Socialist, lawyer and long-time politician Saul Cherniack dies at 101

A former provincial cabinet minister, Winnipeg city councillor and life-long socialist, Saul Cherniack has died.

Former Manitoba politician spent his life serving the public, fighting for social justice, son says

Saul Cherniack represented the riding of St. Johns from 1962 until 1981. (Courtesy of Lawrie Cherniack )

A former provincial cabinet minister, Winnipeg city councillor and life-long socialist, Saul Cherniack, has died.

Cherniack died peacefully Friday morning at his home in River Heights, his family says. He was 101.

As a New Democrat cabinet minister for the Ed Schreyer government, Cherniack played a central role in amalgamating Winnipeg suburbs to form Unicity in 1970s.

He was a recipient of the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba and a sworn member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada in the 1980s.

On Friday Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said, through a spokesperson, Cherniack led a "distinguished life in public service."

He leaves behind three great-grandchildren, two granddaughters, two sons and long-time partner Myra Wolch. His wife, Sybil Cherniack, died in 1997.

'A politician in the best sense'

Cherniack was born January 10 1917 to parents Joseph Alter Cherniack and Fanya Golden. They were were proud members of a secular Russian Jewish movement that celebrated the Yiddish language, culture and literature.

In 1929, the family finished building the house on St. Johns Avenue that would become Cherniack's home for the next 74 years. 

From the age of nine, Cherniack's son, Lawrie Cherniack, says his father was committed to the cause of "radical socialism."

His family was secular, highly educated and committed to the idea that any privilege they had should be shared with others, Lawrie said.

"That's what propelled him, this sense of social justice — that it was wrong that people suffered, wrong that there was inequality in income, wrong that people were being exploited. He drilled that into us and his parents drilled that into him."

Lawrie, who served three years as a Winnipeg city councillor and went on to be a long-time union lawyer, said his father never wavered in his beliefs, even when constituents disagreed with him. Cherniack said and did what he believed to be right, his son said.

"He wasn't a politician in the bad sense. He was a statesman and a politician in the best sense."

A lifetime of service

Cherniack's career in public service began in the Second World War. He learned Japanese and worked as a code breaker for the Allied powers' "Intrepid unit."

After the war, he used his law degree fight for reparations to Japanese Canadians who had land and property taken away during the internment. He remained proud of the advocacy work for the rest of his life, his son said.

In 1959, Cherniack was elected to Winnipeg city council for St. Johns Ward. In 1962, he moved into provincial politics representing the North End. He would keep his seat in the Manitoba Legislature until 1981.

In Lawrie's opinion, his father's greatest accomplishment in provincial politics was helping amalgamate the city of Winnipeg in the early 1970s.

"I'll never forget, he went to every single suburban area and held meetings in the community areas — met with tremendous opposition — answered every single question, spent hours … with people who were angry and upset" 

He calmed people down, he listened so carefully to them."

After leaving public life, Cherniack continued to serve on boards including with Manitoba Hydro and as a member of the of the Security Intelligence Review Committee which oversees Canada's spy agency.

When he retired in his 80s, Cherniack, who spoke fluent Yiddish, became one of the oldest volunteers with the Winnipeg School Division's English-as-a-second-language program, his son said.

"He carried on the tradition of wanting to have a life better for other people."

Following Cherniack's wishes, his family will not be holding an immediate public memorial service.