OTTAWA — The funeral for deputy prime minister Herb Gray was a who’s who of politicians of all stripes and public figures, yet it was also a warm and intimate gathering of family and friends bidding farewell to an honoured and respected man of the people.
More than 500 people attended, including four former prime ministers – Joe Clark, John Turner, Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien – as well as Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, former Liberal MP Bob Rae, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Roseanne Runte, president of Carleton University, where Gray was chancellor.
The April 25 funeral was held at Congregation Machzikei Hadas, where Gray was a long-time member and regular attendee. Spiritual leader Rabbi Reuven Bulka conducted the service, along with cantor Shimon Fogel, also known to many of those in attendance as the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Former Windsor MPP Dwight Duncan and former prime minister Martin, both of whom knew Gray from their roots in Windsor, spoke of their personal relationships with Gray and his family, emphasizing that he was a kind, honourable man whose reputation was sterling in what can be the less than kind environment of politics. They also told anecdotes about Gray’s quiet wit and love of rock ‘n roll.
As Sharon Solzberg-Gray, Gray’s spouse of 46 years, sat stoicly and proudly by, the two Gray children provided an intimate portrait of a man whose first love was his family.
Jonathan’s remarks, which he delivered with an often-breaking voice, were heartfelt and emotional. He described a man whose life revolved around his beloved wife and children, as well as his grandchildren, on whom he doted.
Jonathan spoke of his father’s devotion to and pride in his Jewish identity, noting that in 1980 when he was being sworn in as a cabinet minister, he donned a kippah and proudly wore it throughout the ceremony.
“Another Jewish value my father embodied was his avoidance of negative speech – lashon hara. Politics can be very mean… but we never heard a bad word. He always gave people the benefit of the doubt.”
He said despite his many accomplishments, which included being Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister and one of the longest-serving MPs in Canadian history, his father wasn’t boastful.
“He was very humble,” Jonathan said. “He worked hard at his task and didn’t spend a lot of time trying to get credit. He didn’t like to draw attention to himself. His lifestyle was modest. He never bragged about his own accomplishments, only about his children and grandchildren.”
When Jonathan was very young, he was afraid of the dark, and his father would sit in a big chair beside him, doing his work, so that Jonathan could relax and fall asleep. Jonathan told The CJN about how in the final hours of his father’s life, he was able to “return the favour” by sitting at his bedside in the hospital and ensuring that he was not left alone after death.
“In April of 1996, my father was a very healthy man who suddenly collapsed,” Jonathan said. Diagnosed with cancer, Gray was given a very poor prognosis and was expected to survive only a very short time. Yet, he lived for another 18 years.
“He was able to serve his country, see his children married and welcome into the world eight grandchildren. The cancer diagnosis, almost 18 years ago to the day, helped him to appreciate the good things… Let this be a lesson to everyone to appreciate every day as a gift.”
Elizabeth Gray-Smith thanked her father’s former staff members and election volunteers, as well as the people of Windsor for “not only electing my father 13 times, but for supporting him with love and respect, which he returned to them.”
She also joked that he would have quietly appreciated the recognition he received after his death.
“He was modest, but I gotta tell you, he would have loved the press he was getting this week!” she said.
Gray leaves behind his wife, son, daughter, their spouses and eight grandchildren. The family asked that those wishing to make a memorial donation can do so to the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, Carleton or the Torah Academy of Ottawa.