MANITOBA Premier Ed Schreyer of the NDP called an election for June 28, 1973, and for the first time in Canadian history two of the three parties contesting the vote were led by Jews.
Sidney Spivak headed the Progressive Conservatives and Izzy Asper, the Liberals. The two men were friends.
As minister of Industry and Commerce, Spivak had smoothed the way for Asper’s short-lived distillery business. Both men had family cottages in and around Falcon Lake.
"They used to play ping-pong at Asper’s cottage for hours," says Spivak’s wife, Senator Mira Spivak. "The competition was fierce."
Around the time of the Minnedosa byelection in October 1971, a mutual friend, Bert Nitikman, had taken Spivak and Asper in a rowboat into the middle of the lake and urged them to co-operate. It was pointless; they both wanted to be premier. "They agreed to disagree," says Mira.
During the campaign, Spivak portrayed himself as a centrist and denounced Asper’s radical ideas about less government control of the economy and the elimination of the welfare state.
Asper talked about a "new deal" for the West and received national press coverage. Journalist Peter Desbarats, then writing for the Tribune, compared Asper to Quebec’s René Lévesque — "both (are) nervous smokers who complain that the citizens of their provinces are treated as second-class citizens."
The definite low point was when Ed Schreyer referred to Spivak and Asper as "the gold dust twins from River Heights." (Labour minister Russ Paulley had actually come up with the line.) The premier had likely not intended it as an anti-Semitic jibe, but the portrayal of Spivak and Asper as rich lawyers left a bad taste in the mouths of Winnipeg Jews. Sidney Green, running for the NDP (who along with Saul Cherniack and Saul Miller were three Jewish NDP cabinet ministers), recalls it as "one of the less palatable features" of the contest, adding that Cherniack "pleaded with Schreyer to desist in adding fuel to this fire".
The results of the 1973 provincial election were disappointing for both the Conservatives and Liberals — Schreyer and the NDP retained their slim majority. Spivak increased his popular vote, but the Conservatives lost a seat.
Asper held on to his Wolseley seat by five votes and the Liberals only won another four seats.
Forever after, Asper earned the ironic moniker, "Landslide Asper."
Within a year, Asper had had enough of the long hours and poor pay. He finally understood that no matter what he did, he was never going to be the premier of Manitoba. He resigned the leadership and soon embarked on a career in business and media.
A few months after that, Spivak, who was blamed for the party’s loss in the election, was challenged for the leadership by Sterling Lyon, who had served in Roblin’s cabinet. At a bitter leadership convention in December 1975, Lyon defeated Spivak. Whether Spivak acknowledged it or not, the Jewish factor played a role in his loss.
As political scientist William Neville, who served as Spivak’s executive assistant, remembers, the common refrain was, "‘Sidney may be a nice guy, but the province will never elect a Jew.’ I heard this comment a number of times from a lot of prominent people in the Conservative party. Their view was, ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, but there are other people who are.’" Spivak had boldly tried to deal with the issue in a speech he delivered at the annual party meeting in Brandon nine months earlier. He had been troubled by recent remarks that had been made by Charles Huband, who had replaced Asper as Liberal leader. Huband had suggested that being Jewish in politics was a "regrettable disability."
Spivak denounced that remark. "I am a Canadian; I am also a Progressive Conservative, and I am a member of the Jewish faith," he declared. "I am aware that no society is ever completely free of bigotry; and no party for that matter. But I say to you, the people who have reposed your trust in me: I do not believe that my religion in any way affects my capacity to lead this party, nor in any way affects, alters, or impairs my ability to assume the responsibilities of premier of this province."
Few Jews had ever expressed publicly such honest feelings about this sensitive issue. Why rock the boat, they thought, and draw unwanted attention? Spivak, however, had heard the gossip and innuendo and felt he had no choice but to address it. Ironically, the individual who was most angered by his comments was another Jewish Conservative, Tory power-broker Nathan Nurgitz, who was national president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1970 to 1971 — and the first Jewish president of any political party in the country.
"I’m offended to the hilt. It was in bad taste," Nurgitz said. "It was not an intelligent approach. People are concerned about his leadership not his religion and he should have dealt with that." He also claimed that he had received more than 30 telephone calls from other Jewish community members who were upset that Spivak tried to use anti-Semitism as a scapegoat for his political failures.
More than three decades later, Nurgitz, now a judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, admits that he and Spivak did not always see eye to eye. "I did take issue with his leadership," he says, "I didn’t think the problems (confronting Spivak and provincial Conservatives) related to the ethnic or Jewish factor."
Looking back, it is arguable that being Jewish worked against both Asper and Spivak, overtly and more subtly. As the Brandon Sun reported in March 1975, Conservative canvassers were told by Manitobans they spoke with that they would not choose a party with a Jewish leader.
In rural areas, suggested Conservative MLA Wally Mackenzie, "many immigrants have a ‘chip on their shoulders’ against Jews as a result of experiences in native lands." Saul Miller of the NDP claimed that he had never encountered anti-Semitism in 21 years of public life, while Irv Sera of the B’nai Brith commented that "I really don’t think any of the Jewish politicians have been cut out of the political scene because they’re Jewish."
Sidney Spivak was more circumspect. "It wasn’t anti-Semitism in the sense of because you are Jewish you shouldn’t be supported," he said in a 1978 interview. "But there was a perception that a Jew could not be elected in Manitoba as premier and for that reason… That is a form of anti-Semitism but not in a conventional way."
Izzy Asper, too, who received many vile letters, admitted later that he underplayed the anti-Jewish sentiments while he was in politics. Since those heady days of the 1970s, no major political party in Manitoba has been led by a Jew.
Adapted from Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba by Allan Levine. Published by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in association with Heartland Associates.
Tomorrow: Too many Jewish doctors