Saul Cherniack is being remembered as a leader and a mentor, a man of principle and a true servant of the people. The former politician died in his sleep on March 29. He was 101.
Cherniack lived a life full of accomplishment. A former minister of finance and deputy premier in Ed Schreyer’s NDP government in Manitoba (1969-77) and a member of both the Order of Manitoba and the Order of Canada, he was arguably one of the most prominent people that Winnipeg’s Jewish community has ever produced.
Cherniack came from a prominent family with deep ties to the Winnipeg Jewish community. He grew up in a home steeped in culture, Yiddishkeit, community service and socialism.
His parents, Alter and Fannie Cherniack, were teenaged revolutionaries in Russia, where they sampled the interior of the Czar’s prisons for a short time.
Cherniack’s parents were among the founders of the Yiddish-language I.L. Peretz School – the first Yiddish day school in North America – and were heavily involved in Yiddish theatre in Winnipeg.
“We were always hosting visiting Yiddish writers and poets when I was growing up,” Cherniack told The CJN last year.
Among his younger first cousins was David Orlikow, who served as the NDP MP for Winnipeg North from 1962 to 1988.
Trained as a lawyer, Cherniack served during the Second World War in the Canadian Armed Forces’ intelligence corps, where he learned Japanese.
After the war, he was one of three lawyers across Canada who acted on behalf of Japanese-Canadians who had been interned during the war, in an effort of win them some compensation for their property that have been seized by the Canadian government.
Cherniack’s first foray into politics came in 1950, when he was elected to the Winnipeg School Board from the heavily Jewish Ward 3 – a position that members of the Cherniack family had held for more than 25 years.
After four years on the school board, he returned to the private sector. In the late 1950s, he served as the president of both the Jewish Welfare Fund (one of the forerunners of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg) and the Western branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
In 1959, he was elected to Winnipeg city council and, in 1962, he was elected to the Manitoba legislature for the north Winnipeg riding of St. John’s. He was one of just a handful of NDP MLAs – three of whom were Jewish – who were elected that year.
The NDP’s fortunes changed in the 1969 election, when Schreyer – a young, charismatic former NDP MP who defeated Jewish NDP MLA Sid Green in the pre-election leadership contest – unexpectedly won.
“We were stunned and a little anxious,” Cherniack later recalled.
The Schreyer government was defeated in 1977. Cherniack, however, was re-elected and continued to serve in the legislature until he stepped down in 1981. After the NDP returned to power that year, Cherniack was appointed to the board of Manitoba Hydro, where he also serve as board chair.
In 1984, he was appointed to the Canadian security intelligence review committee, which was charged with overseeing CSIS.
He stepped down from the committee and left public life in 1992, when his wife, Sybil Claire Zeal, became ill. She died in 1997.
Last year, he suffered a mild stroke, but his mind was still clear and he was able to remain at home until his death.