Louis and Toby Rubinowitz and their son, Israel, are buried together in the Jewish section of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, while Toby’s sister Sarah is buried separately. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Like a bolt from the blue, and to my profound astonishment, I was on Tuesday afternoon set upon by a number of special constables and arrested,” Israel Rubinowitz wrote from his prison cell in Nanaimo.
It was autumn 1913 when the budding defence lawyer made a plea for his release, penning a letter to Judge Frederick Howay in the midst of a coal miners’ strike on Vancouver Island. Though a Conservative in politics, Rubinowitz offered a passionate, occasionally radical, perspective in British Columbian courtrooms. He grew up in Vancouver, studied at McGill University in Montreal and attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship in 1905. He returned to Vancouver and had only practised law for a short time when he found himself in Nanaimo – as both counsel and accused.
His predicament began when he agreed to represent members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Conflict had been brewing in mining communities on Vancouver Island’s central east coast since miners set up pickets in 1912. The coal companies refused to bargain and hired strikebreakers to keep their mines operating. “Special” constables, untrained and inexperienced, patrolled the region to keep order. In the summer of 1913, clashes broke out between strikers and replacement workers, starting in Cumberland and Nanaimo and spreading to Extension, South Wellington and Ladysmith. The provincial government declared martial law and sent in a militia on Aug. 13 after one man was killed, several surface mine buildings were burned down and homes were damaged. More than 200 strikers were arrested and 166 charged. None were granted bail. Martial law remained in the area for the next year.
The union hired experienced Vancouver labor lawyers Joseph Edward Bird and John Wallace de Beque Farris to defend the accused members. A group of Nanaimo residents fundraised independently and hired Rubinowitz, despite being advised by union officials and their lawyers that he was too inexperienced.
On that fateful Tuesday afternoon in September, Rubinowitz met with strikers Walter Pryde and William Moore on a Nanaimo street to discuss his clients’ cases. Special Constable Maguire and five other constables were patrolling the neighborhood. Maguire spied Rubinowitz and his companions and told them to move along. The trio continued walking, and were engaged in discussion when a train appeared and came to a halt. Twelve replacement workers disembarked, walking past the three men and the constables.
According to the Nanaimo Free Press, Maguire told Rubinowitz, “You are arrested for picketing.”
“I dare you,” Rubinowitz answered. “You don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t care who you are,” Maguire replied.
“After being publicly paraded through the principal streets,” Rubinowitz wrote in his letter to Howay, “I was taken to the police station where I was ultimately informed after persistent demands, that I was being charged with besetting or watching and following and intimidating workmen.”
Rubinowitz further wrote he had been falsely arrested. “I solemnly declare it is a wicked and deliberate trick to prevent my appearing [in court] for the men.”
After spending a sleepless night in jail, Rubinowitz appeared before Magistrate J.H. Simpson. He denounced the charge against him as “preposterous and fantastic.”
The exchange was reported in the Free Press:
“You put yourself in a false position,” the judge told him.
“You are not entitled to make such a suggestion,” the young lawyer responded.
“I ask for no favors,” Rubinowitz also told the court. “If I do not get justice here, I shall get it elsewhere.”
Thomas Shoebotham, acting for the Crown, requested that the bail hearing be moved to Friday, and the judge consented. But Rubinowitz’s letter to Howay and telegrams to newspapers had an impact. His plight received sympathetic media coverage from Victoria to Toronto. After his second night in jail, Rubinowitz was granted bail, though the judge let him know his letter to him was “ill advised.”
Rubinowitz stood before a packed courtroom for a preliminary trial on the Friday. He objected to Simpson’s presence on the bench, arguing Simpson had implied his guilt at the bail hearing and criticized the selection of Shoebotham. The judge overruled both objections.
“I was going to No. 1 mine with Pryde to see the district,” Rubinowitz testified. “I asked Moore to join me.… I stood about a minute pointing north and south. That gesture was seen by police.” Rubinowitz said Special Constable Collison pushed him. “I turned round and may have stared at him indignantly.” As for the arrival of the replacement workers, he said, “I was absorbed by my guides and didn’t notice them.”
Sam Davis, a Crown witness, was one of the workers coming off the train. He testified that he had not been spoken to by any of the accused and had not known anything about the incident until after their arrest.
Simpson seemed determined the case should proceed. “The least can be said is that the three men were in a disturbed district,” he told the court, “and that permission could have been obtained if they cared to have applied for it.” He also defended the special constables’ actions, saying, “… if no notice had been taken of this incident, there was a chance of another outbreak in the district.”
Shoebotham argued that an impartial jury in Nanaimo would be difficult to obtain because public opinion was “inflamed” in favor of the strikers, and requested the trial be moved to the mainland. Rubinowitz agreed but added, “I desire to dissociate myself from the reflection cast upon the good name of the citizens of Nanaimo.” (NFP, Oct. 2)
A month later, dressed in lawyer’s robes, Rubinowitz stood before Judge Aulay Morrison in a Vancouver court. “I appear, my lord on behalf of Pryde and Moore,” he said, “and I ask that they, together with myself, be discharged.” Before the morning was over, a jury found the three men “not guilty.”
