April 22, 2014 2:23 pm

Former deputy prime minister Herb Gray dies at 82

Watch Above:  Politicians of all stripes are remembering one of Canada’s longest-serving parliamentarians. Lifelong Liberal Herb Gray, who held virtually every major cabinet post over the years, died peacefully in Ottawa on Monday. Shirlee Engel reports.

OTTAWA – Herb Gray, former deputy prime minister and one of Canada’s longest-serving parliamentarians, has died at the age of 82.

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Gray’s career in federal politics spanned nearly four decades, starting in Opposition to John Diefenbaker and sweeping to victory with Jean Chretien’s third Liberal majority government in November 2000.

Constituents say he was a down to earth politician who always looked beyond party lines when it came to their concerns.

He leaves behind wife Sharon Sholzberg, and two children, Jonathan and Elizabeth, and eight grandchildren.

The Windsor lawyer was first elected to the Commons in 1962 at the age of 31.

He would remain undefeated for 12 successive elections in his Windsor West riding. In the November 2000 election, he captured over 20,000 votes, more than twice that of his nearest competitor.

Gray became the first Jewish cabinet minister in Canadian history, appointed as minister without portfolio by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

He held various cabinet portfolios including national revenue, consumer and corporate affairs and industry.

He took over as deputy prime minister in 1997 from Sheila Copps, who resigned amid a scandal over the Liberals’ unfilled promise to scrap the GST.

Gray, known for conservative suits and cautious answers, served as Chretien’s point man on many issues, including the APEC controversy and more recently the Shawinigate affair, deflecting opposition questions about a hotel loan in Chretien’s constituency.

He also headed up the file on residential school abuse, working with aboriginal groups to settle outstanding claims.

LISTEN: Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien shares his memories of Herb Gray, who served as deputy Prime Minister under Chrétien

A popular figure on Parliament Hill, he was regularly voted one of its sexiest MPs. In his riding, he was affectionately known as “the godfather of politics,” and a coalition of Windsor, Ont., non-profit groups named a building after him.

When he stepped in as interim Opposition leader in 1990, he was often backed by a chorus of Liberal caucus members chanting “Herb, Herb, Herb.”

Passionate about politics, he was also known for his love of political satire, and regularly tuned in to CBC’s Radio’s Royal Canadian Air Farce and Double Exposure.

He never took himself too seriously, said Garry Fortune, a longtime assistant.

“The two of us have had to practically pull over because of our fits of laughter, especially when they do their imitations of him,” he said.

Gray would often deliver one-liners during meetings that would go over other official’s heads, aides said.

A classical pianist, Gray also had a love for rock ‘n’ roll, listening to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger. He once attended a Boy George concert.

Gray had battled several health problems in recent years, including a heart condition and a bout with cancer.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 1996 but recovered after radiation therapy.

He also had an operation in 1999 to treat a prostate condition unrelated to the cancer.

In August 2001, Gray underwent valve replacement surgery to correct a heart condition he had known about for years.

Prior to that surgery, he gave no hints he would be retiring anytime soon. Rumours have also speculated he was a contender for Governor General in 1999 or a senate seat.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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