There are many unique aspects to the life of Deborah Grey. The first Reform MP who hired an assistant named Stephen Harper, who would go on to become the first female Leader of the Official Opposition. We will get to all of that of course, but we need to start at the beginning, which comes on Canada Day 1952.
It was on July 1, 1952 that Deborah Grey was born in Vancouver.
Grey was born into a political family. Her great-uncle Byron Johnson-Anscomb was the premier of British Columbia from 1947 to 1952, and her great-grandfather Edward Turner Applewhaite, was a Liberal MP in his later life from 1949 to 1952.
She would find her way to Trinity Western College and then the University of Alberta where she studied sociology, English and Education.
Following her graduation, she would work as a teacher in several rural Alberta communities throughout the late-1970s and 1980s until her career took a different turn in 1988 and 1989.
She would run for federal office in the 1988 election as a Reform candidate in Beaver River, a riding in northeastern Alberta.
On why she chose to run, she would state quote:
“I believed I could achieve things for the country in politics, if we could change the way politics is done in the country.”
In that first election race, she would place fourth with 4,158 votes, nearly 10,000 behind the Progressive Conservative winner, John Dahmer.
That may have been the end of her political ambitions but only five days after Dahmer won the election, he died suddenly from cancer, which had been discovered only one month previous. As a result of his death, Dahmer would hold the record for the shortest term as a federal Member of Parliament in Canadian history.
Only a few months later on March 13, 1989, Deborah Grey would put her name in for the by-election race and she would win, gaining 7,000 votes from her previous total in 1988, and earning 48 per cent of the vote and 5,000 more votes then her Progressive Conservative challenger Dave Broda.
Broda would say quote:
“We will win in four years. I know the Reform Party will not be here in four years’ time.”
He would be wrong.
In her second campaign, Grey had a lot of support, including from high school students who couldn’t vote but helped on the campaign. One campaign worker would say quote:
“She is a combination of Anne Murray and Margaret Thatcher.”
Her political career on the federal level had begun and her win was notable for two reasons. First, she became the first Reform Member of Parliament, a party that had only formed two years previous.
She would say quote:
“Alberta is now just like a popcorn machine. With the first Reform victory, it has started to pop.”
As well, her win over a Progressive Conservative was only the second time since 1968 that a member of that party had lost a seat in the province.
Grey would say later quote:
“My life turned upside down in one night, it was just amazing, never to be the same again.”
On April 3, 1989, when she took her seat in Parliament for the first time, she received a respectful standing ovation from the rest of the House of Commons.
She would say of that day, quote:
“I’m not going to stand up and scream and holler in the House. We’ll take it slowly and speak up strongly and firmly on what’s important to the man in the street.”
Due to the fact that the Reform Party did not have enough seats to be recognized as an official party in the House of Commons, Grey sat as an independent in Parliament for her first four years.
With her win and her seat in Parliament, Grey was named the Deputy Leader of the Reform Party by party leader Preston Manning. She and Manning were close friends and she would call him Mister Brainola as a nickname.
Upon becoming a Member of Parliament, Grey hired her first legislative assistant, a young man named Stephen Harper who of course would go on to leader the party that was created from the Reform Party and eventually become the prime minister of Canada.
For her first 18 months, Grey was mostly alone in Ottawa but as the party began to grow in popularity, more and more Reform members started working out of the capital city.
Grey would say quote:
Grey, due to her higher profile, would travel the country extensively to promote the Reform Party. Manning would say of her travels quote:
“There is no need for Deborah to yip-yip in the House of Commons.”
As a Member of Parliament, Grey was noted for opposing deficit spending by governments and for enforced bilingualism unless there were enough French speaking people in a region to justify it. She was also heavily opposed to GST, against abortion and for capital punishment. Grey would describe herself as a battler for what she believes in.
One Progressive Conservative MP would say quote:
“Deborah’s down to earth and at times makes some of my seatmates from the West wince. She says things we all know are popular back home.”
Grey quickly found that many friends and supporters started coming up to her looking for things. She would say quote:
“I had people sidling up to me saying Hey Deb, what about a job for my wife, or son or daughter? I had to say, Hey buddy, forget it. Favours for pals are the kind of stuff we came to Ottawa to eliminate not perpetuate.”
On Aug. 7, 1993, Grey married Lewis Larson. The couple would have no children together but through children from Larson’s first marriage, they would become grandparents together.
By the time the next election rolled around, Grey was known as the Iron Lady in the Reform Party and she was excited for the future of the party, stating quote:
“The East really wants in. And that means the East and West are now together. Certainly I won’t be lonely any longer down there in the House of Commons.”
