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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco , Marit Stiles and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Should former Liberal cabinet minister Herb Gray be given a state funeral, given that Jim Flaherty had one?

Richard Mahoney:

Just as many in the government and political circles were beginning to recover from the very sad passing of Jim Flaherty, news of the death of another titan of Canadian politics, the Rt. Hon Herb Gray, arrives.  Herb Gray was an icon in Canadian politics.  An MP for almost 40 years, Herb personified several important characteristics in politics. 

First, like his predecessor in Windsor, Paul Martin Sr., he was renowned for his laser like focus on the people he represented.  He was a powerhouse in Windsor and no issue was too big or small for him.  The smallest immigration case received his attention, as did the famous and successful bail out of Chrysler Corporation in the early eighties, saving thousands of jobs, and Windsor’s economy.

Secondly, Herb was a man of integrity who believed in public service and he left politics with his reputation intact.  No easy feat.

Third, Herb Gray became a legend is Canadian politics by virtue of his longevity and his tenacity.  He kept the Liberal Party alive in Opposition and became known as “The Gray Fog” when defending the sometimes indefensible in Parliament.  For some reason, you couldn’t lay a glove on Herb.  Ask the Conservatives and the NDP!

Given the recent examples of both Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty, the question arises: should the Prime Minister order a state funeral for Herb


John Capobianco:

I attended the State Funeral for Jim Flaherty and it was a blessing to have been there to feel the outpouring of affection and respect for Jim from people on all sides of the political spectrum.  To hear from the Prime Minister, Christine and the kids was heart breaking, but there was a sense of closure.  That, I guess, is what state funerals are for – so that the public can share its grief and to have some closure with someone who has given so much with the country.

Although I never met Herb Gray, I do share Richard’s perspective of the man… as a political observer, I found Herb to be larger than life when he was in the House.

As for a state funeral, that is the question, Richard.  Where do we stop or more importantly, where do we draw the line? According to Heritage Canada’s website, the definition of a state funeral is “a public event that may be held to honour and commemorate present and former governors general, present and former prime ministers and sitting members of the Ministry.”  Both Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty technically didn’t fit that description, but I dare anyone to say they didn’t deserve one.

Marit Stiles:

I’m going to dive right in here on the question of the state funerals.  I think there’s little doubt of the respect and - for many - affection felt for these two gentlemen.

Ultimately of course the question of who should be given the honour of a state funeral falls to the Prime Minister.  He would offer the option to the family, and they could accept or not. Not every family will want the public attention, though in my research I think I only found a couple of cases where the family didn’t want to proceed.

I’m not sure what the PM will do now.  But he must – like many of us – be grappling with the difficulty of the situation. By veering away from the ‘norms’ (Layton, Flaherty) and the very restricted definition of who gets a state funeral and who does not, he has landed us all in the very uncomfortable position of defining who is ‘deserving’ and who is not.

There’s some precedent for former cabinet ministers to receive state funerals, even if they are no longer in cabinet, but I believe to date they have all still been sitting MPs.  The one exception seems to have been was Thomas D’Arcy McGee.  And those were quite unusual circumstances.

What was the rationale for Jack Layton receiving the honour?  He had moved a nation. He was a sitting MP and Leader of the Official Opposition.  I don’t believe there was any precedent, however.

Traditions can be changed.  The PM can surely propose some new guidelines for who gets a state funeral and who doesn’t.  I think that’s the road we are headed down.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one making this call.

Richard Mahoney:

I agree with Marit and John.  (Wow, how often does that happen?)

Who would want to say that state funerals for Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty weren’t deserved?  First of all, they both passed away tragically, and too soon.  Secondly, while neither was a sitting minister at the time as the policy dictates, Jack Layton had just won an historic victory as Leader of the Opposition, a first for the NDP, and Jim Flaherty had just resigned from cabinet before his heart attack.

But as Marit points out, who would want to make the call in each individual case?  That’s a mile of bad road, when people are understandably going to be touched by the sad circumstances of the death of someone in public life.  

  1. Just the passing of an extraordinary, remarkable Canadian who served his country.


John Capobianco:

Since there has been a slight deviation from the strictest meaning of a state funeral as defined by Heritage Canada, I do agree with Marit that the decision(s) moving forward becomes more challenging. As was the case for Jack and Jim, the PM evaluated their situation separately, the profound effect they both had on the country and on Canadians, as well as gauging the public mood.  

Unless the PM does propose new guidelines, the decision will always be made based on whether the deceased person who has served the public fits the definition as laid out by Heritage Canada.  Or, as was the case for Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty, the outright, palpable and extraordinary political courage they displayed at the moment or close to the moment of their passing. 

As Richard correctly states, the passing of Herb Gray has taken place after many years away from the public so my guess would be that the PM does not order a state funeral, but that in no way will take away the work and the public adulation that Herb Gray so richly deserve…. state funeral or not.

Marit Stiles:

I absolutely agree with both of you (yes, I’m a little shocked too).  We all share a deep respect for those who enter public life and who serve as parliamentarians.

For some - and perhaps, ultimately, for Stephen Harper and his cost-cutting ways - the issue will be straightforward and one of cost.  I’ve seen various figures bandied about regarding the cost of a state funeral, and I suppose there are many factors that affect the bottom line.  Holding multiple state funerals every year is going to get costly, however appropriate.

Ultimately, though, it goes again to what factors determine whether that person gets the full-on state funeral treatment.  I would hope that all who devote their lives to public life and political good would be feted at the end.  But a state funeral is not necessarily the only route. And it’s unfortunate to see the issue become so politicized.

A side note, in reviewing the long list of Governors General, Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers etc. that have received such an honour, it was striking to find just one woman among them: Jeanne Sauvé.  Yet another insight into how far we have come as women and how far we have yet to go. Especially in the political sphere.


About The Salon

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties
Posted date : April 23, 2014

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