Erminie Cohen, who was among the few Jewish senators in Canada, died Feb. 15 in her native Saint John, N.B. She was 92.
A longtime advocate for women’s issues, adoption and poverty reduction, Cohen was appointed to the Senate by former prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1993. She served until her retirement in 2001.
Cohen “turned out to be an outstanding senator,” Mulroney told The CJN in a telephone interview. “She was devoted to the cause. She was a daily attendee – she wasn’t a dilettante. She worked at it hard. Her work in caucus was very helpful to the government and to the country.”
Mulroney said he appointed Cohen to the Senate because he had been impressed with her community work in Saint John and because he wanted to advance women in government.
There was another reason. The former prime minister was “determined that I would seek to appoint leaders of the Jewish community in sometimes out-of-the- way places, not to focus on Montreal and Toronto. She certainly struck me as someone who had made a major contribution in the Jewish community in the Maritimes and particularly in New Brunswick.
“She just struck me as an ideal candidate.”
Cohen’s family said she “worked all her life promoting her Jewish heritage, her city, her province and her country,” and was a “dedicated, lifelong” member of Saint John’s Shaarei Zedek Synagogue.
In a statement, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said Cohen was “a respected Saint John community leader, passionate member of the Jewish community and lifelong social justice advocate.”
In the 1970s, she was named to the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women, where she worked on issues of violence against women and outmoded matrimonial laws. She also served on a corresponding national body and co-founded Saint John Women for Action.
She was a founding board member of Hestia House, which offers shelter to abused women and their children in Saint John, Higgs added.
On her retirement from the Senate, Cohen was asked by then-New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord to help set up the volunteer-led New Brunswick Adoption Foundation to build awareness about adoption in the province. The organization would help double the number of adoptions in the province
“I had done a lot of things, but I had never been asked to put together something as meaningful … about children and adoption,” Cohen told Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal last year.
Cohen was a well-known figure in Atlantic Canada’s Jewish community, said Marilyn Kaufman, president of the Atlantic Jewish Council. At one time, Cohen was national vice-president of Hadassah-WIZO Canada, which involved regional co-ordination for the organization.
Cohen’s death “will be a big loss to the community. She was very well-liked,” Kaufman said.
Cohen was born in Saint John in 1926 to Clara (née Goldfeather) and Mitchell Bernstein, and graduated from Mount Allison University.
In 1949, she and her husband, Edgar, bought Hoffman’s, a men’s tailor shop on Saint John’s Main Street, and turned it into a popular department store they ran for some 50 years.
She was a lifelong member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and was “proud to call herself a Red Tory,” her family noted in her death notice. She had served as co-chair of the PC National Caucus Task Force on Poverty.
In 2010, she was named to the Order of Canada for improving the lives of women, children and the impoverished. She was awarded the Order of New Brunswick in 2017, and held an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of New Brunswick.
Cohen was predeceased by her husband of 58 years. She is survived by her children, Cathy, Lee and Shelley, and a grandson, Micah.