By this time, several of the 160 accused strikers had been sentenced, following “speedy trials” in Nanaimo. They pleaded guilty on the advice of lawyers Bird and Farris in the hope of appeasing the court.
The remaining accused, having pled “not guilty,” were being tried in New Westminister. Rubinowitz represented 23 clients, while Bird defended 34. Most were granted bail and, when their trials finally concluded in the spring of 1914, nine went to prison, while others received a suspended sentence or were released because of time already served. Twenty-two men were pardoned. The last union man was released from prison Sept. 25, 1914. The union had been broken and many striking miners were blacklisted and had to find jobs elsewhere.
Rubinowitz was still seeking vindication, despite his acquittal, suing the Nanaimo Herald publisher, J.R.H. Matson, and its editorial writer, R.R. Hindmarsh, for libel. Among the alleged statements was the suggestion Rubinowitz had been purposely “seeking notoriety” the day he was arrested in Nanaimo. The case was tried June 8, 1915, before Justice William Clement with Sidney Taylor, KC, representing Rubinowitz and Robert Reid defending the newspapermen. On the second day, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of Rubinowitz and the Herald was ordered to pay him $1,000 and legal costs.
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Israel Isidore Rubinowitz was the only child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Louis and Toby Rubinowitz. The couple had been among thousands of Eastern European Jews emigrating to North America to seek better opportunities and escape the pogroms under Russian rule. Louis immigrated to New York City in 1879, at age 19, and traveled on to Pittsburgh, where many Lithuanian Jews had already settled. Two years later, he married Toby Rosenthal, and their son Israel was born in 1882. When Israel was 8, the family moved to Vancouver.
The couple were among the first Jews from Eastern Europe to settle in the city. David Oppenheimer, Vancouver’s second mayor, from 1888 to 1891, and a German Jew, represented the small population
of Western European Jews. Antisemitism does not appear to have been widely prevalent in the city’s early years. By the 1920s, this would change in Vancouver and elsewhere. Early tolerance of Jewish residents may be due in part to members of the dominant white population channeling their prejudicial treatment toward residents of Asian background. As well, only 83 Jewish people resided in Vancouver in 1891, increasing to 2,400 by 1931 – compared to 45,000 people in Toronto and 17,000 in Winnipeg.
Louis operated a grocery in Steveston with two partners. In 1894, his family lived in Gastown, the city’s first downtown core. In 1896, Louis opened a department store, Rubinowitz and Co., on the main floor of the five-storey Dominion Hotel, at the corner of Water and Abbott streets. He sold clothing, boots, shoes and other goods.
That same year, Toby’s sister, Sarah, 23, arrived from New York, divorced, pregnant and severely depressed. She gave birth to a son, named Abraham, and they lived with the Rubinowitz family. Israel was 13 when his aunt took her life, drowning in Burrard Inlet. At the coroner’s inquest, which confirmed death was by suicide, it was discovered Sarah had been pregnant and had an abortion. The coroner attempted to discover who the man involved with Sarah could have been, but to no avail. Louis and Toby continued to care for Sarah’s son and gave him their surname.
While attending Vancouver High School and College, Rubinowitz helped his father in the store. He won academic awards in his senior year. He volunteered in the Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, a local militia that recruited from his high school. Following graduation with a bachelor of arts degree at McGill, Rubinowitz articled in two Vancouver law firms, his training temporarily postponed when he won a Rhodes scholarship – the second British Columbian to do so. He studied at Oxford University, then returned home to complete his articles. Attracted to England, Rubinowitz traveled overseas again to practise law for about two years before returning to Vancouver in 1911. He was admitted to the B.C. bar July 9, 1912.
Living with his parents, Rubinowitz had only a short distance to walk to his law office on Granville Street. He became a member of the Masonic order, continued his involvement with the Vancouver Zionist Society (of which he was a founding member) and, during the First World War, was active as secretary of the B.C. Red Cross.
When the First World War began in 1914, Sarah’s son, Abraham, was working as an electrician and carpenter. After the government implemented conscription in 1917, Abraham, 21, was drafted. Following his service, he moved to the United States.
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Rubinowitz had only been practising for a short time when, in May 1913, he took on the defence of a female nurse arrested for murder. Mrs. Ida Ironmonger, 43, was accused of administering drugs to Mrs. H.O. Anderson to induce an abortion, resulting in her death. Rubinowitz’s attempt to have his client released on bail pending the murder trial was unsuccessful. In October – only four days before his own trial in connection to the Nanaimo arrest – Rubinowitz convinced the court to reduce Ironmonger’s charge to “giving noxious drugs and aiding and abetting a deceased woman to commit an illegal operation.” In the four-day trial, Rubinowitz made the case, which included medical testimony, that “the act might have been committed by the deceased herself.” Ironmonger was acquitted after the jury deliberated a mere five minutes.
