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Irving Abella is the past president of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada and a former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

One hundred years ago, on March 16, 1919, 209 Canadian Jews gathered in the Monument National Theatre in Montreal to take part in the founding of the Canadian Jewish Congress. This was, at the time, a country of quotas, restrictions and boycotts. It was – and would, for most of the next 50 years, remain – a nation blanketed by a stifling and seemingly impenetrable antisemitism and xenophobia.

The 204 men and five women who gathered in Montreal in 1919 at the founding plenary of the CJC knew very well that Jews were the pariahs of what was then an exclusionary culture: despised, demeaned, discriminated against, the targets of abuse from their “host” society, barred from most professions, kept out of most universities, restricted from many occupations, prevented from living or vacationing in a wide swath of Canada.

They arrived in Montreal at a propitious moment in Canadian history. Wilfrid Laurier died just before the convention, and a young William Lyon Mackenzie King, who would later have a profound and catastrophic impact on Canadian Jewry, began asking friends whether he should run for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, workers in Winnipeg were about to launch a general strike that would paralyze Canada’s third-largest city for months. And the country’s newspapers were busy debating whether Canada, which had closed its doors to immigrants during four years of war, should reopen them now that the war was over. Most thought they should remain shut.

Yet these founding representatives of a nascent Jewish community had faith in their new country. Except for the fact that few women were present, it was perhaps the most representative body of Canadian Jews to meet under one roof. There were delegates from every part of the country – from Kamsack, Sask., La Macaza, Que., Sibbald, Alta., Campbellton, N.B., as well as from the major population centres: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver.

Each of these delegates had a vision of an open, better and more tolerant Canada, and they created an organization to work toward that new day. They wanted an association that could speak on behalf of Canadian Jewry, that would preserve a Jewish heritage here, that would help rebuild a Jewish homeland in Palestine, that would be an advocate for human rights and dignity and that would advance a flourishing sense of Canadianism among all its citizens.

For the next 90 years, the Canadian Jewish Congress gave Canadian Jewry that sense of unity and purpose, shaping its direction. It vigorously fought antisemitism and racism. It helped force open Canada’s closed doors to the survivors of the Holocaust while resolutely campaigning to bring Nazi war criminals who found a haven in Canada to justice. From its inception, it was involved in almost every aspect of Canadian Jewish activity; in Canadian society at large, it was a major engine of social change.

The CJC was Canada’s first national ethnic organization, and for many years the only democratic one in North America; its leaders were elected by representatives of all the Jewish communities and organizations from coast to coast. It became the model for successive waves of immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, Hungary, China and Japan to create their own organizations.

It began as an organization for Canadian Jews, but soon after its founding became an organization for all Canadians who needed its help. Throughout its history, the congress was in the forefront of epic battles for human rights, equality, immigration reform and civility in this country. It stood arm-in-arm with Indigenous people in Canada fighting for their rights and dignity, with Canadian Sikhs demanding their right to wear turbans at their jobs and in Legion halls, and with a host of minority groups making their way in Canada. To each of them, the CJC has been a mentor, sharing its expertise and experience.

Sadly, the Jewish Federations of Canada, which funded the CJC, decided to close the congress for budgetary and administrative reasons in the early years of this century, creating in its place a new advocacy organization. It was a sad end to a glorious history.

But for much of the past century, the Canadian Jewish Congress was the representative of the organized Jewish community, its preeminent advocate to all levels of government, to the media, and to other communities. It was always a forum for conflicting opinions but ultimately one voice – a voice which has supported the rights of persecuted minorities of every race and nationality, steadfastly stood alongside Israel, and demanded freedom for oppressed Jews wherever they were. The record is outstanding – the legacy, everlasting.

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