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Following Erik Nielsen’s time as Leader of the Official Opposition in 1983, we have to jump ahead to 1990 to get to the next individual who led the Official Opposition but never became prime minister.
That person was Herb Gray.
He would only serve as Leader of the Official Opposition for a short time, almost one year, but he would have many other roles in government apart from that one, during a career that spanned an incredible 40 years in Parliament. His 13 federal subsequent federal election victories set a record for most consecutive victories in a single riding for any person in Canadian history.
Gray was born on May 25, 1931, in Windsor, Ontario to Fannie and Harry Gray. His mother worked as a nurse, while his father owned a business selling yard goods. His father had arrived in Canada with no money. His name at the time was Aaron Gurarie but an immigration officer thought it sounded like Gray, so his father adopted the name Harry Gray.
Gray would attend Victoria School as a child, before going on to Kennedy Collegiate Institute in Windsor. In his 1949 yearbook, he states that his ambition was to become prime minister.
In 1952, he would receive a Bachelor of Commerce degree from McGill University, where he also worked to improve his French, and he then went to Osgoode Hall Law School to obtain his Bachelor of Law degree. He would then be called to the bar and become a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada.
In 1960, Gray began to think about a political career, and he started to lay down the groundwork to secure a nomination. That year, he was the chairperson of the Jaycee Civic Election Committee for the Liberal Party in the area. He also approached longtime MP Paul Martin Sr. about preparing for a political career.
On Feb. 8, 1962, he became the candidate for the Liberal Party in the area in a nomination vote that went down to the wire. Valerie Kasurak, who was not expected to make much a showing in voting, lost by only 40 votes.
Gray would say quote:
“At this time Essex West is in need of a young, vigorous candidate who will devote his full time to the needs of the people.”
I would like to take a moment to highlight Kasurak. Kasurak’s showing was all the more impressive considering some terrible people threatened her with bodily harm over the phone if she did not withdraw from the race in the week leading up to the convention. She had to be escorted to the theatre by police but refused to withdraw despite some terrible people not associated with any other candidate trying to make her withdraw.
The nomination meeting was the biggest convention in the area for the Liberals since the Essex West one in 1935, with the 1,178 seats filled and another 150 people standing in aisles, and another 500 waiting in the streets.
Most people were sure that Gray would win the nomination vote, with one Windsor man putting down $200 on Gray to win, amounting to $1,700 today.
Once confirmed as the Liberal Party candidate for Essex West, Gray got down to work to win his seat.
In 1962, Gray was elected for the first time to Parliament, serving as a Liberals. In that election, he would take 45 per cent of the vote over his Progressive Conservative competitor, Norman Spencer who was the incumbent.
Upon his election to Parliament, John Diefenbaker was prime minister. He would continue to serve, year after year, as Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chretien led the country.
On July 23, 1967, Gray would marry Sharon Scholzberg, who was also a lawyer, and the couple would adopt two children together. Gray and his future wife would be introduced by none other than John Turner, future prime minister of Canada. Turner would say of Gray, quote:
“So, Herb and I remained good friends. He was a great Canadian. We saw eye to eye on most issues. He was a formidable Parliamentarian.”
On Sept. 24, 1970, Gray would be appointed to cabinet for the first time, serving as the Minister of National Revenue under Pierre Trudeau. Upon this appointment, he became the first Jewish Cabinet Minister in Canadian history.
As the Minister of National Revenue, he would produce a report on foreign ownership that would lead to the Foreign Investment Review Agency, which placed tighter controls on foreign ownership. This agency would mostly be eliminated during the Mulroney era of the 1980s.
Seeing the agency dismantled, Gray would say quote:
“The more that other people own of our country, the more they can tell us what to do.”
He would remain in that role until Nov. 26, 1972. The next day, he would be appointed as the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, serving in that role for the next two years until he was stripped of the post by Trudeau. His wife Sharon would say a decade later, quote:
“It hurt him very deeply. I don’t know whether it’s a hurt that he’ll ever really recover from.”
While many expected Gray to leave politics at this point, he began to take on a new role as a political maverick in the party, speaking out against the Liberal’s anti-inflation policy for failing to stop big business from keeping prices high, and for dropping the milk subsidy that helped many low-income Canadians.
When the Liberals lost the 1979 election, Trudeau would give Gray the high-profile post of finance critic.
