As a minister in the province's first NDP governments, he was key to implementing progressive initiatives, including medicare and a policy to support multiculturalism
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 21, 2018 – Print Edition, Page B24

Long before Saul Cherniack became an influential Manitoba MLA, he was working for a family friend one summer when he learned that he was being paid more than his co-workers. He was shocked. So, according to his granddaughter Katherine Cherniack, he went to his employer to demand that either his salary be lowered, or theirs raised.

The ethical standards that guided him that day and throughout his life inspired those who knew him to say he was incorruptible.

Born to secular Jewish immigrants from what is now central Ukraine, Mr. Cherniack was raised in a socialist intellectual environment with high expectations. During his long career in politics, Mr. Cherniack, who died last month at the age of 101, remained faithful to his roots.

The younger of two children of Joseph Alter Cherniack, a watchmaker who worked his way through law school, and seamstress Fanya Cherniack (née Golden), Saul Mordecai (Mark) Cherniack was born in Winnipeg on Jan. 10, 1917.

His parents had fled the Russian Empire after both were jailed for socialist activities in the wake of the 1905 Revolution. Fanya used her weeks in the cells to teach the nonpolitical female prisoners, such as sex workers and thieves, to read and write.

In the Cherniack household, literacy and ideas were paramount. A parade of secular Jewish thinkers, writers and activists passed through the house, among them Chaim Zhitlowsky, who translated Nietzsche into Yiddish.

His older sister, Dr. Mindel Cherniack Sheps (1913-1973), set a high bar for Saul. A physician and pioneer in biostatistics, epidemiology and demographics, she worked for Saskatchewan's Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government, and served as a Winnipeg school trustee before working for Planned Parenthood.

Saul attended Winnipeg's Jewish, socialist I.L. Peretz Folk School, which his father had helped found, before going to Machray School and St. John's High. He then took law at the University of Manitoba, as his father had. At university, he met Sybil Claire Zeal. The pair, who were both active in a leftist Yiddish-language theatre group, married and were, according to their son Lawrie, a lawyer and former city councillor, "hopelessly in love" until her death in 1997.

After passing the bar, Saul went to work with his father, but left the practice in 1943 to join the Army. He was assigned initially to an artillery unit then to the Intelligence Corps. Officer training was, according to Lawrie, "possibly the only time Saul got any real exercise in his life."

Saul was sent to study Japanese in British Columbia, where his classmates included future writer and federal politician Judy LaMarsh. He then worked in Ottawa translating signal intercepts, and started his family of two sons, Howard (born in 1943) and Lawrence (born in 1945). In 1946, Saul left the military with the rank of captain.

As a father, Mr. Cherniack was loving but intellectually demanding, as his own father had been, treating his children as little adults with real minds. When Lawrie was 8, Mr. Cherniack cautioned him always to "judge your actions by their consequences."

Mr. Cherniack thereafter devoted himself to the twin pursuits of politics and social good. He joined Manitoba's Independent Labour Party (ILP) and was active in the Canadian Jewish Congress, which his father had helped start. As the ILP declined, he affiliated with the CCF and remained with it and its heir, the NDP.

As a lawyer, Mr. Cherniack fought for just compensation for Japanese-Canadians who were evicted from their land during the war.

Mr. Cherniack's support for the downtrodden was tied to the socialist values with which he had been raised. Longtime Saskatchewan CCF/NDP member Meyer Brownstone suggests that it may also have been linked to the subtle antiSemitism in Manitoba of the time.

Mr. Cherniack resumed practising law with his father, mostly working in real estate and tax law. While he was happy to be with family, the nature of the work - often, helping clients avoid paying taxes by legal means - was not in tune with his principles.

He was not usually involved in litigation, but one of the few times he did appear in court, he made an impression on the opposing counsel Roy Gallagher, who later told Lawrie that Mr. Cherniack was "one of the best cross-examiners he had faced."

Mr. Cherniack started his political career as a trustee with the Winnipeg School Board, then served as an alderman for the Winnipeg City Council and councillor for Greater Winnipeg before first becoming the member for the North Winnipeg constituency of St. John's in Manitoba's legislature in 1962. He would go on to hold that seat until 1981, when he did not seek re-election.

In opposition, he was respected by most Conservative MLAs, largely because when he debated, he did it logically, without malice and with a twinkle in his eye. "He neither treated people with awe nor condescended to them," Lawrie says. He maintained cordial relations with PC premier Duff Roblin, and with Winnipeg's independent populist mayor Stephen Juba.

His wry humour won him unlikely friends. He did not, however, suffer fools gladly, says Ed Schreyer, Manitoba's NDP premier from 1969 to 1977 and governor-general from 1979 to 1984.

"He was cool-headed and motivated by the nobler instincts, but did not shy away from debate with those who displayed the meaner instincts."

