David Lewis was born in 1907 in Belarus and emigrated to Montreal in 1921. His father, Moishe, led the local Bund (Jewish socialist party) in Belarus, igniting Lewis’s passion for socialist politics. In Montreal, Lewis worked in his uncle’s clothing factory and taught himself English. He attended McGill University, where he was renowned for being a skilled debater and writer. He also co-founded the Young People’s Socialist League and was its first leader. His hard work at McGill paid off when Lewis became one of the first Jewish students to receive the Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University. During his time at Oxford, he took leadership positions in the university’s socialist-labour circles, quickly earning notoriety for being an excellent debater and strong leader.
Upon his return to Canada, Lewis practiced law in Ottawa and, in 1936, began to work full-time as the National Secretary of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). In his position, Lewis worked diligently to form links to unions and moderate the party’s image, which was thought of by the general population as being too far Left. In 1943, Lewis co-wrote Make this Your Canada with the CCF’s National Chairman. The book sold over 25,000 copies in its first year of publication.
After several CCF Party losses, Lewis returned to practicing labour law, this time in Toronto. He became Chief Legal Advisor to the United Steelworkers of America (USW) and helped them in their battles with the Mine-Mill union. David took part in drafting the 1956 Winnipeg Declaration, which helped to moderate the CCF’s policies to be more accepting of capitalism under strict government regulation. Instead of opposing all private enterprise, Lewis was more concerned with monopoly capitalism and how to prevent it. He worked hard to combine the socialist and labour movements of Canada, and stood strongly against communism. Lewis worked with the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to merge the labour and social democratic movements. He was a key architect in the creation of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, transforming the CCF from an unsuccessful party to the more labour-oriented and successful NDP.
Lewis ran to be elected to Parliament for York South in Toronto and won in 1962, 1965, 1968, and 1972. He was a fierce debater in Parliament, with one of his most memorable moments being after the FLQ October Crisis in 1970, when he was one of the only Members of Parliament to vote against the War Measures Act. He received a lot of criticism at the time for voting against the Act, but years later many MPs regretted voting to implement it, with some admitting their admiration for Lewis who voted against despite the criticism. In the 1971 NDP Leadership Convention, Lewis was elected to be the party’s national leader, making him the first Jew to be the leader of a party in Canada.
In 1972, Lewis ran for federal election and lost to the Liberal Party. The election put the greatest number of NDP members in Parliament until that point. Lewis achieved his greatest political prominence when the NDP held the balance of power in the 1972-1974 Liberal minority government. Because of NDP support, Parliament created Petro-Canada and the Foreign Investment Review Agency and introduced pension indexing, a new Elections Expenses Act, and a national affordable housing strategy. Lewis lost his party seat in the 1974 election, and subsequently stepped down from his position as leader in 1975. He spent the rest of his life as a Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and remained active in the NDP until his death in 1981.
His memoir, The Good Fight, was published posthumously in 1981. Three of his children, Michael, Stephen, and Janet, have been important figures in the NDP, and his grandson, Avi Lewis, is a television political commentator. Lewis was appointed to the highest level of the Order of Canada in “recognition of the contributions he has made to labour and social reform and the deep concern he has had over the years for his adopted country.”