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Lifelong health-care advocate appointed to Order of Canada

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Sharon Sholzberg-Gray. (Owen Purcell-Sutherland photo)

On Friday, June 29, Governor General Julie Payette announced 105 new appointments to the Order of Canada. Among them were many Jewish-Canadians, including Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, for her work advocating for Canadians’ health care.

Yet her career as a health-care advocate was something of an accident, she says.

Some time after graduating law school at McGill, she moved to Ottawa, where her late husband Herb Gray was a Member of Parliament representing his hometown of Windsor, Ont. (Gray was made a member of the Order of Canada as well. He was appointed in 2003 for his career in politics, which included being the first Jewish federal cabinet minister.)

Sholzberg-Gray decided to do graduate work in public law because she was interested in constitutional law and human rights. But as a member of the Quebec bar she couldn’t work in an Ontarian law firm.

She remembered being interested in the Medicare debate in the mid-’60s, when she was the first female president of McGill’s student union. Coverage for hospitals had been implemented in the previous decade, but Lester B. Pearson’s government was debating whether to cover physicians. So after working as a legal-aid researcher and executive director of a non-profit for international women’s issues, she found a new public purpose when she began serving as the executive director of the Canadian Long Term Care Association.

“It never occurred to me that I would ever have an Order of Canada. So I’m deeply honored to receive this award”

“I became a health-care advocate, basically, arguing that even though hospital services were covered, people were worried about wait times and physician services. We didn’t have broad enough coverage in our system for home and community care.”

In the mid-’90s, Sholzberg-Gray was part of a group that successfully lobbied the federal government to make drastic policy changes.

“All the national health organizations formed the coalition. And I was chosen at some point to head the coalition or to be co-chair of it. Basically we were a ‘save Medicare’ coalition. The federal transfer for health to the provinces was on the track to zero – in fact it would have been zero,” she said. “And we kind of reversed that trend and turned it around entirely by constant advocacy for about 10 or 15 years.”

That advocacy includes the 2004 Canada Health Accord. The government adopted the financial figures suggested by the Canadian Healthcare Association, of which Sholzberg-Gray was the president at the time. Sholzberg-Gray stresses that everything she accomplished was part of a larger team effort, but her appointment to the Order of Canada proves she was always an integral member of those teams.

“Sharon Sholzberg-Gray is being recognized for her leadership in health care, notably for her advocacy for access to publicly funded and accessible health-care services for all Canadians. Amongst other things, she was an influential advisor on the work of the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada,” said Sara Régnier-McKellar, a communications advisor for the Governor General, in an emailed statement.

When Sholzberg-Gray received the phone call informing her of her appointment, she saw the Governor General’s caller ID and thought she would be invited to a dinner. Then she learned the real reason.

“I couldn’t believe it, frankly.… It never occurred to me that I would ever have an Order of Canada. So I’m deeply honored to receive this award,” she said.

“It’s amazing and whatnot, but I have to tell you, as much as I’m thrilled of the award for the Order of Canada and happy with the work that I and so many other people did to move the Medicare agenda forward in Canada, I don’t think anything is as important to me as my two children and my 10 grandchildren.”

Other Jewish-Canadians who will receive the Order of Canada include Lorne Michaels, Julia Gersovitz, Eli Bornstein, Allan Steven Detsky, Arthur Fogel, Abraham Fuks, Nahum Gelber, Julia Gersovitz, Mitchell L. Halperin, Dianne Kipnes, Irving Kipnes, Morton Minc, Calin Rovinescu and Yvonne Steinert.