Alan Simons
Author | Writer | Social & Allyship Advocate

Canada’s shameful past revisited

“The future we are shaping now, is the past that we will share tomorrow.”
– Former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) consists of representatives of government, as well as governmental and non-governmental organisations. Its purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance, and research both nationally and internationally.

The IHRA (formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, or ITF) was initiated in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. Today the IHRA’s membership consists of 32 member countries, each of whom recognizes that international political coordination is imperative to strengthen the moral commitment of societies and to combat growing Holocaust denial and antisemitism.

The IHRA states it welcomes new member countries, on the basis of their adherence to the Stockholm Declaration.

Surprisingly, perhaps only for some, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Vatican City, Iceland, Malta and China are amongst those countries that are neither full members or have liaison or observer status. Why? Needless to say, not one Arab or Muslim country is a member.

Until 2009, Canada was the only western country that was not a member. All that changed in late May 2009. The Toronto St. Louis Conference, which I attended, was organised by the Government of Canada and the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, who supported Canada’s full membership in the IHRA.

The organisers had a good reason to name the conference St. Louis. To escape discrimination, 907 German Jews with visas for Cuba left Hamburg aboard the ship S.S. St Louis, on May 15, 1939. When the ship reached Havana on May 27, 1939, the Cuban government refused to let the refugees enter the country. Ten days later, Cuba agreed to let them land if they paid US$443,000 within 24 hours, a deadline the Jewish relief agencies could not meet. Adjusted for inflation, US$443,000 in 1939 is equal to US$7,949,730 today.

Panama, Argentina, Columbia, Chile and Paraguay all denied the ship permission to land. The Americans sent their coast guard ships to escort St Louis northward and away from the American coast.

“None is too many”

                         S.S. St Louis

The predicament of the St. Louis touched some influential Canadians, who sent Canada’s Prime Minister MacKenzie King a telegram asking that Canada offer the exiles sanctuary. King, preoccupied with the British Royal Family visit, did not think it was a Canadian problem. Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe was emphatically opposed to admitting the refugees, while Immigration Minister F.C. Blair said the refugees were not qualified under Canadian immigration law and that “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe; the line must be drawn somewhere.” When a delegation of Jews went to Ottawa in 1939 to ask the government how many Jews Canada would take in, the answer was, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Those who disembarked in England were safe. Many of the others who left the ship in Belgium, France and the Netherlands were later caught by the Nazis and murdered in the Holocaust.

Canada had the shameful reputation of being the only western country during WWII to completely close its doors to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Yet, for Canada and Canadian Jews, WWII was the Jewish community’s most sustained war effort ever. Out of a Canadian Jewish population of approximately 167,000 Jewish men, women and children, over 16,880 volunteered for active service in the army, air force, and navy. There were an additional 2,000 Jews who enlisted, but who did not declare their Jewish identity in order to avert danger if captured by the Nazi forces.

Of the 16,880 who served, which constituted more than one-fifth of the entire Jewish male population in the country, 10,440 served in the army, 5,870 in the air force, and 570 in the navy. 1,971 Jewish soldiers received military awards. Over 420 were buried with the Star of David engraved on graves scattered in 125 cemeteries. Thousands returned home with serious physical and mental wounds.

After the war, the Government of Canada felt obliged to allow only 5,000 Jewish displaced persons into Canada, a mere pittance compared to the 16,880 Canadian Jews who had admirably fought for their country. Canada’s shameful past indeed!

S.S. St Louis partial editorial source courtesy of the former Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee. Photo: Cruising the Past

About the Author
Simons is an author, writer and social & allyship advocate. He publishes an online international news service, now in its 15th year, dealing with issues relating to intolerance, hate, antisemitism, Islamophobia, conflict, and terrorism, as well as an online community news site. As a diplomat, he served as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Rwanda to Canada, post-genocide era. He has lectured and designed courses in the areas of therapeutic management, religion in politics, and communications. He recently published his seventh book.
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