Herb Gray: The passing of a giant "Baruch dayan emet"

By Beryl Wajsman on April 22, 2014

I received the news of the Right Honorable Herb Gray's death Monday night. It was the eve of the last day of Passover. This last day is one of four days in the Jewish calendar when Yizkor prayers - memorial prayers - are recited in memory of departed relatives. And as I reflected on my own late parents, I must admit to pangs of loss for this very special gentleman who was not merely a Parliamentary giant, but perhaps the last of that generation of public servants who always put ideas before identities and principle before partisanship. He was a mentor, guide and most of all a dear friend whose wise counsel I could call upon at all times and in all circumstances even when events and circumstances kept us apart for long periods.

Reciting the litany of his achievements is necessary but insufficient. The first Jewish cabinet Minister in Canadian history - appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau - Herb, and he insisted that it always be Herb, never let that define him. His pride in his origins was never particular. Rather, he was acutely aware of the burden it placed on him to stress the universal values they represented and how he had to be a model of rectitude and responsibility to further all Canadians transcendent yearnings for redemptive change through the politics of inclusion and compassion.

Herb was only one of a handful of Canadians ever awarded the title of Right Honorable, usually reserved for Prime Ministers and Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. It was given to him by the Governor-General in 2002 soon after he reached the milestone of being the longest continuously serving Member of Parliament in Canadian history, some forty years after his first election. He won thirteen consecutive elections. He served in eleven different cabinet portfolios ultimately becoming Deputy Prime Minister. 

But as I wrote earlier, the record - as great as it was - is not the full measure of the man.Herb Gray was universally respected. Not only within his party, but by all parties. Superb in the thrust and parry of Parliamentary debate, he never descended to the coarse theatrics and gratuitous cannibalism we witness too often today. He was the judge in the House whose word was golden. He was the peacemaker even within his own party taking over as Leader of the Opposition when John Turner stepped down and before Jean Chrétien was elected in convention. And some ten years later, in the midst of fratricidal infighting, Herb Gray was the buttress that held much of a government together. Too few know the extent of that story. We will leave the telling to historians.

Gray-Wajsman5.jpgI first met Herb when I had the privilege of serving as Irwin Cotler's legislative and investigative assistant both on Irwin's appeal brief on behalf of Soviet prisoner of conscience Natan Scharansky and later on his Commission on Economic Coercion and Discrimination that fought the Arab Boycott of Jewish businesses here in Canada. Despite Irwin's remarkable achievements even then, he confided to me what an extraordinary man Herb was ultimately helping him get a meeting with Mr. Trudeau for Scharansky's wife Avital.

Irwin had brought together the best and brightest of Canada on that Commission. One of his greatest "rainbow coalitions" as he liked to call them. It included former Supreme court Justice Emmett Hall, former NDP leader David Lewis and future Amb. Yves Fortier, a close friend and advisor to Prime Minister Mulroney. But it also included Herb. And Herb was a sitting MP, a member of the government, and had just finished doing groundbreaking work over four years as Consumer Affairs Minister. I naively asked him if taking on this role, which would could bring him into conflict with his own government as we were seeking legislative action, wasn't too great a risk. His answer was the full story of the man. "This is about justice Beryl, not politics." 

Through my time in Ottawa and in public affairs over the years, when I found myself up against too much politics and not enough justice, my talks with Herb gave me hope, courage and sound judgment. There was never a request for any of my Institute initiatives over the decades that Herb ever turned down. He was steely in his determination if anyone else did. He revelled in his work as Chairman of the US-Canada Joint Commission after he retired from the Commons and we spent many pleasant hours talking about the future and the destiny not only of this country but of this continent. Herb was a man of unsurpassed vision and a deep sense of history.

I will leave you with a memory that still brings tears to my eyes. A few years ago I asked Herb if he would lend his support to my efforts to help a friend, Brigitte Garceau, in her campaign for national office within the Liberal party. It had been years since either of us had been involved in party affairs and he asked why. I told him it was because of something he had taught me. That politics should not always be about parties but about people. Getting the best into public service regardless of affiliation. After speaking with her by phone, Herb sent out a most eloquent endorsement. But that's not the whole story. Soon after, as I stood on the convention floor near the voting lines, I noticed a frail man with a walker slowly making his way to vote. i hadn't seen Herb in months and was a bit taken aback. I hadn't known about the walker. I went over and embraced him. He gave me a hug that belied his frailty. After learning what condition necessitated the walker, I told him that as much as I loved seeing him, he didn't have to come all the way down. His answer was pure Herb. "Beryl, endorsing is one thing, but doing is another. One isn't enough without the other." And the tears still come.

Upon hearing of a death, Jews say three words: "Baruch dayan emet." Blessed be the true judge. Herb Gray's life was testimony to the fact that those words are not just a blessing, but an epitaph we should all strive for. I miss you dear friend.


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