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Irving Abella, a noted scholar of Jewish history, died on July 3. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave to the Canadian Historical Association when he was the group’s president in 2000.

The Canada of the first half of the last century, and particularly from the 1920s through the 1940s, was a foreboding place for Jews, as it was for most immigrants. Closed to most of the world by racist immigration laws that divided the peoples of the world into preferred and (mostly) non-preferred, Canada was a country permeated with xenophobia, nativism and antisemitism. The Jew was the pariah of Canadian society, demeaned, denounced and discriminated against.

For Canadian Jews in these years, quotas and restrictions were a way of life. According to a 1938 study by the Canadian Jewish Congress, few of the country’s teachers and none of its school principals were Jewish. The banks, insurance companies and the large industrial and commercial interests, it charged, also excluded Jews from employment. Department stores did not hire Jews as salespeople. Jewish doctors could not get hospital appointments, and when one Jewish doctor, Sam Rabinovitch, was hired as an intern at the Montreal hospital, the other interns went out on strike, along with other doctors, closing the hospital for a week until Rabinovitch was fired.

If the Jew experienced difficulty finding a job or getting an education, finding a place to live or to vacation was even harder. Increasingly, restrictive covenants were placed on various properties prohibiting their sale to Jews, and at beaches and resorts throughout the nation, signs were springing up that banned Jews. So-called swastika clubs of young hoodlums were formed to intimidate Jews and keep them away from “restricted” beaches. The threat of violence was so great that Jewish leaders took the unusual step of warning the community “not to hold large gatherings in any portion of the city where such a gathering is liable to arouse the animosity of certain classes of the non-Jewish population.”

Why was Canada so antisemitic? There are various reasons. To some extent the massive antisemitic propaganda of the Nazis had its impact. Some were taken in by it and by such American hate-mongers as Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith and dozens of others. It was also a time of depression and the search for scapegoats invariably ended at a Jewish doorstep. Jews were also publicly seen and denounced as troublemakers. The prominence of Jewish names in the left-wing movement seduced many gullible or malevolent Canadians into believing that most Jews were communists. Obviously, many others hated Jews for religious reasons. Much of the antisemitism in Quebec and in fundamentalist areas of Western Canada originated from religious teachings. Jews had killed Christ, had refused to repent or convert to Christianity and, therefore, were damned.

What is most astonishing about this antisemitism is how few and powerless were Canadian Jews at this time. They made up just more than 1 per cent of the population and had no political or economic clout. Clearly they could be seen as a threat only by the paranoid. Equally surprising was the silence of the churches in the face of this frightful and oppressive anti-Jewish feeling.

With the onset of war, if Canadian attitudes toward Jews changed at all, it was for the worse. Fully half of the Canadian people, according to a Gallup poll in 1943, indicated that they wanted no more Jews in the country. At about the same time, Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis was campaigning through the province waving a copy of a document, which he charged showed that the federal government had made a deal with the International Zionist Brotherhood, a fictitious group, to settle 100,000 Jews in Quebec in return for campaign funds for Liberal candidates. Duplessis was decisively elected.

Even the end of the war brought no respite for Canadian Jews. Discovery of the Nazi barbarities against the Jews, and the graphic horrors of the Holocaust detailed by newspapers, magazines and newsreels in theatres across Canada did not lessen antisemitic feelings. Rather, it seemed to exacerbate them.

Nevertheless, it is clear that by 1948, attitudes in Canada were beginning to change. With most of the world’s economies still devastated, Canada was on the brink of becoming a genuine world power. All she needed was more people. Thus Canada’s immigration doors were flung open, and over the next decade, more than 1.5 million newcomers poured through, including thousands of Jews, most of them survivors of death camps.

By this time, the pervasive antisemitism of earlier years had receded. Obviously, the horrors of the Holocaust shocked many Canadians; others were caught up in the dramatic struggle of the Jews in Palestine to create their own state. Though official Canadian policy was to support the British attempts to forcibly blockade Jewish refugees from entering Palestine, it seemed that a large number of Canadians sympathized with the plucky struggle of the beleaguered Jews in the Holy Land.

It was at this propitious moment that Canadian Jewish leaders chose to launch an all-out offensive against discriminatory practices in Canada. This was not the first time such an attempt had been made. In the late 1930s, the Canadian Jewish Congress had set up a committee called the Joint Public Relations Committee (JPRC) with the co-operation of another Jewish communal organization, the B’nai B’rith, to deal with discrimination against Jews in employment. These early campaigns struggled, but in the late 1940s, similar efforts finally started to see some success.

