“Without a belief in the dignity of man, without indignation against arbitrarily created human suffering, there can be no democratic principles.”
This statement was written by a woman named Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first female senator. Appointed to the Senate in 1930 at the age of 45, Wilson already had had an extensive history in politics, having married a Liberal MP and headed various lobby groups.
Wilson began her political activism during a time where Canadian law still did not consider women to be persons, and perhaps this is what gave her empathy for other unfortunates. Cairine Wilson, unlike many other politicians of the era, was on the right side of history in firmly condemning the appeasement of Hitler at Munich and elsewhere.
As the persecution of Jews in Germany began to ramp up, first with the Nuremburg Laws, and then with the savage Night of Broken Glass, the anti-Semitism among Canada’s political elite began to shift from sentiment to policy. Frederick Blair, Canada’s top immigration bureaucrat, bragged that, “pressure on the part of the Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now and I am glad to be able to add, after thirty-five years experience here, that it was never so well controlled.”
Canadian Jews pleaded desperately for the politicians to allow refugees into the country, but most turned their back—except Cairine Wilson. “We must be big enough and courageous enough to admit to admit to Canada a fair share of the unfortunate persons involved,” she declared. The politicians ignored her, too. Prime Minister Mackenzie King hated Jews so much he had purchased all the land around his property to eliminate the possibility of a Jew moving close to him.
Earning the name “the Mother of Lost Causes,” Wilson begged the prime minister to admit refugees. He ignored her. She then tried to gain admittance for a hundred Jewish orphans, and was blocked by Frederick Blair. She succeeded in gaining admittance for only two—almost all others perished in the horrors of what would become known as the Holocaust.
Canada’s record of rescuing Jews during the Second World War is an abysmal one—of the 800,000 Jews who escaped Europe, Canada only accepted 4,000 of them. Cairine Wilson, however, did not share in that shame. She stood up for those who were considered non-persons by many.
And so must we.