Until 1968, abortion was illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code. “There is no place in Canada for the professional abortionist,” Judge Murphy told the court in reference to another Rubinowitz client, Joseph Kallenthe, who was found guilty by a jury in a Vancouver court in 1915. The judge also noted of the accused, “I have no doubt from the skill you displayed that you have had much practice.” Rubinowitz urged mercy, stating it was Kallethe’s wife and two children “on whom the brunt of the punishment will fall,” and Kallethe was sentenced to three years in prison.
In 1918, Rubinowitz represented a couple who had taken out a marriage licence without a religious or secular ceremony. They had two children before learning they were not legally married. Rubinowitz corresponded with the B.C. attorney general’s office, stating it was “only fair, particularly to the woman, that every effort should be made to make the marriage valid and to make the children legitmate.” The government responded that the issue could only be remedied with a private member’s bill, an action his clients could not afford. The couple’s dilemma was submitted by letter to a newspaper editor, signed by a “Vancouver barrister.” This led a reader of the newspaper in the same predicament to write the attorney general. Consequently, the Marriage Act was amended, providing for the legitimization of children to couples in this legal situation.
Rubinowitz was presented with his most challenging cases in the midst of Canada’s 1918-1919 “red scare” era. The federal government had suspended civil liberties, enacting the War Measures Act during the First World War in pursuit of “enemy aliens.” In the social turmoil after the war, fear of an uprising similar to the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a government crackdown on left-wing activists. Panic – real and imagined – culminated in the spring of 1919 with the Winnipeg General Strike. By June, as the strike was nearing an end, the government amended the Immigration Act. A newcomer to Canada could not be legally landed if suspected of subversive activities, as determined before an immigration board. The verdict rendered – behind closed doors – could not be challenged in a civil court.
A month following the amendment, 27 Russians in British Columbia were charged with participating in an anarchist ring connected to the Union of Russian Workers. Rubinowitz defended several of the accused. Secret service agents working with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police provided most of the evidence for the prosecution. After the hearings, the board ordered the deportation of 14 of the 27 men.
Bird’s son, Henry, also a lawyer, acted for the local defence committee. He appealed the cases to the Ministry of the Interior. It was agreed that one of the accused would not be deported but had to report regularly to the police. In October, the other 13 Russians were sent to an internment camp at Vernon to await further arrangements.
Rubinowitz instigated a perjury charge against two of the secret agents, accusing them of giving false evidence to the immigration board against three of the accused. Rubinowitz pointed out that the immigration board had taken away rights guaranteed by the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus Act, such as trial by jury and release on bail. He also criticized the board’s composition of appointees, stating they were not familiar with law. Judge Morrison and the Crown lawyer “severely” rapped him for saying fair play had not been done. The judge said the act “was really a war measure” and necessary “for the preservation of the nation.”
On Jan. 14, 1920, the case was moved to a higher court. Meantime, the detention camp in Vernon was closed. One of the 13 accused was released on parole and the others were transported to the B.C. penitentiary.
In May, the two secret agents were acquitted, the judge deciding the evidence had not been sufficient to sustain a charge. Rubinowitz was ordered to pay $2,000 in court costs.
The 12 imprisoned Russians were paroled that December but never deported because the government was unable to find a country willing to accept them. Considered a victory for left-wing activists, these detentions and those elsewhere in Canada had nevertheless served to send an intimidating message to politically active immigrants.
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Rubinowitz was a 41-year-old bachelor when he developed acute bronchopneumonia in the spring of 1923. In the early morning of Aug. 15, he died in his parents’ home. The burial was held the following day.
News of his death came as a “distinct shock” to members of the legal community, who responded with an “overflow of high esteem,” according to a newspaper account. He was described as a shrewd lawyer, quick to spot a weakness in an opponent’s argument, as well as considerate, courteous and kindly “even in the heat of battle.”
His parents carried on. Louis ran unsuccessfully for mayor three times and for alderman five times over the ensuing years. He “achieved a reputation as an eccentric and perhaps this is why he was not a recognized leader of the [Jewish] community,” observed a writer for the Jewish Independent’s predecessor, the Jewish Western Bulletin.
In 1939, Louis visited Vancouver archivist James Matthews to set down his stories.
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The Rubinowitzes are buried together in the Jewish section of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. Toby passed away in 1952, aged 90. Louis entered a provincial home for the aged in Coquitlam a few years after his wife died, passing on in 1958 at age 98. Sarah is buried separately on the edge of the Jewish section.
Janet Nicol is a history teacher at Killarney Secondary School in Vancouver and a freelance writer, with a special interest in local history. She blogs at janetnicol.wordpress.com. The writing of this history – which will be published in greater length in the 2016 edition of The Scribe – was inspired by the novel The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman (1928-1992). In the words of its protagonist, the family patriarch, Abraham: “… and yet there was a time, I think, when I had everything … but now, when I look back, I had at least the beginning of everything.”