Skip to main content

After his Sir Edmund Hilary-like ascent of the Canadian corporate ladder, McDonald's Canada chairman George Cohon probably assumed that getting into the Rosedale Golf Club would involve little more than a cursory review of his pedigree and the signing of a few substantial cheques.

Instead, according to testimony in a civil suit, Mr. Cohon's membership bid turned into a lesson on the cruel social politics of Toronto's old-style establishment: After getting the word that he was about to be blackballed because the club's members didn't want a Jew, Mr. Cohon quietly withdrew his application and took his golf bag elsewhere.

For those who assumed that anti-Semitism was a dead issue in Toronto society, the testimony about the Cohon affair has served as a disturbing wake-up call. And, if true, it appears to be far from an isolated case. Many of Toronto's old-style clubs remain almost exclusively WASP, and anti-Semitism lives on, even if it is whispered instead of shouted.

When a prominent Jewish lawyer was recently proposed as a chair for the Royal Ontario Museum board, for example, one board member reportedly opposed the idea by saying: "Don't you think we've got enough Jews already?"

"Most people think that this kind of thing ended in the 1940s," says Stephen Speisman, the author of The Jews of Toronto. "But obviously, it hasn't."

In a Toronto courthouse this week, the testimony of the Rosedale club's former manager provided an unprecedented peek into the anti-Semitic sentiment that he alleged prevailed at the club: "Members felt that should Mr. Cohon become a member, it would be opening the floodgates to more Jewish members," said Michael Geluch, who is suing Rosedale for wrongful dismissal.

Mr. Geluch charges that he was fired by the club because he opposed its racist policies, and is suing for $475,000. (The club contends that he was ousted for incompetence and sexual harassment.)

Rosedale Golf Club spokesmen refused to comment on Mr. Cohon's membership bid. "I'm not at liberty to discuss that isssue outside the courtroom," said Brian Mulroney, the lawyer representing the club. Mr. Mulroney also refrained from commenting on the number of Jews and visible minorities who belong to the Rosedale Golf Club: "I think it's best that you hear from the directors of the club when they give their evidence about what the composition of the club is. You should hear that in court."

Some of Toronto's private clubs have served as a kind of cultural museum, preserving remnants of a society transformed by the forces of change. Although the city's population is now heavily weighted toward visible minorities, some of its private clubs remain almost exclusively WASP. So much so that many insiders call the Toronto Badminton and Racquet Club, a.k.a., "the B & R" the "B and Aryan."

Some observers believe the makeup of Toronto's private clubs today has less to do with discrimination than it does with money and a widening number of options.

"I think the low number of Jews in these clubs today is largely because they'd rather just go somewhere else," says Mr. Speisman. "In the past, getting into these clubs meant that you'd made it. Now, there are other places to go."

B & R general manager Ann Geddes said she couldn't say how many Jews or visible minorities there are among the club's 2,600 members: "I'm not comfortable discussing the profile," she said.

Irving Abella, a professor of Canadian Jewish history at York University, says the Jewish membership of many old-line Toronto clubs amounts to little more than tokenism. "The clubs have been the last bastions of restriction," he says. "In Canadian society, most of these battles were over long ago, but they're still being fought in the clubs."

One successful Jewish lawyer said he would never dream of applying for membership at the Rosedale Golf Club or the B & R.

"It's a lot more subtle than it used to be," he says. "But the resistance is still there. I would be looking for something a lot more pluralistic."

The battle over discrimination in Toronto's private clubs has resulted in some nasty skirmishes over the years. One took place in 1987, when the B & R tried to buy a club owned by CN. The sale was blocked by a neighbourhood group that argued that B & R's membership policy was racist.

At the time, B & R president Peter Barnard denied that the club had a formal policy of keeping out Jews, but refused to say how many were members. Mr. Barnard said that decisions about who got in to the club were in the hands of its members: ". . . like any club it has a membership process and current members nominate new members."

Mr. Abella says anti-Semitism in Canada peaked in 1948, an era when the vast majority of Canadians were Anglo-Saxon, and there was strong opposition to allowing minorities into the country. At the time, many Torontonians sold or rented their homes and cottages with what were known as Restrictive Covenants attached -- agreements that barred specific groups (like Jews) from buying or occupying the property.

In the decades that followed, anti-Semitism gradually waned, and by the 1960s, Jews had broken through many of the traditional barriers: In 1961, Louis Rasminsky became the first Jewish Governor of the Bank of Canada, and in 1968, Herb Gray became the country's first Jewish cabinet minister. A year later, David Lewis was chosen as leader of the NDP, becoming the first Jew to lead a federal party.

But in Toronto's private clubs, the forces of exclusion prevailed. Toronto's Granite Club, for example, was well known for excluding Jews until the 1970s.

A number of clubs have been started because their founders had been blackballed at bastions of WASPdom like the Granite Club or the B & R. The Queen's Club on Dupont Avenue, for example, was started in the 1950s by eyewear tycoon Sydney Hermant, the former chairman of Imperial Optical, who found himself rebuffed by the B & R because he was Jewish.

The Oakdale Golf Club, by the same token, was created by Jews who had been blackballed by the Rosedale Golf Club. The Island Yacht Club was founded in 1951 by Jews who couldn't get into the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

"I don't think there are any clubs left that specifically exclude anyone," says John Tory, former chief of Rogers Cable. "Now, it's really a matter of economics, and whether people really want to be in a club where there's no one else like them."

A prominent Jewish lawyer has a slightly different perspective. "It's not like the old days," he says. "Now there are good restaurants everywhere you look. A lot of these clubs are struggling to survive. At this point, a lot of them would accept a monkey on roller skates."