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Remembering Sen. Nathan Nurgitz

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Sen. Nathan Nurgitz (Courtesy Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP)

Last year saw its fair share of political headlines, including a federal election in Canada and a pair of national ballots in Israel. Among that backdrop, the passing of Nathan Nurgitz, one of Canada’s handful of Jewish senators, flew under the radar.

Nurgitz, who served as a Progressive Conservative in the Senate from 1979 to 1993, died last October in Winnipeg. He was 85.

Nurgitz was appointed to several committees relating to agriculture and forestry, foreign affairs, banking, trade and commerce, and national finance.

In 1987, he was elected chair of the Canadian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments of sovereign states, and re-elected in 1989 and 1990. He led delegations to Europe, Asia and Central and South America.

In 1985, The CJN reported that Nurgitz refused to support a report from the Senate’s foreign affairs committee on Canada’s relations with countries in the Middle East and North Africa. He said he was “appalled” by the “offensive” report because it dealt almost entirely with the Arab-Israeli conflict, with blame placed mainly on Israel and no mention of Palestinian terror.

At one point, he and fellow committee member Sen. Sidney Buckwold were set to travel to the Middle East to meet with Arab and Israeli leaders. But at the last minute, Nurgitz was pulled from the delegation because Arab leaders would not allow two Jews from the same committee into their countries.

In 1989, Nurgitz was part of a Canadian delegation that attended the opening of the Soviet Union’s first officially sanctioned Jewish cultural centre.

Nurgitz was born in Winnipeg in 1934. He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor of arts degree in 1954 and a law degree in 1958. From 1963 to 1969, he served as an alderman in West Kildonan, now a suburb of Winnipeg.

In the early 1970s, he served as president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

He was named to the Senate by then-prime minister Joe Clark. In his maiden speech to the upper chamber in October 1979, Nurgitz recalled that his parents, Hymie and Dora, had come to Manitoba in the early 1900s as refugees from czarist Russia.

“They came to begin some sort of new life,” he said in an emotional address. “They sought not very much, yet I guess they really sought everything. They sought freedom from anti-Semitism and oppression, freedom from hunger, and freedom to work and to provide for themselves. They built their lives humbly, like so many thousands of others – long hours at the sewing machines in the garment factories for my father, and care and concern for the home and the family for my mother. They endured aIl of this in their own quiet way, and I never heard a comiplaint. They accepted and made the best of their lot in life, and hoped and wished only for their children to have better – and they did.”

After leaving the Senate, Nurgitz was appointed a judge of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, a position he held until 2009. From 2005 to 2009, he also served as a deputy judge of the Nunavut Court of Justice. On his retirement from the judiciary, he was welcomed back to the Winnipeg law firm of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, which he’d first joined in 1979. He stayed there until his retirement in 2012.

He volunteered on many boards throughout his life, including those of the Red River Exhibition and the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre in Winnipeg.

Nurgitz was predeceased by his brother Barney. He is survived by his children, Marshall and Grace (Burdett) Roben, and Robert Mcgugan; and grandchildren Jesse, Lisa and Maia.

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