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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Why Herb Gray didn’t have a state funeral

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The Right Honourable Herb Gray had a long career in Canadian politics. He held his seat in Windsor West for nearly 40 years. He never lost in 13 federal election campaigns. He faithfully served the Liberal party in different capacities, including as deputy prime minister.

That’s great, but did it mean he should have had a state funeral after he died April 21? No, it didn’t.

We’ll get back to this point shortly.

Today’s criteria for a state funeral in Canada are rather evergreen. Some people believe it should be determined by certain criteria, including years of service, impact on public life and historical significance. Others believe it’s little more than a popularity contest to award friends and like-minded political ideologues.

Some Canadians perceive that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has based his decisions for state funerals on the latter principles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, former federal minister Jim Flaherty was a small “c” conservative who served in Harper’s cabinet. But he received a state funeral for his impressive 20-year role in public life and managing the Canadian economy through the difficult global economic crisis. Flaherty was widely praised by the international community for his steady financial hand and business acumen. Hence he certainly deserved this honour.

Meanwhile, Harper also gave a state funeral to federal NDP leader Jack Layton. Some have argued the prime minister only did this to give the appearance of being even-handed. Nice try, but incorrect. Rather, he did it because Layton played a huge role in changing Canada’s political narrative  and brought the NDP from perennial third-party status to the Official Opposition. It’s hard to say whether Layton would have ever reached 24 Sussex Drive. The fact he put his party in the position he did means he deserved this honour, too.

What about Gray? His 40 years in public service were solid, but hardly earth-shattering. He didn’t introduce significant political and economic policies. He had little to do with important legislation. He had a dull personality and didn’t stand head and shoulders above his political colleagues, Liberal or otherwise.

Gray was certainly present during many important political moments in his lifetime. Unfortunately, that’s just it: he was present and little else.

So, what was unique about him? As Andrew Cohen’s April 22 Ottawa Citizen column pointed out, “Gray was proud to be Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister. He grew up in a Canada that was not always kind to people of his ilk, but he succeeded nonetheless, studying commerce at McGill and law at Osgoode Hall.”

Indeed, this was a great accomplishment and an important breakthrough for Canadian Jews with political aspirations. Yet this fact, no matter how noteworthy, has absolutely no bearing in deciding whether Gray deserved a state funeral.

By setting the bar at Gray’s status as the first cabinet minister of a particular race, religion, gender or orientation, we would have to do the same for others. This would include the first Protestant, Catholic, black, Asian, Native Canadian and female cabinet ministers. Besides the fact this would create an enormous Pandora’s box we could never close, what if these individuals didn’t deserve a state funeral for other reasons? It would, therefore, set a bad precedent.

Meanwhile, if we’re going to honour a Jewish Canadian politician with a state funeral, perhaps it should be the first one. That would be Henry Nathan, Jr., who was elected as a Liberal in Victoria, B.C., in 1871 (although he supported Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a Conservative). Alas, I’m not sure Nathan deserves this honour, and it would open up an even bigger can of worms for the selection process.

There are Liberals who should ultimately get state funerals, including former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. There’s no doubt a Jew will eventually get one, too. It just won’t be Herb Gray. 

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