Home Culture Books & Authors A Jewish insider’s view of Canadian politics

A Jewish insider’s view of Canadian politics

A Leader Must Be A Leader: Encounters with Eleven Prime Ministers by Jerry S. Grafstein (Mosaic Press)

While we digest the results of the 43rd federal election (many of us belatedly, as the election date fell on Shemini Atzeret, the now-famous Jewish holiday), what better time than to review the latest political treatise by Jerry S. Grafstein? A Leader Must Be A Leader: Encounters with Eleven Prime Ministers is a fascinating exploration of the various qualities of political leadership through Grafstein’s personal encounters with the 10 men, and one woman, who have led our vast country from the 1957 election of John Diefenbaker, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Grafstein, a lawyer from London, Ont., who is now council emeritus at Minden Gross LLP, has had an incredible career, from co-founding an array of media companies, to serving as an advisor to several key federal ministries, to being appointed to the Senate in 1984 by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He was also named one of Canada’s top public intellectuals by the National Post.

(Full disclosure: I greatly admire Grafstein and consider him a friend.)

Although his book focuses on the leadership attributes of those who attained the highest pinnacle of political power in our country, Grafstein’s insight into the amalgamation of the different leadership qualities embodied by our prime ministers, and exploring what makes them tick, is fascinating in and of itself.

As someone interested in the “inside baseball” of politics for some time, I can say that many of his personal anecdotes will inform readers who are interested in both partisan and community politics, regardless of political perspective or allegiance. As Grafstein himself notes, the book is written through the eyes of an insider, political activist and participant.

As the “Jewish senator” and a Jewish political leader, these are tales that needed to be told. Grafstein is also something of a maverick, and that’s conspicuous in his stories.

Grafstein regularly tries to transcend the often hyper-partisan nature of today’s politics and it is readily apparent that this was grounded in his Jewish identity and great love for Israel. Not surprisingly, it was the Jewish twists, subtexts and bread crumbs that kept me enthralled with his work.

While Grafstein’s text is generally focused on his insightful observations of the particular leadership qualities in these prime ministers, his own Jewish leadership pops off the pages, often in unexpected ways.

Grafstein’s life passions are well synthesized when he recounts how, when he was in high school, his father became uncharacteristically and visibly upset reading a newspaper about how the Ontario Court of Appeal had approved a lower court decision upholding a restrictive clause in a property case regarding a vacation property near London.

His father’s friend, Bernard Wolf, had tried to buy the property, but was stopped from doing so because the adjoining owner sought to enforce a restrictive covenant that forbid Jews from buying it (the Supreme Court of Canada eventually set aside this racist clause).

Grafstein recounts his father turning to him at the time and solemnly stating, “In Canada, these attitudes can be changed. If you ever have the chance, you should try to change that court in Toronto that discriminates against Jews. It is not right.”

Grafstein follows this fundamental moment in his life with a detailed insider’s view as to how he cleverly and expertly manoeuvred behind the scenes, to have Bora Laskin appointed to the court.

Laskin would eventually rise to become the first Jewish chief justice of the Supreme Court. At a communal dinner years later, Laskin recounted his rise to the peak of the legal profession in Canada, concluding with, “And as I think about this, none of it would have happened but for a former student of mine who wishes to remain anonymous, Dayenu.”

The book is teeming with many other interesting snapshots. For example, there’s a reference to how Rabbi David Aaron Monson, a strong Diefenbaker supporter, once showed up in Ottawa with several heavy suitcases full of prayer books to deliver to a Moscow synagogue during the repressive years of the Soviet Union. Diefenbaker startled the local Muscovite rabbi when he dropped them off.

Grafstein’s personal relationship with Diefenbaker eventually led him to be the only Liberal who was willing to attend a bipartisan visit to Israel with the Conservative prime minister in 1974. In one interview during that trip, Diefenbaker called on Canada to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital, proving that what is old is new again.

A Leader Must Be A Leader personalizes Canadian history from a Jewish insider’s perspective, while providing an important lesson – that, ultimately, a leader must act with purpose. It is a journey that’s well worth taking. 

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