Fellow alumni share memories of Herb Gray and Jim Flaherty
published May 12, 2014
York University recently mourned the loss of two of its most notable alumni in Canadian politics. Herb Gray (LLB ’56), former deputy prime minister, and Jim Flaherty (LLB ’73), former finance minister, died less than two weeks apart in April. Each man left behind a legacy cherished and remembered by many in the York community.
Former prime minister John Turner (LLD ’69) described Gray as “a great political friend and confidante”. The two Liberal diehards were elected to the House of Commons on the same day in 1962. During the federal election the following year, Turner introduced Gray to his future wife, Sharon Sholzberg, a student and campaign worker at the time.
“It was that election that solidified their relationship and they were married a few years later and history was written,” Turner recalled. “They were in fact one of the most enduring political partnerships and I was there at the very beginning.”
When the two friends served together as Opposition, Gray was instrumental in advising Turner and the caucus on issues such as the Meech Lake Accord and the Free Trade Agreement, said Turner, who campaigned against the Conservative’s free-trade policy and revitalized the Liberal party.
“It was Herb’s tenacity and knowledge that helped formulate our policies, which served us well up to, and during, the great election of 1988,” he added.
Known in his Windsor West riding as the “godfather of politics”, Gray was one of Canada’s longest-serving parliamentarians. He devoted four decades of his life to public service, serving in 11 different cabinet posts. He was 82 years old and remembered by longtime friend Duncan Fraser (BARR ’56) as a “nice, quiet and self-effacing man who knew his stuff and never missed a trick.”
Fraser, a retired lawyer, first met Gray in Montreal in the late 1940s. Over the years, the two ran into each other at various Liberal gatherings.
“He was witty and modest, and he could embarrass you with his knowledge of the Liberal party,” Fraser said. “He was everything people said he was. He was a firefighter for the Liberal party and was marvelous at diverting attention from potentially annoying or embarrassing things. That was our Herb.”
Gray’s humility also touched those who didn’t know him well. Mary Otto-Chang (BA ’83, MES ’86), an environmental consultant in Panama, only met and spoke with him once, when the two were co-speakers at the 2005 Canadian Risks and Hazards Network Conference.
“But he was very kind and humble,” said Otto-Chang, whose late father, Steven Otto, worked closely with Gray as a Liberal MP. “He worked extremely hard his whole life and was an exemplary Canadian. Canada is less without him.”
Not unlike Gray, whose funeral was a who’s who of the Canadian political establishment, Flaherty’s death at the age of 64 brought together politicians past and present of all stripes to his state funeral.
A veteran of provincial and federal politics, Flaherty steered the country’s economy through the 2008-09 global recession, something former Ontario premier Ernie Eves (LLB ’70) said guided the way for Flaherty’s international colleagues.
“He showed them the right things to do,” Eves said.
Eves, who successfully ran against Flaherty in 2002 for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, called Flaherty “a fierce and intense competitor”.
However, “when I called him the morning after I was elected, he compared the campaign to a hockey game, saying we were now on the same team and welcomed the opportunity to get to work together for Ontario,” Eves said.
A star forward on his high school hockey team, Flaherty made many friends throughout his private and public life. One in particular, James Love (LLB ’73, LLM ’86), stood by his side since they were friends, classmates and roommates at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School in the 1970s.
“Jim was more than just a great politician. He was the best husband, father and friend anyone could ask for,” said Love, a lawyer and philanthropist. “He taught many of us that the most important things in life were friendship, family, faith and love. I will miss his self-deprecating sense of humour.”
For Jessica Duarte (BA ’07, ’08, MA ’10), her local MP for Whitby-Ajax was more than just a dedicated public servant. He was someone who once took the time to chat with her on a GO Train into Toronto. At the time, in 2005, Duarte was studying at Glendon, where she was an organizer for the college’s political science association.
“When I saw Mr. Flaherty on the train, I was excited and nervous,” she recalled. “I introduced myself and he instantly lit up with a big smile of appreciation and began asking questions about me.”
The two spoke for about 10 minutes, during which Duarte pitched a spur-of-the-moment idea to Flaherty about him coming to Glendon for a debate on what conservatism meant.
“He told me to call his office and tell his secretary to book it in his calendar. When I got to school, I called his secretary and the first thing she said was, ‘Is this Jessica from the GO Train? When do you want Jim to visit Glendon?’” Duarte said. “The next few weeks we scrambled to create what ended up being the best attended event our club had ever planned.”
While Duarte said she would “probably never vote Conservative,” Flaherty made her want to support him.
“I knew he cared deeply about my community and would dedicate his life to truly serving his country,” she said. “To be someone with such integrity and tenacity that your constituents can see beyond party lines is what Ottawa and Canada need the most today in our politicians.”