June 24, 2005
A history of Jews in Canada
As Canadians celebrate the July 1 anniversary of Confederation,
we are justly proud of the ethnic diversity and multicultural spirit
found throughout the country. Our cities teem with people from every
corner of the globe, whose contribution to a dynamic society is
well-recognized. In many places, intercultural festivals are under
way, such as Victoria's outstanding Folkfest celebration, where,
for 10 days, world music, dance and cuisine take centre stage. Our
Canadian mosaic has become so enshrined, one might believe this
is the way Canada has always been.
Those of the older generation, however, remember a time when Canada
was not so tolerant of members of ethnic minorities, including those
of a Jewish background. In the grand scheme of things, it was hardly
so long ago that this country exhibited an almost institutionalized
anti-Semitism. Jews who immigrated to this land to enjoy a safe
and prosperous life for their children succeeded only by overcoming
certain barriers placed between them and their aspirations. These
took the form of quotas on university enrolments, professions that
could not be entered, clubs and associations that were restricted
to Jews - and even signs on public beaches proclaiming, "No
There are many examples of this unfortunate history. The medical
school at McGill University had a very small quota for Jewish students;
the Toronto School Board would not hire Jewish teachers; the T.
Eaton Co. also would not hire Jewish employees. Not only in professional
life, but also in recreational associations, Jews were often prohibited
from membership. Numerous are the golf, yacht and country clubs
across Canada where, up until quite recently, Jews were not welcome
Despite these barriers, or perhaps driven by them, Jews excelled
in every field and became prosperous and successful. They achieved
such academic excellence that universities had no choice but to
enrol them. Gradually, every profession opened its doors.
Rather than decry those clubs that denied them membership, Jews
founded their own golf, yacht and country clubs and their own business
associations. When I grew up in Toronto, there was the Royal Canadian
Yacht Club, which was closed to Jews, and the (Jewish) Island Yacht
Club; the venerable WASP Granite Club and the equally snobbish,
but Jewish, Tri-bel Club.
Of course, not every city in Canada had Toronto's heritage of Anglo-Saxon
elitism. In my adopted home of Victoria, Jews played a prominent
role from the town's earliest days - with many of the important
merchants and mayors being of the Jewish faith. No doubt, the western
frontier spirit and the gold rush roots of this city led to the
tolerance which saw Governor Douglas, the Masons and all the leading
citizens of the day take part in the building and 1863 opening of
the Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue, still in use today.
However, back in Ottawa, the politicians and the bureaucrats were
not always so open-minded. At the very time when European Jews were
most endangered by the rising Nazi movement, Canada callously imposed
restrictions on Jewish immigration. When asked how many Jews Canada
would accept, one official of the W.L. Mackenzie King government
is reported to have replied that, "None is too many."
One wonders how many lives could have been saved by a more humane
The tragic consequences of this policy were never more clearly illustrated
than in Canada's shameful part in turning back the ship The St.
Louis. In 1939, 900 Jewish refugees left Hamburg on this boat bound
for Havana, Cuba. Approaching Havana harbor, they discovered they
had been duped by a corrupt official and their visas were not valid.
Cuba would not allow the ship entry. Jews everywhere appealed for
a country to admit these refugees and the St. Louis sailed from
port to port in search of asylum. After they were refused entry
by the United States, Canada was the last hope for these desperate
souls, but King said their plight was not Canada's problem, and
forced the ship to return to Europe. During the terrible years of
the Nazi regime, Canada accepted a mere 500 refugees.
While in Canada today, there are occasional racist attacks against
Jews or Jewish landmarks, these are thankfully isolated and soundly
condemned by society at large. They should not, of course, be ignored,
but we need to keep them in perspective. Racism against Jews (or
any other ethnic group) is no longer tolerated on any institutional
basis. On the contrary, our government has instituted policies to
prevent discrimination and our justice system has made hate crimes
actionable. Still, it is no doubt wise to remain vigilant and to
speak out against all forms of racism - and also to insist on humane
immigration policies, so that other cultures in need of rescue may
receive the compassionate welcome that Jews were denied. Ours is
a large and prosperous country, enriched by the lively interchange
of cultures we celebrate this Canada Day.
Carol Sokoloff is a writer and singer from Victoria, where
she performs with the jazz group Trio Espresso. She is the author
of the children's books Colours Everywhere You Go and the soon-to-be-released
Anything You Want to Be (Cherubim Books/Ekstasis).