As Jewish soldiers were returning from overseas, they found the same old restrictions barring their way. In a much-publicized incident, a veteran was fired from his salesman’s job in a Toronto hardware store when it was discovered he was Jewish. “I would lose customers,” the storekeeper explained. Others found that skating rinks, swimming pools, golf clubs and hotels refused them admission despite their heroic efforts on behalf of their country.

Outraged that this kind of behaviour was perfectly legal, the Canadian Jewish Congress organized a protest march of various ethnic and religious groups from City Hall to the Icelandia Skating Rink, which had refused to remove its signs restricting admission to gentiles. As a result of the march, the coverage of it by the Toronto Star, and a meeting with Congress officials, the Toronto Police Board ruled that licences of public places were subject to cancellation if the licence holder discriminated against any minority. This was the first of many victories for the Jewish Public Relations Committee (as it was called by then) and for its new partner, the aggressive Jewish Labour Committee. Its 50,000 feisty members would provide the backbone to the Congress’s political lobbying.

Members of both the JPRC and the Jewish Labour Committee were unrelenting in their lobbying. They arranged for delegations to meet Ontario premier Leslie Frost and his cabinet colleagues; they spoke at hundreds of meetings across the country, they planted articles in the press, they met editorial boards; they distributed pamphlets; they embarked on letter-writing campaigns and they arranged for talks on radio and to various service clubs of prominent speakers who supported their views. One of these, senator Wayne Morse (a Republican from Oregon), spoke so passionately and persuasively on the Trans-Canada Network of CBC Radio in favour of fair employment legislation that it had a real impact on one of his listeners, premier Frost.

By 1951 it was clear that the lobbying had made a real difference. Most Ontario newspapers were now in favour of anti-discrimination legislation, as were many city councils across the province. And so, it seemed, was premier Frost. He arranged a quick meeting with the Jewish and civil-liberties organizations and told them secretly that he would be enacting an anti-discrimination law in the next session of the House.

Three weeks later, in the Speech from the Throne, the government of Ontario announced its intention of introducing a fair employment practices act, which would bar discrimination in hiring because of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin. It was a remarkable piece of legislation and the historians who have written about it (particularly James Walker, Ruth Frager and Carmela Patrias) have described it as one of the Jewish community’s great victories in this country.

Of course employment discrimination did not disappear in Ontario, but the act marked the beginning of an era in which discrimination was no longer acceptable. Both the JPRC and the Jewish Labour Committee saw the legislation as the “thin edge of the wedge.” Once the Ontario government had admitted that discrimination in employment was unjust and immoral, how could it be condoned in other areas such as housing?

Finally, in 1962, the government created the Ontario Human Rights Commission, many of whose powers were those recommended by the Canadian Jewish Congress five years before. The victory was now largely complete. Though obviously racism and discrimination would not disappear, there were now in place mechanisms and legislation to protect minorities. With both anti-discrimination statutes and human-rights commissions successfully established, not only in Ontario but in most provinces, the human-rights lobby could move onto other issues.

Thus, by the 1960s, Canada had turned the corner. For Jews, as well as for this country’s other minorities, that decade was a watershed. Before it existed the old Canada, parochial, nativist, exclusionary; beyond it, a new Canada was taking shape, a Canada of diversity, colour, vibrancy, a Canada of open minds rather than closed doors, a Canada in which Jews and other ethnic groups were quickly becoming part of the Canadian mainstream, and were seen as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

The decade began with Canada finally repealing its odious racist immigration laws and opening itself up to all the world’s nations, and it closed with a government commitment to implement an official policy of multiculturalism. And it was in the 1960s that all of the barriers, restrictions and quotas against Jews crumbled, one by one, sector by sector. At long last, after 200 years in the country, the Jewish community would be able to play out its dreams and become an integral part of the very same Canadian society that had excluded it for so long.

Of course the battle for human rights in Canada is not yet won. Racist, homophobic and xenophobic attitudes still manifest themselves too often, and much remains to be done. Yet who can deny that today’s Canada is a far better place, and that its minorities better integrated thanks in large part to the trail-blazing efforts by the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labour Committee.

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