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‘Saddened and distressed’: political Ottawa reacts to deaths of Apotex’s Barry and Honey Sherman

Barry and Honey Sherman 'supported me in my bid to become their MP and befriended me as their MP, never asking for anything in return,' says Liberal MP Rob Oliphant.

Police secured the home of Apotex founder Barry Sherman and wife, Honey Sherman after they were found dead on Dec. 15, 2017. The Canadian Press/Christopher Katsarov photograph

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 12:00 AM

Three weeks ago, Honey Sherman was on Parliament Hill for a special occasion.

The prominent Toronto philanthropist was there to receive a 150th anniversary Senate medal on the floor of the Upper Chamber in recognition of all her volunteer work. 

During the visit on Nov. 29, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.) said he struck up a conversation with Ms. Sherman, who resided in his Toronto-area riding, where she was her usual “passionate” self.

It would be their last conversation together.

  

Ms. Sherman, 70, was found dead last Friday in her upscale Toronto home along with her husband Barry, 75, founder of Apotex, Canada’s largest producer of generic pharmaceutical drugs. The billionaire couple were reportedly found hanging from the railing of their home’s indoor swimming pool, and the police are currently treating both deaths as suspicious. Toronto police later said they both died from “ligature neck compression,” or strangulation.

Their bodies were discovered by a real estate agent, as the couple’s home was recently listed for sale with an asking price of $6.9-million. The Toronto Star reported on Tuesday that the home was the subject of several lawsuits, with the couple suing its builders, managing to recoup $2-million in 2006, according to court documents. The Star also reported that the couple was planning to move into a bigger home, citing property records showing a house in Toronto’s downtown Forest Hill neighbourhood was transferred to Ms. Sherman in 2016.

Late last week, multiple media reports, anonymously sourcing a Toronto police official, said the early theory was a murder-suicide but the Sherman family’s four grown children emphatically dismissed the theory.

“Our parents shared an enthusiasm for life and commitment to their family and community totally inconsistent with the rumours regrettably circulated in the media as to the circumstances surrounding their deaths,” according to a statement released from the family to the media on Saturday.

  

“We are shocked and think it’s irresponsible that police sources have reportedly advised the media of a theory which neither family, their friends nor their colleagues believe to be true,” said the statement.

The shocking deaths and bizarre circumstances sent shockwaves through political Ottawa, where the Shermans are well known, both for their philanthropic and community work, and Barry’s fundraising support for the federal Liberals.

“I was saddened and distressed,” Mr. Oliphant said of his reaction to the couples’ passing.

Mr. Sherman, who founded Apotex in 1974 and whose estimated net worth was $4.6-billion, found himself under the political media spotlight in recent months after federal lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd announced earlier this year that she was investigating a fundraiser he hosted at his home for Justin Trudeau and then-Liberal candidate, now MP Michael Levitt (York Centre, Ont.) in August 2015.

  

A complaint from lobbying watchdog Democracy Watch said Mr. Sherman shouldn’t have hosted the fundraiser because Apotex was registered to lobby MPs at the time, and Mr. Sherman was listed as a lobbyist on the company’s registration.

Then this past fall, Apotex and Mr. Sherman filed an application in Federal Court calling on the investigation to be halted, arguing it was unfair and unreasonable.

The investigation is not “being advanced for bona fide purposes under the Lobbying Act,” but is simply “an unanchored fishing expedition,” the application reads, according to reporting by The Globe and Mail.

Tickets for the fundraiser reportedly cost $1,500.

As part of its inquiry, the Lobbying Commissioner’s Office conducted a voluntary interview with Mr. Sherman last year on both the 2015 event and a then-upcoming $500-a-person fundraiser for Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.). 

At that time, The Globe and Mail reported he had helped sell tickets and organized the event. Federal law bans lobbyists from those two actions for politicians if it creates an obligation for a government official.

Mr. Sherman and Apotex continued to lobby the federal government throughout the controversy, Postmedia reported. A Liberal Party spokesperson told the publication at the time that Mr. Sherman was not present at the event and pulled out of any role with the fundraiser.

