Obituary: Cabinet minister Norman Levi served under Barrett

Norman Levi was an Englishman by birth, a Jew by religion, an Israeli by conviction and a Canadian by circumstance.

Levi was also one of the most progressive politicians ever elected in British Columbia.

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“He used to say: ‘In England, I was always a ‘bloody Jew’ and in Israel, I was always a ‘bloody Englishman’,” his longtime partner, Beth Macdonald, said in a telephone interview.

Norman Levi died peacefully on Dec. 25 at his Rockland home. He was 88.

In Canada, a country he and his American wife chose after the U.S. denied him entry, Levi was never labelled, said Macdonald.

And in British Columbia, the province he and his wife chose on a coin toss, he was elected as a New Democrat and became a cabinet minister in the government of Dave Barrett.

Levi was born Feb. 25, 1927, in Birmingham, England. Left-wing politics was almost hereditary — he often boasted his father was a founding member of the British Communist Party.

By the time Levi turned 16, Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. He enlisted and became a tank driver and was part of the unit that liberated the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen.

He remained in the British Army for two years after the war and was sent to India until it gained independence in 1947.

By 1948, Levi was in Israel and had enlisted in the Israeli army. He fought in the Arab-Israeli war that secured the country’s independence and for a time lived in the country.

Macdonald said he always supported the country’s existence. But he was often critical of its failure to reach accord with the Palestinians.

In Israel, he met American Gloria Hammerman, whom he married. The pair had five children and 12 grandchildren. They later separated.

In 1959, Levi moved to Vancouver and was working as a parole officer with the John Howard Society.

It was during that time Levi became friends with another social worker, Barrett, who encouraged him to run for office as a New Democrat.

Levi was first elected to the B.C. legislature as member for Vancouver South in a 1968 byelection. He lost in the follow-up general election, but in 1972, he was elected again, part of Barrett’s New Democratic government. He was appointed to cabinet and became minister of human resources.

As a minister, Levi was instrumental in a variety of progressive moves, including the introduction of PharmaCare, income supplements for seniors and restitution for native peoples.

Levi was also able to ask why he had been denied entry to the U.S. after the Second World War. It turned out American immigration authorities were alarmed by his membership in an English left-wing book club.

After the defeat of the Barrett government and Levi’s retirement, he and Macdonald moved to a home in Victoria’s Rockland neighbourhood in 1983.

Even then, left-wing politics continued to interest him. An ongoing project was researching the life of early Canadian socialist and B.C. politician James Hurst Hawthornthwaite (1863-1926).

Levi also gathered a small circle of pals from the New Democratic Party who called themselves “The Rump Group.” Once a month, they would gather at his home to discuss politics and left-wing solutions. Just two weeks before his death, he attended a coffee meeting with those pals.

A celebration of Levi’s life is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 21, 2 p.m. at the Inn at Laurel Point, 680 Montreal St.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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