Only Jewish leader of a federal political party
David Lewis was a Jewish-Canadian politician, lawyer, author and university professor.
Born and raised in Russia, David Losz’s childhood was marked by the German invasion of Russia during the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
After witnessing these world-changing events, the Losz family moved to Canada in 1921, arriving in Halifax by boat, then travelling to their new home in Montreal by train. Upon arrival in Canada, the Losz family name was anglicized to Lewis.
Yiddish was Lewis’ mame loshen (mother tongue), but he quickly learned English. From 1927 to 1932, he attended McGill University, where he studied arts and law, and was active in municipal socialist politics. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford, where he became active in the British Labour Party.
Returning to Canada in 1935, Lewis married Sophie Carson and began to practise law in Ottawa. In 1936, he began working as a national secretary for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and became a key theorist and member of the League for Social Reconstruction.
He co-authored Make This Your Canada with F.R. Scott and ran unsuccessfully as a CCF candidate for Parliament in 1940, 1943, 1945 and 1949.
After 1950, Lewis continued his involvement in the CCF while practising labour law. In 1961, Lewis’ involvement was significant in the formation of the New Democratic Party (NDP). In effect, the CCF transformed from a western, farm-based organization into a more urban, competitive NDP.
Lewis won his first election to Parliament in the Toronto riding of York South in 1962. He lost the seat in 1963, but was re-elected in 1965, 1968 and 1972 before losing the seat again in 1974.
In Parliament, Lewis was an impressive debater and, in 1971, he succeeded Tommy Douglas as NDP leader. He became the first – and, to date, only – Jewish leader of a federal political party in Canada. From 1972 to 1974, with Pierre Trudeau leading a Liberal minority government, Lewis’ NDP held the balance of power.
Lewis stepped down from his position as NDP leader in 1975 following his federal election defeat and became a professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Lewis also devoted himself to writing. On assignment for the Toronto Star in 1978, Lewis visited his hometown of Svisloch, and wrote that the Holocaust had entirely wiped out the Jewish community there, including his extended family.
Lewis also completed work on The Good Fight: Political Memoirs 1909-1958, the first book in what was planned to be a two-volume autobiography. Lewis passed away in Ottawa on May 23, 1981 shortly after The Good Fight was published.
Though at times a controversial political figure, Lewis was respected by his colleagues and opponents for his intellect, dedication and sacrifices to his work.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: