Former MP Herb Gray had passions – democracy, Canada, Parliament, the Liberal party, the Jewish People. He loved each of them, and he devoted his public life defending and invigorating all of them.
Everyone who knew Herb has a favourite memory of him. Mine are meeting him at various lectures and conferences on Jewish topics in Ottawa – he seems to have gone to all of them, especially after he resigned from Parliament. He always sat in the front row to greet and chat with as many members of the audience as there was time for, and to make sure he could hear the speaker.
I spoke at some of these events, and what I loved best was talking about the difference between the Canadian and American Jewish communities and how much more involved in politics were the latter. In America, for example, there were more than 50 Jews in Congress, while in Canada there were only three in the House of Commons. I also pointed out that the first Jew named to a cabinet position in the United States was by Teddy Roosevelt some 100 years ago, while “the first Jew selected to a Canadian cabinet was so recent he is here with us tonight.”
Whereupon Herb would stand and acknowledge the enthusiastic and affectionate applause from everyone in the room. It was a moment of great spontaneity, and Herb loved it – every time it happened, and it happened often.
For the Jewish community Herb was a trailblazer. Not only was he the first to be in cabinet, he was also the first – and still the only – Jew to serve as leader of the opposition, if only briefly following the resignation of Liberal leader John Turner in 1990. He was also the only Jew ever to act as deputy prime minister of Canada, allowing him to stand in for the prime minister in Parliament and cabinet meetings when he was away. And when he gave up his seat, he was the longest continuously serving member of Parliament in Canadian history.
Herb was a bit of a homer, inordinately proud of his native town of Windsor, Ont., and especially proud of its contribution to Canadian Jewry. He reminded me whenever we spoke that Windsor was a city of Jewish firsts. Aside from his achievements, in the 1930s, another Windsor Jew, David Croll, was the first Jewish mayor of a major Canadian city, and the first to sit in a provincial cabinet, as minister of public welfare and labour, in Ontario from 1934 to 1937. In 1955 Croll became the first Jew appointed to the Canadian senate. Not bad, Herb was fond of saying, for a Jewish community of a few thousand. And who could argue with that.
Herb’s appointment to cabinet by Pierre Trudeau in 1968 was a turning point for the Jewish community. For the first 100 years of Canada’s history since Confederation, Jews were kept out of the country’s mainstream. For much of that period, they were the considered the pariahs of Canadian society, despised, demeaned, discriminated against, targets of abuse, excluded from many professions and schools, and legally prevented from living and vacationing in a wide variety of areas from coast to coast.
The Canada Herb Gray grew up in was permeated by racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which was only just beginning to lift by the 1950s. It was his generation that finally broke through the quotas and restrictions that constrained and overwhelmed Canadian Jewry. With the help of suddenly sympathetic politicians and courts, Jewish leaders, veterans and trade unionists successfully lobbied to end discriminatory policies against minorities, thus opening up Canadian society not only for themselves, but for other ethnic and immigrant groups as well.
By the 1960s, a new era had dawned. For the first time in the nation’s history, there were Jewish deputy ministers, university presidents, members of corporate boards, including banks, hospital chiefs of staff, and partners in major downtown law firms. Only Parliament seemed immune. And then Herb’s elevation to cabinet opened doors for his fellow Jews. Within a few years, he was joined by three more in cabinet, a Jewish premier in British Columbia, a leader of a national political party and several provincial ministers.
Thanks to Herb, the 100 year logjam had finally been broken. n
Irving Abella is a history professor at York University, co-author of the book None is Too Many, and a member of the Order of Canada.