The telegram reached Prime Minister Mackenzie King as he was escorting the Royal Family in Washington in early June, 1939. Now was the time to show “true Christian charity,” said a group of writers, historians and business people, and let the 907 German Jews of the St. Louis come ashore.
But Mr. King said it was not Canada’s problem and left the matter to officials such as Frederick Blair, the architect of Canada’s restrictive immigration policies, known for his inflexibility. “The line must be drawn somewhere,” Mr. Blair wrote in an internal document.
Almost 80 years later, another Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will apologize to Canadian Jews after Question Period on Wednesday for turning away the desperate refugees of the St. Louis, hundreds of whom would die in Nazi death camps. The purpose, he said last May, is to draw attention to this country’s failings, “as we vow never to let history repeat itself.”
The broader story – of Canada’s closed-door policy toward the Jews of Europe before, during and even after the war – is by now well-known. But that history, of which the St. Louis forms but one episode, might have slipped down a memory hole if not for a student’s discovery in public archives of that telegram entreating Mr. King to act, as well as memos revealing the chilly rejections that passed between government officials, which she copied and sent to her professor, Harold Troper, at the University of Toronto.
Intrigued, Prof. Troper sought additional expertise. A friend introduced him to Irving Abella, a labour historian. The two went to Ottawa thinking they might write an academic article on Canada’s prewar refugee policy. “We weren’t sure there was any story at all,” said Prof. Troper, still teaching full-time at the age of 76 at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in an interview. “Once we started digging, we found ourselves with a Niagara Falls of paper.”
They spent four years in archives and conducting interviews from Canada and the United States to Switzerland, Britain and France. The title of their 1982 book, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, would be drawn from a remark by an anonymous government official, at a press briefing after the war, about how many Jews were now to be admitted into the country. “It was a sense of uncovering a scab,” Prof. Abella, 77, a professor emeritus of history at York University, said of the research. “We discovered how deep the commitment was to keep Jews out of Canada.”
The scholarly partnership came naturally to the two academics. Prof. Troper’s father was a garment worker, and Prof. Abella’s father ran a restaurant serving dairy meals to garment workers. Both had lost relatives in the Holocaust. (A “cascade of death,” Prof. Troper called it, in his family and that of his neighbours.) Prof. Abella had married a child of survivors, born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946. (Rosalie Abella is now a Supreme Court justice, the first refugee to hold that post.)
“I was a Jewish kid raised in Toronto with a PhD in history,” Prof. Troper said. “It had never occurred to me … what Canada’s role in the unfolding events might be.”
In all, Canada took in fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945, a period in which the United States (which also turned the St. Louis away) accepted 200,000 and Britain 70,000 (plus another 125,000 into British-administered Palestine). As for the refugees on the St. Louis, they were taken in by Britain, the Netherlands, France and Belgium – but were ultimately safe only in Britain. Two hundred and fifty-four died in death camps.
Prof. Troper recalls finding appeals from European Jews to a Jewish immigrant aid agency, who understood Canada was closed to them but enclosed photographs of their children.
“I was so caught up seeing parents trying to give away their children so they would have a chance at life.” He went home early from his research that day, overwhelmed.
“You read many of the documents, there are anti-Semitic comments – as if they’re talking about the weather,” Prof. Abella said. “It was just normal conversation. And this was a time when anti-Semitism was current in Canada. There were no Jewish university professors in all of Canada in the 1930s. There were no Jewish doctors in hospitals. No judges who were Jewish.”
Prof. Troper says he will never forget an interview with Malcolm John MacDonald, who had been British High Commissioner in Ottawa. “He told us the year he spent in Ottawa he had never seen such anti-Semitism in all his life.”
“Nobody cared,” Prof. Abella said. “Jews were a marginal issue. There was never a full cabinet discussion about Jews. It was always talked about at the tail end of meetings, sotto voce.”
Quebec was an important influence on the government’s policy, he said. “Quebec was opposed to all immigration because it felt that its influence in Confederation would be undermined. And since Jews at that time were the most visible of the minorities allowed into Canada, [Quebec] led the campaign against Jewish immigration and threatened Mackenzie King with separation, with a crisis in Confederation.”
But it was Mr. King – in power for most of the 1920s and from 1935-48 – and his cabinet who were ultimately responsible for closing Canada’s doors, the authors wrote. The PM’s diary records his sympathy for the racial ideas emanating from Nazi Germany: He feared “too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.”
The work of the two professors had an immediate impact. At a time when Vietnamese refugees were fleeing their country in boats, Canada’s top-ranking immigration official, Jack Manion, read their academic article, published long before the book, and gave it to the immigration minister, Ron Atkey.
”This should not be you,” he told Mr. Atkey, who then spoke passionately about it to cabinet. “He drew the parallels to our attention, was moved by it himself, and we all were,” Joe Clark, who was then prime minister of a Progressive Conservative government, said in a 2015 interview with The Globe and Mail. Mr. Clark then increased Canada’s resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees to 50,000 from 12,000. And on that resettlement program, widely viewed as a success, the current government modelled its intake of 50,000-plus Syrian refugees over the past three years.
Mr. Trudeau’s apology comes 10 days after a gunman, apparently angry about Jewish efforts to help refugees from Central America, shot 11 Jews dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“For the guy who did the shooting in Pittsburgh," Prof. Troper said, "when it comes to Jews and refugees, none continues to be too many.”