Guest Commentary

Herb Gray

Jewish In Canada

(Editor’s note: Herb Gray, the first Jewish minister to serve in a federal cabinet, died in 2014 at age 82. He served thirteen terms as MP (Windsor West, Ont.). In a November 5, 2009 interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan, Gray spoke of his politics and faith, and anti-Semitism in Canada. Following is a transcription of his remarks).

My father’s family name was originally Gurarie. That was his family name in Belarus. My parents came here because they wanted better lives for their children. The family name was Anglicized to Gray when they arrived in Canada. That’s the name I was born with.

My father worked in a grocery store and then opened Gray’s Department Store in Windsor in 1925. People liked him immediately and that helped his business to prosper. Many years later when I was campaigning in my first election in 1962 little old ladies would say, “I was your Dad’s first customer!”

My first memory of politics was David Croll’s campaign to become mayor of Windsor in 1938. I was seven years old; all the kids at school took sides. Croll was Jewish, from Byelorussia, and had been Ontario minister of labour – the first Jewish cabinet minister in Canada. Croll was elected but it was a bitter campaign.

Croll should have been the first Jewish member in the federal cabinet but they would not appoint him. He said himself he didn’t get in because he was Jewish. This was in 1955. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent said, “I’d like to have you in my cabinet but the other members of my cabinet and some of the public wouldn’t accept that”. Instead they appointed him the first Jewish senator.

Dave Croll was obviously well-qualified and the only elected Liberal MP in all of Toronto then, but he was kept out of cabinet because of anti-Semitism. There was still wide-ranging social discrimination at that time. Jews would not get hired at banks or major companies. This was part of life. For us today to have somebody not given a chance to fulfill his potential because of ethnic origin or religion is unacceptable and shocking, but those were the times. I didn’t agree with St. Laurent. That was his opinion.

Dave Croll was not bitter. When I was first campaigning for the House of Commons I went to see him for advice. He said, “When you’re campaigning, just have one simple message – vote Liberal for more jobs.”

When I went to cabinet in 1969 I was making history. There were others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me. The people of Windsor West voted for me thirteen times. When I retired I thanked them. They saw something in me beyond the fact I was the standard bearer for a party.

My life is one chapter in the great Canadian story of people coming from other parts of the world to seek better lives. I was the first generation in my family to be born here. I had all these opportunities in public service.

When I left the Commons I spoke of a great Jewish sage who said in the book of the Talmud, “Pray for the welfare of the government because without it men would swallow each other alive.” It is still true today.

Back to Top