His next cabinet post would come in 1980, when he was appointed by Trudeau as the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce. Serving in that role for another two years, he also served for part of that time as the Minister of Regional Industrial Expansion.
It was during this time he secured a $200 million federal loan guarantee for Chrysler Canada, saving 10,000 jobs when the corporation was nearly bankrupt. The deal also brought Windsor the new Chrysler product called the minivan, which would help fuel the economy of the region for the next 30 years. Decades later, he would call this accomplishment one of his proudest moments in Parliament.
One of his biggest cabinet appointments would come on Sept. 30, 1982, when he was appointed as the President of the Treasury Board. He would continue in that role for two years until the Liberals lost in the 1984 election and Gray found himself in the Official Opposition under leader John Turner.
Turner would say of Gray, quote:
“Herb’s greatest accomplishment is a quality not included in his resume, the esteem in which he is held by members of all political parties.”
In 1990, following the 1988 election loss, Turner made the decision to resign as Official Opposition leader, but he would remain as the leader of the Liberal Party until a successor was chosen. At that point, Gray took over as the Leader of the Official Opposition on Feb. 8, 1990.
For the next 10 months, through the last four months of Turner’s time as leader of the party, and for the next few months awaiting new leader, Jean Chretien’s, by-election win so he could rejoin Parliament, Gray served as leader in the House of Commons for the Liberals.
On Dec. 10, 1990, Gray was replaced as Leader of the Official Opposition by Chretien. At the time, Gray was often called Gray Herb and accused of being dull. He would surprise everyone in 1990 at the press gallery dinner as a result when he showed his self-depreciating wit and stated, jokingly, that he would run for Liberal leadership under the campaign slogan of “Paint the town Gray”. The press gallery dinner was such a hit that he received an ovation and Mulroney would call it a perfect 10.
After the Liberals returned to power in 1993, Gray was once again back in cabinet, serving as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Solicitor General until 1997, when the next election was held.
Chretien would say of Gray, quote:
“I simply cannot imagine functioning without Herb. We count on him so much for so many things.”
Gray would say of the time, 30 years into serving in Parliament, quote:
“It is not a bad beginning, but I look on it as a halfway point in things I want to do.”
During that time, he would deal with a health scare in 1996 when he was diagnosed with cancer in his esophagus but thankfully beat the disease through radiation therapy.
After the Liberals won the 1997 election, Gray was appointed as the Deputy Prime Minister, the highest post he would hold. He was also the first person to hold the position as a full-time cabinet post.
During his time as Deputy Prime Minister, he was chosen to lead the national millennium celebrations for Canada. Many would joke that Gray was chosen because he was the only Member of Parliament who was around for the last time the millennium turned.
The previous few years had also been difficult in terms of Gray’s health. In 1999, he had an operation on his prostate for a condition unrelated to any cancer. In 2001, he went through a valve replacement surgery to conduct a heart condition.
He would remain in the position of Deputy Prime Minister until February 2002, when he retired from politics after four decades serving his constituents.
The Liberals faced a wave of criticism over the report that Gray was asked to retire by Prime Minister Jean Chretien. A report by the National Post stated, quote:
“He did not want to leave public office and had not been consulted in advance by Mr. Chretien.”
Gray was not alone on that day, as Chretien conducted a complete overhaul of his cabinet, moving 17 MPs, including three others beyond Gray losing their cabinet post in the shake-up.
The Windsor Star would report, quote:
In regard to the decision by Chretien to take him out of cabinet, Gray would state, quote:
“I feel actually pretty good. I’m grateful and appreciative that I was able to have an opportunity to serve our community and our country as an MP and serve as a cabinet minister for so many years.”
The Ottawa Citizen would write of Gray on the day he retired, quote:
“Herb Gray epitomized public service the way it ought to be. Here’s the number of scandals associated with his name during those 40 years: 0. Here’s how many files entrusted to him exploded into political embarrassment: 0. And here’s how many bitter enemies he made in 40 years: 0. Some of his colleagues can’t list 40 days like that.”
During his time in Parliament, Gray was called the Rock of Gibraltar for his stability in the Liberal Party. He was also noted for being an accomplished pianist, who loved to listen to the music of the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, which he stated, quote:
“Was a good way to get the creative juices going.”
