Long-Awaited Canadian Apology Welcome, But Must Address a History of Institutionalized Anti-Semitism

I was pleased to read Prime Minister Trudeau’s announcement that Canada will make a formal apology in Parliament for turning away the MS St. Louis.

His moving speech also included important references to the discriminatory “None is Too Many” policy, which effectively shut Canada’s doors to desperate Jews trying to find safe haven from Nazi persecution.

Canada’s shameful record of admitting approximately 5,000 Jews was arguably the worst of all other refugee-receiving countries.

Often, the blame is set squarely on the shoulders of Frederick Blair — who issued the directive — and then-prime minister Mackenzie King. However, the “misguided policy” was also reflective of widespread and historic antisemitic sentiment in Canada. That sentiment continued to drive anti-Jewish bias in its immigration policy even after the war.

Signs in the 1930s displayed on many hotels and resort areas announced “Christians Only Need Apply,” “Gentiles Only” and “No Jews Wanted.” (The detail addressing Christians was dispensed with in the case of atheists.)

Many private clubs excluded Jewish membership. Just a few examples of these are: Toronto’s Granite Club and Royal Canadian Yacht Club. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Club and the St. Charles Country Club did not end their discriminatory policies until the 1980s.

A most effective device, which excluded Jews from owning property in many neighbourhoods, was the “restrictive covenant.”

This was a condition added onto the property deed, which prevented its sale to Jews and other “undesirable” minorities. Examples of these covenants were found in several provinces, including our own.

It would not be until 1950 that the Supreme Court of Canada banned restrictive covenants.

Sadly, the discrimination that existed before the war continued in the postwar period.

Many Canadians believe that Canada’s doors swung wide open after the Holocaust to welcome survivors. Even in 1946, immigration officials classed Jews not by citizenship but by “race” (sic) or ethnic group, rather than their country of origin, and designated them as “undesirable.”

In total, 8,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Canada through the summer of 1948 out of a total of 180,000 postwar immigrants. Of the 8,000, 1,000 were orphans.

The remaining 7,000 fell into two categories: they had to either be sponsored by first-degree relatives or prove that they could respond to economic need — members of the needlework and fur  processing industry  and a smattering of others. My late father, a survivor of six camps, was among them. In 1948, he arrived in Winnipeg to work in a fur processing  factory, sponsored by Sam Vigod. Their great-great grandmothers had been third cousins. When my father arrived, he was “greeted” by the individual on duty at Canada Immigration Services, who suggested that Jews lied to get into the country and that my father likely had as well. Of course, my father’s documentation was in front of him. He was clearly unmoved by his six-year incarceration, which included such places of infamy such as Plaszow and Dachau. My mother, an Auschwitz survivor, waited five years after the war until Canada’s doors opened for her.

It is my sincere hope that the apology forthcoming in the House of Commons will extend beyond the “egregious example” of the MS St. Louis and address the broader history of institutionalized antisemitism in our country.

About the Author
Belle Jarniewski is the director of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and the current President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. Since 2013, she has served on Canada’s delegation to the IHRA—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Her book, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010), documents the stories of 73 local survivors. Belle’s passion for tikkun olam has led her to pursue a graduate degree in Dialogue Theology at the University of Winnipeg. Her thesis explored survivor narratives through the thought of the theologian Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. She is also one of the founders of Operation Ezra, an initiative to sponsor Yazidi refugees to Canada and to focus world awareness on this genocide occurring “in broad daylight.”
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