In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
With a name like Gray, it might be easy to believe there was nothing interesting about lifelong politician Herbert Eser Gray, who retired in 2002 as the longest continuously serving member of Parliament in Canadian history, and who died in 2014. Yet Gray is noteworthy not only for blazing a trail as the first Jewish federal cabinet minister, but for being the kind of statesman-mensch too often forgotten in the flamboyant excesses of the political world.
Winning 13 back-to-back elections in his home riding, Gray served 14,456 days in office between 1962 to 2002. That’s just under 40 years, according to the Parliament of Canada website.
Grey filled numerous roles during his long service, including portfolios such as National Revenue; Industry, Trade, and Commerce; and Treasury Board president. He 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.
Among Gray’s final duties was chairing Canada’s millennium celebrations. He joked that he had been chosen for the position because he was the only person in office who had been around long enough to remember the turn of the previous millennium.
In reality, Gray was born not with the turn of the 20th century but on May 25, 1931 to Fannie (née Lifitz) and Harry Gray, Jewish immigrants from Belarus living in Windsor, Ont. As Andrew Cohen wrote in the Ottawa Citizen at Gray’s death, “He grew up in a Canada that was not always kind to people of his ilk, but he succeeded nonetheless.”
Though arguably one of the country’s most important politicians, Gray never took himself too seriously, and loved political satire like the Royal Canadian Air Farce. He even appeared on one episode of the troupe’s television show, offering pointers to the actor portraying himself.
Representing his home riding of Windsor, Gray was a non-stop advocate for the city’s business interests, making Windsor the home of the Chrysler minivan. As Minister of Industry, he convinced Trudeau to save Chrysler, negotiating federal loan guarantees to keep the company afloat and preserve approximately 10,000 local jobs, in what was, according to some, one of the most successful public bailouts in Canadian history.
Gray was also a well-known champion of efficiency in government. Under Jean Chrétien, he initiated amendments to the Canada Elections Act to streamline the elections process. Efficiency may not be glamorous; indeed, most Canadians may not have even noticed, but looking back, it is the stuff of which workable democracy is made.
Within the Jewish community, Gray was perhaps best known for serving on the 1977 Commission on Economic Coercion and Discrimination under then-McGill professor Irwin Cotler. That commission urged the Canadian government not to support an Arab boycott of Israel, charging that boycotting Israel was tantamount to anti-Semitism, a charge highly relevant to modern ears given the rise of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the current decade.
Gray also advocated for refusenik Anatoly Sharansky, at the time behind bars as a Soviet prisoner of conscience. Following Gray’s death, Cotler told The CJN that “It was Herb who made the pivotal call to me to take up (Sharansky’s) cause.”
Late in his career, Gov.-Gen. Adrienne Clarkson bestowed on Gray the title “The Right Honourable,” an honorific normally reserved exclusively for the prime minister, chief justice of the supreme court, and governor general. He was also named a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Cotler, a lifelong friend, called Gray, “The ultimate mensch,” describing him as being unafraid to stand up in Parliament and refer to his opponent’s argument as “narishkeit” (nonsense), and sprinkling his speech with other Yiddish terms like “gornisht” and “chutzpah.”
In a special parliamentary tribute at his retirement in 2002, he accepted his colleagues’ praise graciously, then announced, “Mr. Speaker, I must begin by saying that today is an exception to my usual practice. I have to tell you I accept the premise of each and every word spoken in the House today.”
On that occasion, Gray said, “My Jewish heritage has inspired me in my work as a member of Parliament and as a minister. I have always been inspired by the words of the Hebrew prophets when they called out for us to do judgment and justice, when they called out for us to do judgment for the afflicted and the needy.” He quoted Pirkei Avot: “Pray for the welfare of the government because without it, men would swallow each other alive.”
He also praised Canada as a land of opportunity where immigrants like his parents could join “the history of those who make up the great Canadian family building together what so far is the only truly successful multicultural and pluralistic country in the world… a Canada united in its diversity.”
After Gray’s death in 2014, Prime Minster Stephen Harper referred to Gray a “tremendous parliamentarian who served his country well.” Gray would likely have been pleased with that description, having once told the CBC, “I always wanted to set a record not of length of service, but of quality of service.”
University of Prince Edward Island political science Prof. Henry Srebrnik wrote in 2014 that “[m]any Jewish politicians have been more exciting and flamboyant… Gray… was less in the Jewish tradition of prophetic charisma, but rather in the mould of the type of Jewish politicians and bureaucrats who go about their work more quietly, serving their community and nation.”