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Herb Gray leaves legacy of wit and integrity

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Herb Gray

(VIDEO) Canada’s first-ever Jewish federal cabinet minister, Herb Gray, was remembered with affection for his martini-dry wit, deft deflection skills during Question Period, powerful oratory and even for his affinity for rock music following his April 21 death at age 82 in Ottawa.

Friends and admirers, however, said Gray’s greatest legacy would be his sheer longevity, integrity, devotion to social justice and respect for the rules and customs of the House of Commons, where bitter partisanship now prevails.

His serious, stolid appearance belied his reputation for wit, self-deprecation, and a total lack of cynicism.

Colleagues once teasingly voted Gray as the “second sexiest man in Canada,” and on hearing the news, he demanded a recount.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a close friend of Gray’s for many years, described him to The CJN as an “ultimate mensch,” who excelled in every capacity he undertook.

“He was the dean of Parliament in terms of length and quality of service,” Cotler said.

Two incidents stood out in his mind: in the 1970s, Gray, then a cabinet minister, agreed to be active in a Commission of Inquiry on Economic Coercion and discrimination related to the Arab boycott of Israel, a position that could have led him to be “at variance” with government policy.

Second, Gray made his good offices available to Cotler when he began to take up the case of Soviet prisoner of conscience Natan Sharansky.

“It was Herb who made the pivotal call to me to take up [Sharansky’s] cause,” Cotler recalled.

His moniker was the “Gray Fog,” so named for his legendary Question Period obfuscation. Cotler laughed when recalling how the speaker of the House was left completely perplexed when Gray employed the Yiddish term narishkleiten (foolishness) when describing a comment coming from the other side of the House.

Gray served as a Liberal member of Parliament for just short of 40 years  – including as deputy prime minister under Jean Chretien – between 1962 and 2002 in the riding of Essex (which later became Windsor) West, the third-longest tenure in Canadian history behind former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier and John Haggart, both of whom died before 1920.

Gray served the longest continuous tenure as an MP in Canadian history.

“Beloved by all, Herb devoted a lifetime to his party and his country, in both good times and bad,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said in a statement. “He left behind an immense legacy unmatched by most in Canadian history.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacted on Twitter: “He was an honourable parliamentarian who served his country well.”

In an April 23 statement, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs described Gray as an “icon in Canadian politics, a pioneer in Jewish civic engagement, and a distinguished Parliamentarian who made many contributions to advancing democracy in Canada.”

B’nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant called him “an outstanding individual who represented his country and community with distinction. He will always be remembered as an honourable member of Parliament who served his constituency well and was always ready to speak out on human rights issues – particularly when they impacted the Canadian Jewish community.”

The Windsor-born Gray was elected 13 consecutive times in his riding, the first in Opposition during the Tory government of John Diefenbaker and the last during Chrétien’s Liberal government.

Gray’s first appointment to cabinet was at age 38, without portfolio in 1969 in the government of Pierre Trudeau, and he would go on to be named to cabinet 11 times over 22 years under three prime ministers: Trudeau, John Turner, and Chrétien.

During Chrétien’s term, Gray even served as his point man in Parliament during the so-called Shawinigate affair.

Gray’s portfolios over the years included National Revenue; Industry, Trade, and Commerce; and Treasury Board president. Gray also served as government house leader (1993-1997); solicitor general (1993-1997); and as deputy prime minister (1997-2002). In 1990, he served as interim Opposition leader for 10 months following Turner’s departure.

Gray’s parents were Harry and Fanny, immigrants from Belarus who ran a yards-goods store in Windsor. He met his wife, Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, while she was a university student working on the Montreal election campaign of future prime minister John Turner.

According to the Globe and Mail, it was Turner who first suggested to Sholzberg that she and Gray meet. They married in 1967 and had two children, Jonathan and Elizabeth.

Gray received many honours and awards during his lifetime. He was among the few Canadian parliamentarians ever to be named “the Right Honourable,” was a Companion of the Order of Canada, and received numerous honorary degrees and Jubilee medals.

In 2010, he even had a parkway in Windsor renamed after him.

Following his retirement in January 2002, Gray was named Canadian chair of the International Joint Commission, which deals with Canadian-American air and water issues and was appointed chancellor of Carleton University in November 2008.

Sholzberg-Gray told the Globe and Mail that her husband would be remembered for his “brilliance, wit, and charisma.”

“He was always underestimated,” she said. “He was a brilliant orator. He gave a political speech just as good as the best of them.”

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