Skip to main content
obituary

Irving Abella, author and labour historian, on Feb. 17, 2000.John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Irving Abella, the historian and Jewish community leader whose groundbreaking work was on Canada’s antisemitic immigration policy in the 1930s and 1940s and the resulting decision to shut the door to European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, has died after a long illness. Mr. Abella died Sunday, the day after his 82nd birthday.

None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948, co-authored with Harold Troper, created a sensation when it was published in 1982, shattering the myth of Canadian openness to outsiders fleeing oppression. The book also served to influence contemporary Canadian immigration policy, when a new wave of refugees was seeking to escape persecution, this time from Vietnam.

Mr. Abella, who taught labour and Jewish history at York University from 1968 to 2013 and served a term as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, was also part of one of the country’s most influential power couples. He was married to Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, the jurist and human-rights advocate who retired last July after 17 years on the Supreme Court of Canada.

“He was an iconic mentor for Canadian Jewish leadership,” said Bernie Farber, who was national director of community relations at the Canadian Jewish Congress when Mr. Abella was its president, a volunteer position. “He was great at advocacy because he was the Canadian Jewish historian laureate. There was not a thing that Irving Abella did not know about Canadian Jewish history. … He never had to be briefed. He briefed us.”

“He always [had] this ability to have people listen to him,” no matter what the audience, Mr. Farber added.

During Mr. Abella’s tenure at the Congress, a major priority was to press the federal government to find and bring to justice alleged Nazi war criminals who had come to Canada after the Second World War. But many were feeble retirees and there was a lot of public pressure to leave the issue alone, Mr. Farber recalled. “He had a line that I’ve used ever since. ‘We ought not to remember these elderly and infirm men and women as they are today. Rather we should see them as the murdering brutes they were during the Holocaust.’” Mr. Farber said that this statement was enough to turn the issue around in the public mind.

Mr. Abella’s seminal work, None Is Too Many, was the product of painstaking research with his colleague, Mr. Troper, who discovered thousands of desperate letters written by Jews in Europe in the 1930s to Canadian authorities pleading for a place of refuge in the face of the growing Nazi threat.

“The response was always the same,” the historians wrote. “Unfortunately, though we greatly sympathize with your circumstances, at present, the Canadian government is not admitting Jews. Please try some other country.”

The result was that Canada had one of the most exclusionary policies of any country where Jews sought refuge in the Nazi period. Whereas the U.S. accepted 200,000 Jews between 1933 and 1945, Britain 70,000 and Argentina 50,000, Canada let in only 5,000 Jews and it was only after 1948 that Canada began to accept a significant number of Jewish refugees.

In one of the most chilling cases, in May of 1939, about 1,000 European Jews set sail on the St. Louis for Cuba, where they had visas. But on arrival in Havana, they were denied entry. With no place to go, the ship set sail again and successive countries, including Canada, refused the refugees entry. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe and in the end, 254 of its passengers died at the hands of the Nazis. (In 2018, Canada issued a formal apology for its behaviour in this incident.)

What the historians also discovered in Canadian government records were the faces behind this exclusionary policy, in particular the role of Frederick Blair, the director of immigration, who saw it as his job to keep Jewish refugees out of country. The authors cited Mr. Blair as having written, “Pressure on the part of the Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now and I am glad to be able to add, after 35 years’ experience here, that it has never been so well controlled. … Fewer Jews are coming to Canada than ever before.”

Mr. Blair’s bureaucratic antisemitism was supported by Vincent Massey, then a leading diplomat and future governor-general, who thought Jews were likely Communists who would steal jobs from native-born Canadians. As for Prime Minister Mackenzie King, he saw no electoral advantage in letting more Jews into the country and believed that it could hurt the Liberal Party’s standing, particularly in Quebec.

Yet the two young historians initially had difficulty finding a publisher for their ground-breaking work. “We were told confidentially that the book was something of a downer and seemed somewhat ‘un-Canadian,’” said Mr. Troper, a history professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In the end, None Is Too Many was taken on by independent publisher Lester & Orpen Dennys to great critical success.

