Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Liberal MP Herb Gray (right) shares a laugh with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on their way to the House of Commons in this May, 1972 file photo. (PETER BREGG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal MP Herb Gray (right) shares a laugh with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on their way to the House of Commons in this May, 1972 file photo. (PETER BREGG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Obituary: Former cabinet minister Herb Gray was noble in public life Add to ...

The next day, Mr. Duncan got a call from Mr. Gray’s campaign headquarters asking if he would like to volunteer. It was the genesis of Mr. Duncan’s own political career. “But, as I reminded him as recently as about six months ago, I never did get my autograph,” Mr. Duncan said, breaking into laughter.

Mr. Gray may have failed in his promise to Mr. Duncan, but he delivered on his commitments to his city.

In 1980, as industry minister, he negotiated the loan guarantees that kept Chrysler building cars in Windsor, a move that is credited with saving 10,000 jobs.

Ms. Sholzberg-Gray said it was one of the political feats of which her husband was most proud.

Many people would credit the 22 years he spent in cabinet as being his most important contribution to public life, she said. “And that was really important, of course, because it’s such an honour to be a member of the government of Canada and to play a role in helping to shape our country,” Ms. Sholzberg-Gray said. “But so was serving everybody in Windsor.”

Until the end, people on the streets of his hometown called him Herb.

Likewise, during his time in Parliament, cries of “Herb, Herb, Herb!” would erupt on a regular basis from the Liberal backbenches in the moments before he would rise to speak.

Sheila Copps, who sat at the Liberal cabinet table with him for many years, said the chant was born at one of the annual press-gallery dinners, where Mr. Gray gave a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark performance.

“He was such a contradiction,” Ms. Copps said, “because, when you saw him in the House, he seemed so stolid and serious but he was an absolute comic in private, with dry wit and humour.”

He was also a classical pianist who loved rock ‘n’ roll music and delighted in such artists as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.

Mr. Chrétien, who named him house leader and solicitor-general and eventually deputy prime minister, said people who did not know Mr. Gray would probably be surprised by how funny he was.

“At a lot of meetings he would interject some line that would have everybody laughing,”said Mr. Chrétien, who was first elected as an MP nine months after Mr. Gray arrived in Ottawa.

“He was perfectly bilingual and he would deal with everybody in a very nice way and I didn’t know many enemies of Herb Gray in my long career with him.”

Mr. Chrétien also said Mr. Gray was a great Canadian who demonstrated that there is much nobility in public life. “He was a great constituency man. He was close to the people. He was always preoccupied by social problems.”

Mr. Martin said Mr. Gray was the first person he remembers to have brought the issue of the treatment of children at Indian residential schools to the cabinet table – and to have recommended compensation.

Ms. Sholzberg-Gray said her husband was a liberal Liberal.

“He knew that I wanted my own career and that I was going to have to stake it out independently and I was going to have to criticize him publicly,” she said. “And he welcomed that.”

While he relished the time he spent in government, Ms. Sholzberg-Gray said, he was also proud of the time he spent in opposition, particularly after the Liberals were trounced in 1984.

“Herb played a major role in that rebuilding,” she said. “He found it one of the biggest challenges of his life and one of the most important.”

And he was extremely proud of his Jewish heritage and the fact he was chosen as Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister.

“He said in his last speech in the House of Commons that it was those values of caring, sharing and people working together to achieve community goals he thought were part of the Jewish ethic and that informed him,” said Ms. Sholzberg-Gray.

“They all coalesced in him being this progressive person,” she said. “He was witty and charismatic and fun and serious and a wonderful husband and father and a true feminist.”

For his distinguished public service, Mr. Gray was named a companion of the Order of Canada. He also served as chancellor of Carleton University from 2008 to 2011.

Mr. Gray had a bout with esophageal cancer in 1996 but made a full recovery. He also had Parkinson’s disease for the past three years but succumbed peacefully to a combination of heart and kidney problems.

He leaves his wife, his two children, Jonathan and Elizabeth, and eight grandchildren, aged one to 11.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @glorgal

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories