Herb Gray will be remembered as the slightly stooped figure in a suit just a little too large for his body, who met opposition questions in the House of Commons with meandering responses that were deftly crafted to say nothing at all.
It was an oratorical skill that earned him the nickname The Gray Fog.
The former Liberal MP and deputy prime minister, who held 11 ministerial positions under multiple prime ministers and led his party on an interim basis for the better part of 1990, died in hospital Monday, one month shy of his 83rd birthday.
Mr. Gray, Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister, was elected in 1962 when John Diefenbaker was in power and retired in 2002 from the government of Jean Chrétien. He was highly intelligent, a committed activist for social justice, a dedicated servant for his riding in Windsor, Ont., and a person of warm wit and humour who was undefeated through 13 consecutive elections.
Former prime minister Paul Martin, who also called Windsor home, said he met Mr. Gray when his father, Paul Martin Sr., was the Liberal MP for another riding in the blue-collar, car-making city.
Mr. Martin said in an interview Tuesday that Mr. Gray had a great belief in the power of government to do good.
“I think that’s what shone through in virtually every conversation,” Mr. Martin said. “When you couple that with a terrific sense of humour and somebody who, in later years, obviously had the wisdom of enormous experience, it was virtually impossible to sit down with Herb and not have it come through as a real lesson in governance.”
Sharon Sholzberg-Gray was alerted to the charms of her future husband when she was a 19-year-old university student.
She had worked on the 1962 election campaign of John Turner, the future prime minister who was then vying for a federal seat in Montreal. After the vote, Mr. Turner mentioned that there was a nice 31-year-old bachelor who had won a seat in Windsor and he thought they would make a good pair. Ms. Sholzberg-Gray pointed out the disparity between her age and that of her prospective suitor and told Mr. Turner he was “crazy.”
But, two years later, Mr. Turner tried again, this time introducing them at a Liberal convention in Ottawa. They had their first date six weeks later and were married in 1967.
“What made him special was his brilliance and, believe it or not – everyone’s going to really laugh – his wit and charisma,” said Ms. Sholzberg-Gray, a lawyer who is one of the country’s leading health-care experts. “He was always underestimated. He was a brilliant orator. He gave a political speech just as good as the best of them.”
Although he was known for deflecting answers in Question Period, she said, he did much more than that.
Mr. Gray would provide direct responses to the opposition when he thought answering was appropriate, Mr. Martin said, and to the other questions, “He would occasionally have a couple of extra sentences. What it meant was there were decent debates, where people took each other seriously, and there were none of the personal attacks, none of the meanness that you see today.”
Mr. Gray was born in Windsor in 1931. His parents, Harry and Fanny Gray, were immigrants from Belarus who started a yard-goods store that became one of the city’s best known family-owned department stores.
He obtained a law degree and decided to enter public life. For years after he first won his seat – in the riding that later became Windsor West – his mother ran his constituency office from their home on one of the city’s main drags.
“He believed very strongly that an industrial city like Windsor had to have a future,” Mr. Martin said. “He also believed very much in the power of government. I think if you were to say, ‘Why did he run?’ [It is] because he believed in the power of government to do good.”
Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister, was also a Windsor boy. When he was 13 years old, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau arrived in town as part of the 1972 election campaign tour. Mr. Duncan skipped school to attend the Liberal rally at a local shopping mall and positioned himself at the front of the crowd, hoping to get an autograph.
Mr. Trudeau passed by without noticing the boy holding out his pen and paper. But “Herb Gray was right behind him,” Mr. Duncan said. “And he said ‘Quick, write your name and your address and your phone number on that piece of paper and I will get you an autograph.’ So I did.”
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.