It was as minister of finance and urban affairs, as well as deputy premier, in Manitoba's first NDP governments that he would leave his greatest legacy. Mr. Cherniack was key to the implementation of a number of progressive initiatives in the province, including medicare; the creation of a public car insurance Crown corporation; the decision not to use nuclear power; and honouring Métis leader Louis Riel as a founder of Manitoba, rather than viewing him as a traitor, which had been the previous government line.

Many of Mr. Cherniack's accomplishments were less visible, such as useful changes to family law. Mr. Schreyer also credits him for the introduction of a provincially funded home-care program, the first in Canada; and the policy statement that multiculturalism was officially desirable, introduced in Manitoba before former prime minister Pierre Trudeau did so federally.

"The 1970s were a time of rapid formulation and adoption of policies and programs," Mr. Schreyer says, and Mr. Cherniack was fundamental to many of them. "Saul was immensely competent, probably the most competent minister in the Schreyer government and one of the best I ever met," Mr. Brownstone says.

The most mixed of his legacies was overseeing the amalgamation of what was then a patchwork of Winnipeg-area cities, towns and rural municipalities into one entity, Unicity. This unification had been a major part of the NDP's 1969 election platform. While in hindsight it seems inevitable that Winnipeg could not continue as a two-tier patchwork of 12 squabbling municipal governments, the logistics of combining property tax systems, police and firefighting agencies, and so on were daunting, Mr. Schreyer says.

In his capacity as minister of urban affairs, Mr. Cherniack visited countless town halls and forums, listening patiently to the citizens' many complaints.

Ultimately, Mr. Cherniack ensured that Unicity would be fair. His sense of equity, patience and reasonableness stood the NDP in good stead: The party went from having a minority government in 1969 to gaining a majority in the 1973 general election, shortly after Unicity had been implemented.

Unicity had, however, originally been conceived as something much more ambitious than mere unification. It was to have given neighbourhoods some control over budget spending and zoning, for example, and a say in how essential services would be handled.

While Mr. Cherniack had pushed to make Unicity as close to its original vision as possible, he eventually had to relent under pressure from various sources.

That an autonomous, innovative Unicity did not materialize as planned was regarded as something of a failure, not just by NDPers such as Mr. Cherniack and Mr. Brownstone, but also by the likes of former Liberal Manitoba MLA Lloyd Axworthy, who went on to become federal foreign affairs minister.

Despite winning his seat by a comfortable margin every election, he was not a traditional politician. He did not go door-to-door, back-slap or make effusive promises, Mr. Schreyer says. He surrounded himself with no-people rather than yes-people, and took the time to introduce himself to every branch and office in the finance ministry: a rarity among elected officials.

After leaving provincial politics in 1981, he became chair of Manitoba Hydro. In that capacity, his knowledge of Japanese language and culture was useful, and he acted as the "respectable face of a socialist government to Japanese bond buyers," says Lawrie, helping to sell the provincial Crown utility's bonds at high interest rates.

Mr. Cherniack was a founding member of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which provides civilian oversight of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Though specifics of his work at SIRC remain secret, there can be little doubt that Mr. Cherniack continued to be his thorough self, combing over cases to assess possible overreaches of authority by the federal spy agency.

While immensely loyal, Mr. Cherniack also had the highest of ethical standards. When long-time colleague Mr. Brownstone asked if Mr. Cherniack could look into a case in which an activist was being interviewed repeatedly by CSIS, Mr. Cherniack admonished him: "You know I can't talk about my work!"

Mr. Cherniack was "incorruptible," says his son Lawrie, a word Mr. Brownstone also uses. "When he first took office as minister of finance, a representative of a professional organization phoned him to tell him the party would get a donation of 10 per cent of the value of their contracts. My father went straight to Premier Schreyer, and it stopped."

After Mr. Cherniack's wife, Sybil, suffered an incapacitating stroke in the 1990s, the family was not sure what he would do. "She had always taken care of him," Lawrie says.

"People took care of him so he could do the things he was doing." After her stroke, though, Saul was happy to reverse roles, and after her death, Saul tearfully told Lawrie, "I never loved your mother more."

Some years after Sybil's death, Mr. Cherniack moved in with his long-time acquaintance, and then partner, Myra Wolch.

Late in life, as his old friends passed away, he acquired new ones. He volunteered teaching English as a second language with the Winnipeg School Division.

He remained open to new experiences throughout his life, his son Howard says. In his 80s, he learned to use computers, and filed his taxes himself online until he was 99.

Mr. Cherniack, who died of organ failure in Winnipeg on March 30, leaves his partner, Ms. Wolch; his sons, Howard and Lawrie; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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Associated Graphic

In this 1974 photo, then-finance minister of Manitoba Saul Cherniack, left, greets then-federal finance minister John Turner at the start of the federal-provincial finance ministers' meeting in Ottawa.


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