He was known to speak with parliamentary pages about the newest bands, and even attended a Boy George concert in the 1980s. One reporter remembered bumping into Gray, who was carrying a bag from HMV with the newest John Mellencamp album inside. The reporter would state quote:
“I was walking through the empty halls of the Centre Block and caught the faint pulse of a bass line. The pounding became steadily louder as I came closer to the office of the Liberal House Leader. I poked my head in the door and asked if there was a party going on. No, it’s just Herb, said the lone staffer inside, pointing to a closed door. Gray liked to crank up the music sometimes when he was working late, I was informed.”
Gray also had a wide range of interests that included collecting editorial cartoons which mocked him, which played into his self-depreciating sense of humour. He was also known to work 18-hour days, for weeks on end. He enjoyed reading crime novels, watching the Royal Canadian Air Farce and visiting Dairy Queen and other fast-food restaurants on a regular basis.
MP Peter Milliken would state of the habit, quote:
“He hangs around while he eats his ice cream just to hear what is on the minds of people and then tells us what we should be responding too. Herb cares more about the concerns of real people than he does about the political flavor of the month.”
He was also known for having a sharp wit at times. In 1992 when he was complaining about the Mulroney government’s decision to spend $5.5 million on a museum of humour in Montreal, he would state, quote:
Outside of Parliament, Gray was a man who was well-liked and had a good sense of humour. Senator Joyce Fairbaim would state quote:
“There is a certain shyness to Herb, even now, but anyone who takes the trouble to get past that discovers this wonderful sense of humour underneath.”
Gray was known for his ability to deflect questions and defuse controversies in the House of Commons during Question Period. He would joke, quote:
“Some of my approaches have become classics in press discourse.”
For his ability to deflect tough questions, he gained the nickname The Gray Fog.
James Moore, a Conservative cabinet minister, would state, quote:
“I remember Herb Gray calmly swatting away our questions in Question Period when we were in opposition. It was a marvel. He caught every fastball we threw with his bare hand and smiled, first to our frustration and then to our rhetorical astonishment and respect.”
Preston Manning, a former Leader of the Official Opposition, and someone I am covering in November, would state, quote:
“He was probably the most effective non-answering of Question Period. Herb was extremely effective in just shutting down a line of inquiry. That is a particular talent that is of use to a government at certain times.”
After he retired from Parliament, Gray was appointed the Canadian Chair of the International Joint Commission. This organization dealt with trans-boundary issues between the United States and Canada relating to water and air rights.
Herb Gray was also granted the title of Right Honourable by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. This honour is typically reserved for individuals who hold a certain office, such as the prime minister.
In 2003, he was awarded the Order of Canada. Over his life, he would also receive the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal, the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
He also received honorary degrees from several university including the University of Windsor and McGill University.
On Nov. 28, 2008, Gray was appointed as the 10th Chancellor of Carleton University. In speaking of Windsor at the time, he would say of it, quote:
“It is my home city. I grew up here. I represented it in Parliament. People were very friendly. Very supportive. So, I have wonderful memories.”
On April 21, 2014, Gray would pass away in Ottawa at the age of 82.
Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau, would say of Gray, quote:
“He has left behind an immense legacy unmatched by most in Canadian history.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would say quote:
“Mr. Gray was a great Canadian and a tremendous Parliamentarian who served with honour and dignity.”
His wife of 46 years, Sharon, would say of him, quote:
Despite his time in Parliament, his 11 cabinet posts and title of The Right Honourable, Gray was not given a state funeral. On flag at the Peace Tower was put at half-mast to honour Gray. Many did criticize Prime Minister Stephen Harper for not ordering flags on federal buildings to be put at half mast, as he did earlier upon the death of former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The Windsor-Essex Parkway was renamed the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway. A bronze bust of Gray was also erected in 2006 in his hometown of Windsor.
Among all Members of Parliament in Canadian history, only Sir Wilfrid Laurier and John Graham Haggart spent more time in the House of Commons than Gray. He served 40 years, compared to 41 years for Haggart and 44 years for Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
I’ll finish off this episode with a quick fact about his record-setting election victories. Over the course of the 14,397 days, he served in the House of Commons, and his 13 election victories, Gray never won by less than 2,000 votes over his chief challenger. In 1984, he won by 2,121 votes, when the Progressive Conservatives swept the country to the largest victory in Canadian history. That was the only year he won by less than 4,800 votes. In 1993, he won by an astounding 23,920 votes, and won by over 8,000 votes an amazing eight times.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia, City of Windsor, Carleton University, Macleans, Windsor Star, National Post, the Ottawa Citizen,