scholarship at Oxford, he established contacts with socialists in the British Labour Party and by the time he graduated in 1935, he was offered a candidacy in a safe seat in the British House of Commons, and was even groomed by a Labour Party official to be prime minister.
Lewis ultimately opted to return to Montreal to help build the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a predecessor to the New Democratic Party. In 1935 David Lewis became the national secretary of the CCF.
Lewis first ran for the CCF in the 1940 federal election in York West and lost, but the party asked Lewis to run in the 1943 by-election. Lewis suffered another hard-fought loss, and it took Lewis many years to recover.
In 1950, Lewis resigned as the CCFs national secretary – although he remained on the national executive until 1954 – and he moved to Toronto to practice law. He became the chief legal adviser to the United Steele Workers Canadian division, and assisted them in their dealings with the Mine-Mill union. His involvement with the USW also led to the creation of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956.
He was elected to become CCF’s national chairman in 1954, and was instrumental in the drafting and passing of the Winnipeg Declaration in 1956, which meant CCF’s economic policies would include capitalism, under strict government regulation.
In 1958, Lewis was elected party president at a Montreal convention, and by 1961, the CCF became the New Democratic Party, with Tommy Douglas taking the reins as leader.
‘He was seen by many in the community as an outsider’
But just two days after the NDP’s founding convention, Douglas insisted that Lewis run in the following election, and he did, in his home riding of York South.
One of the biggest challenges Lewis would have to overcome to win the election, was to obtain the Jewish vote.
Lewis, a secular Jew who opposed the founding of the State of Israel, was seen by many in the community as an outsider. In spite of this he managed to secure the Jewish vote and in 1962, Lewis was elected in York South, and finally became an MP.
The following year, after the defeat of Diefenbaker’s minority government, Lewis lost his seat, but was re-elected in 1968 and became the NDP leader in the House of Commons after Douglas lost his seat.
Lewis, who led the NDP through the 1972 federal election, is perhaps best remembered for referring to Canadian corporations as “corporate welfare bums.”
In the 1974 election, Lewis lost his seat, and he resigned as party leader in 1975.
Lewis went on to become a Carleton University professor, and even a travel correspondent for the Toronto Star.
He was appointed to the highest level of the Order of Canada for his contributions to social reform in Canada and has public school in Scarborough named after him.
Following a years-long battle with cancer, Lewis died in 1981, leaving his legacy to his children and grandchildren.
His son Stephen Lewis, is a former Ontario NDP leader who served as the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. His other son, Michael Lewis, was a former Ontario NDP secretary, and his daughter, Janet Solberg, was president of the Ontario NDP in the 1980s. His other twin daughter is Nina Libeskind, the wife and business partner of architect Daniel Libeskind. His grandson Avi Lewis, is a broadcaster.