Reviewing None Is Too Many in The Globe and Mail, William French praised Mr. Abella and Mr. Troper for doing “a superb job of unearthing a sorry chapter in our hidden history. The general outlines were dimly known before, but by exhaustively pursuing primary sources they have documented the details with chilling precision,” Mr. French wrote.

“As historians, they tell the story with detachment and objectivity that must have been difficult to sustain. Yet they don’t need to be shrill; the woeful acts speak for themselves.”

None Is Too Many went on to win a National Jewish Book Award in the U.S. under the Holocaust category.

The book also had an immediate effect on Canada’s immigration policy, even before its official publication. It was 1979 and the cabinet of then-prime minister Joe Clark was deciding on Canada’s response to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia that led hundreds of thousands of “boat people” to flee Vietnam.

Mr. Abella and Mr. Troper had shared a copy of the manuscript with Ronald Atkey, the minister of immigration, and with his deputy, Jack Manion. The authors included a note: “We hope Canada will not be found wanting in this refugee crisis the way it was in the last.”

Mr. Manion discussed the manuscript with his minister and stated, “This should not be you.” Mr. Atkey says reading the account of Canada’s failure to protect Jews fleeing the Holocaust “stiffened my resolve to be bold.” From an initial goal of bringing in just 8,000 boat people a year, Ottawa ended up taking in 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by the end of 1980.

“We were already disposed to act but this was a compelling historical context and it confirmed our view that this kind of outreach and embrace [of refugees] should be part of the Canadian tradition,” Mr. Clark told The Globe.

Irving Martin Abella was born in Toronto on July 2, 1940, the son of Louis and Esther Abella. He attended the University of Toronto, where he earned his BA, MA and PhD. His doctoral thesis was on Canadian labour history.

While at U of T, he met Rosalie Silberman, a young, vivacious law student. She was 22 and he was 28. They proved an excellent match. “I fell madly in love with this history professor who, 53 years later, has taken me on this incredible journey,” Ms. Abella recalled in an interview on the CBC just prior to her retirement from the Supreme Court.

“He was the cream to Rosie’s coffee,” Mr. Farber said of the couple. “These were two people in love and in honour with each other.”

Irving Abella on April 23, 1992.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Abella described her husband, who was known as “Itchie” to friends and family, as “fun, modest and down to earth.” They had two sons. As a couple, they shared everything, Ms. Abella recalled in another interview. “We were equal at home. Neither of us cooked or cleaned,” she said, with a trace of her signature sense of humour. “He was there every day when they came home after school. The kids would say they had two mothers. One has a beard.”

Mr. Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, were long-time friends of the Abellas, with Mr. Clark describing them “as unconventional but extraordinary” as a couple, who were mutually supportive throughout their respective careers. Mr. Clark remains convinced that Ms. Abella “would not been the forceful person she became without Irving’s love and admiration and encouragement. And she fuelled him as much as he fuelled her.”

Mr. Abella went on to write other works, notably Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, published in 1990, and served as president of the Canadian Historical Association in 1999-2000.

He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and a member of the Order of Ontario in 2014, and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was awarded honorary degrees by Western University and the Law Society of Ontario.

But despite these honours, Mr. Abella believed that his greatest accomplishment was creating the first university course in Canadian Jewish studies at Toronto’s Glendon College in the early 1970s, according to David Koffman, who succeeded Mr. Abella as J. Richard Schiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry at York University.

“There were no books and few articles to read or assign; it was a field he himself would pioneer,” Mr. Koffman wrote in a tribute to Mr. Abella on his 80th birthday. “Today, there are courses in Canadian Jewish studies from a variety of disciplines taught at close to a dozen universities across the country.”

“Mr. Abella was among the first generation of professional scholars to take up Canadian Jewish subjects, and his writings and findings left an indelible print on the now-mature and professionalized field,” Mr. Koffman said.

Mr. Abella leaves his wife, Ms. Abella; his sons, Jacob (Marny Hershorn) and Zach (Susannah Gora); and two grandchildren, Felix and Maysie.