Apotex has also launched a suit against the federal government for $500-million, claiming financial and reputational damage from a September 2014 ban on the company from importing drugs from Indian facilities over concerns regarding the quality of research data. Health Canada eventually lifted the ban after putting inspectors in the company’s Canadian plants and testing products from India.

Mr. Morneau is part of the Cabinet Committee on Litigation Management, which discusses strategy for handling lawsuits hurled at the federal government, although the committee’s members have said they do not discuss individual cases in meetings. Mr. Morneau has not revealed how many times he has recused himself from the committee’s meetings.

In an interview, Mr. Oliphant pushed back against a characterization of Mr. Sherman as an “active fundraiser” for the Liberals, but acknowledged his support of the party, particularly amongst the local Jewish community.

He recalled attending a fundraiser hosted at Mr. Sherman’s lavish house for Mr. Trudeau in August 2015 that was picketed by a Toronto Jewish group upset over the Liberals support for reopening diplomatic ties with Iran and for the the U.S. nuclear deal with the Persian Gulf nation.

Despite the protest, Mr. Oliphant said the late Apotex chairman was undeterred in his support for the party, and touted Mr. Sherman’s ability to engage and reach out beyond strictly Liberal supporters.  

“Barry was a quiet, persistent gentleman. He was extremely both thoughtful and respectful,” Mr. Oliphant said.

In a post on Twitter over the weekend, Mr. Oliphant said the Shermans “supported me in my bid to become their MP and befriended me as their MP, never asking for anything in return.”

Former acting Liberal leader Bob Rae remembered Mr. Sherman fondly and told the CBC that “he didn’t hesitate to let you know when he was happy and wasn’t happy. It’s going to be a big loss. The Canadian business community has lot a truly remarkable individual.”

The Hill Times reached out to Liberal Party president Anna Gainey for comment but was told by the party that she would be unavailable prior to deadline.

When reached, Nan Wehbe, manager of the Liberal Party’s Laurier Club, composed of party members that donate the maximum allowable contribution each year, referred The Hill Times to the party’s central media relations team.

Mr. Trudeau expressed his condolences to the Shermans’ family and friends in a statement posted on Twitter Friday night.

“Sophie and I are saddened by news of the sudden passing of Barry and Honey Sherman,” he wrote.

“Our condolences to their family & friends, and to everyone touched by their vision & spirit.”

Conservative Senator Linda Frum, right, presented Honey Sherman, centre, with a Senate medal commemorating her volunteer and philanthropic contributions, alongside Senate Speaker George Furey, left, on Nov. 29. Linda Frum Twitter account photograph

Politics aside, the Shermans were perhaps best known outside of business circles for their many philanthropic endeavours.

The couple donated tens of millions to primarily Jewish organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal, and to the United Way. Mr. Sherman also donated part of his wealth to local community centres and for expanding a geriatric facility, and to medicine for disaster recovery operations through the Apotex Foundation.

In a statement, Adam Minsky, president and CEO of the United Jewish Federation (UJA) of Greater Toronto, which works to strengthen the local Jewish community, described the Shermans as “inspiring leaders” that led with their “generosity, time, intelligence, and hearts.”

“Anyone who knew them were taken by their drive to make life better for people here in Toronto, across Canada, in Israel, and around the world,” he said.

Ms. Sherman was a member of a range of health, education, community, and Jewish-focused nonprofit organizations.

She sat on the board of the Baycrest Foundation and the York University Foundation, and served on the boards of Mount Sinai’s Women’s Auxiliary and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

She also served as a member the United Jewish Appeal’s board of directions, in addition to chairing its annual charity campaign and its Jewish Foundation, and the Toronto’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre from 2011 to 2013. She also donated money to the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

Mr. Oliphant described Ms. Sherman as “enthusiastic,” saying she had no trouble voicing her opinion, [and] was a vigorous defender of what she believed in.”

Conservative Senator Linda Frum (Ontario), who awarded the Senate medal to Ms. Sherman earlier this month for her volunteer contributions, described her on Twitter as “one of the kindest and most beloved members of Canada’s Jewish community.”

“I am gutted by the loss of Honey and Barry Sherman. Our community is steeped in grief,” Ms. Frum wrote.

“I am heartbroken.”

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The Hill Times