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Politics Liberals working on apology for 1939 decision to turn away Jewish refugees

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 26, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal Liberals are working on an apology for the Canadian government's decision in 1939 to turn away a boat of German Jews hoping to seek asylum in Canada, The Canadian Press has learned.

Some wanted the apology for the MS St. Louis to come in concert with Wednesday's inauguration of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made only passing reference to the incident in his speech marking the occasion.

From the monument, Trudeau noted, it is possible to see the Peace Tower. But that's also a reminder that Canada has not always been a welcoming nation.

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"May this monument remind us to always open our arms and our hearts to those in need," he said.

The ship had 900 Jews aboard when it was turned away from both Cuba and the United States before a group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister Mackenzie King's government to let it dock in Halifax.

While history records King trying to convince Frederick Blair — director of the immigration branch of the federal Department of Mines and Resources at the time — to consider their plea, Blair ultimately refused.

The ship returned to Europe. While some passengers were taken in by Belgium, France, Holland and the UK, about 500 ended up back in Germany, half of whom did not survive the Holocaust.

The story of the ship gained renewed attention earlier this year when pictures and stories of the victims circulated on social media in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather also referenced the MS St. Louis during a debate on Trump's travel ban, saying Canada must remember it hasn't been immune to its executives making similar decisions.

"I hope one day a Canadian government will apologize for what happened with the St. Louis," Housefather said at the time.

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Trudeau sent a strong signal earlier this year that the government is considering the idea.

When asked during a New York Times interview in June how Canada avoids anti-immigrant sentiment, Trudeau said Canada must acknowledge times in its history when it wasn't a welcoming county.

He raised the MS St. Louis incident as one example among others, such as Canada's refusal to accept a shipload of Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914, or the internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War — two cases that have since elicited formal apologies.

Sources, who aren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, say work is ongoing to formalize the MS St. Louis apology and determine when best to deliver it.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said Wednesday that securing an apology for the MS St. Louis incident "has long been a priority" for his group.

"We've been engaged in productive conversations with parliamentarians on this issue and are grateful that Prime Minister Trudeau recognized this dark chapter in our history at the unveiling of the National Holocaust Monument earlier today," he said.

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"Only by acknowledging our past mistakes can we ensure that in the future, our country will stand for what is right."

The government is also working on an a apology for discrimination against thousands of LBGT people in the Canadian military and public service in the Cold War era — and Trudeau has promised that by year's end.

The idea for a Holocaust monument was sparked in 2007 by a University of Ottawa student who complained Canada was the only Allied nation without such a monument.

The Conservative government took up the cause — a private member's bill allowing for the monument was one of the last to get royal assent before the Tory minority was defeated in a no-confidence vote in 2011.

Tim Uppal, who sponsored the bill, was in attendance Wednesday and warmly greeted by Trudeau. The prime minister also met with Holocaust survivors who toured the stark concrete structure with him.

The estimated $8.95-million cost of the site is being split by the government and private donors.

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Less than a century after the Second World War, anti-Semitism and racism is on the rise in enlightened societies around the world, said Rabbi Daniel Friedman, who led the council behind the monument's creation.

So while the monument stands as a testament to the lives of the millions of Jews, LGBT, Jehovah Witness, disabled, and others killed during the Holocaust, going forward its purpose is broader, he said.

"The mission of the monument is to take that horror and be an everlasting reminder that evil exists in the world and that we as Canadians are committed to protecting every human being from the monsters that walk amongst us."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Frederick Blair as the minister of immigration in 1939. This version has been corrected.
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