On Oct. 25, 1993, Grey won her first official election when the Reform Party picked up 52 seats in one of the most important elections in Canadian history. She would easily win her riding, this time with 17,000 votes, 10,000 more than the second place Liberal challenger.
With a much larger Reform caucus now, she became not only the deputy leader again but also the chairperson of the caucus.
In 1997, her riding of Beaver River was abolished and the territory was split in two. Grey was asked by several local Conservatives who were unhappy with their Liberal MP John Loney to run in Edmonton North. Loney was very popular in the riding but he retired before the election and Grey won the riding easily.
During her time in Parliament, Grey was known for assigning nicknames to other MPs. She would call Prime Minister Jean Chretien The Shawinigan Strangler, while Paul Martin was Captain Whirlybird. It was said that Grey was one of the few politicians Chretien truly did not like.
She could also let loose a good one-liner on occasion. At one point she said to Chretien, quote:
She was also noted for her love of Harley Davidson motorcycles, which she had ridden for decades and she was often seen in Ottawa on her motorbike during her time in Parliament. She would say later in life that motorbikes and strategic thinking are often similar, stating quote:
“Because I’m a biker and because I love roads and I give speeches on strategic thinking, I’ve realized that it’s always about the people and the detours. You always have to have a plan and you always have to have a road map, but there are always detours in life and that is what it all boils down to is people and that is basically what politics is all about, people and making sure their lives are better in Canada.”
In that election, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition and the profile of Grey was beginning to rise but change was on the horizon for the party. This would be the last election for the Reform Party, only 10 years after it had been created.
In 2000, the Reform Party became the Canadian Alliance thanks to a merger between Reform and some members of the Progressive Conservatives. Manning would step down as Leader of the Opposition to run for leadership of the Canadian Alliance. With that resignation, Grey was appointed as the interim leader of the party and she became the first female Leader of the Official Opposition on March 27, 2000.
She would hold the position of Opposition Leader until July 8, 2000 when she was replaced by Stockwell Day, who had defeated Preston Manning in the leadership race.
When asked if she would move into the official residence she stated she had no desire to do so, adding quote:
“Didn’t have any last week, don’t have any this week. I’ll be over there hosting the odd official function but I have a bed in this town, so I’ll stay there.”
Upon becoming leader, Day appointed Grey as deputy leader and caucus chairperson once again. Grey did not like Day though, and on April 24, 2001, she resigned from both posts in protest of his leadership after seeing him attack his staffers after he made a public gaffe.
Grey leaving her posts gave credibility to other who were against Day. MP Bob Mills would say of her quote:
“She’s our den mother and when your den mother does something dramatic you take that into consideration.”
Grey would say of the resignation quote:
“I said to Stock, I do not want to watch this Canadian Alliance ship go down. There is a pretty powerful frustration and malaise out there. For sure.”
Day would say quote:
“I think she just got in over her head. It wasn’t really her fault. She’s just been overwhelmed by it and I forgive her for her decision.”
Grey, in her usual style, was not having any of that, stating quote:
“I think you know me well enough that it would be a bit of a stretch to assume that I’m some weak, lily-livered person that lets herself get led astray and is easily manipulated.”
In July of that year, she then quit the Canadian Alliance and joined 10 other Alliance Members of Parliament who quit the party to form the Independent Alliance Caucus. With Grey, this small alliance of MPs was given credibility.
Day would offer the independent MPs amnesty but Grey and six others turned it down and formed the Democratic Representative Caucus with Grey as the deputy leader.
In April 2002, her former assistant Stephen Harper defeated Stockwell Day to become the Alliance leader and Grey rejoined the party.
When the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged to become the Conservative Party of Canada, Grey was appointed as the co-chair.
In 2004, Grey’s riding was abolished and she chose to retire from politics rather than attempt a nomination in another. Her last day as an MP was June 28, 2004, which ended her 15 year run that saw the party she joined change immensely.
Upon her retirement, she began to collect a pension through the MP Pension Plan. This caused some to criticize her because for years she refused to join the MP Pension Plan and she called those who did MP Porkers for feeding at the public trough. When she bought her way back into the pension plan, former Prime Minister Joe Clark called her the high priestess of hypocrisy.
While she had retired from active politics, Grey still did what she could to help the party. During the 2006 election, she was the western chairperson of the Conservative campaign that saw Harper become the Prime Minister of Canada.
After she retired, Grey wrote her autobiography Never Retreat, Never Explain, Never Apologize: My Life and My Politics.
In 2007, Grey was awarded the Order of Canada.
On April 22, 2013, she was appointed to the Security Intelligence Review Committee and made a Privy Councilor by Stephen Harper. With that appointment, she was awarded the title The Honourable.
On May 1, 2015, Grey would step down from the committee.
Information from Macleans, E-know.ca, The Governor General of Canada, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,