Canada’s 150th Birthday

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, June 30, 2017

Dear Solelniks,

As we begin the celebrations of Canada’s 150th, our Jewish community has much to be proud of. We celebrate with gratitude for being part of a country that takes pride in diversity and recognizes the unique contributions of many cultures that form the Canadian mosaic. Like citizens from all of Canada’s religious and ethnic groups, Jews have contributed in exceptional ways to the arts and culture, education, sports, science and medicine, technology, commerce and government of Canada.

Although Canada is celebrating her 150th birthday, Jews lived here for more than 100 years before the Confederation. Before 1867 there were only about 1,000 Jews but our numbers grew with immigration – slowly at first, as Canada had barriers and prejudices against Jews – professional, educational and immigration barriers- that lasted until the 1960s. But as Jews fled religious persecution and violence in Eastern Europe, by 1914, 100,000 Jews had immigrated to Canada. Many settled in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and in smaller towns where they worked as peddlers, fur traders, miners, farmers, small shopkeepers, factory garment workers and tradesmen. Some Jews, desperate to escape pogroms, accepted land grants in the Prairies, forming eleven Jewish farm colonies. This was a tough introduction to life here, as very few of them had any prior farming experience, and they faced frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards on the prairie.

Whether in large or small communities, Jewish immigrants established collectives to support the social and welfare needs of other Jews. Jewish merchants’ stores also served as informal gathering places, where shopkeepers often served as interpreters, advisors and confidantes. These kehillot saw to it that those who were established took on the responsibility of helping newer immigrants adjust to life in their new country. During the Depression and high unemployment, and WWII Canadian officials enforced strict anti-Semitic barriers against Jewish immigration. “None is too many,” responded Frederick Blair, Government of Canada’s Director of Immigration, when he was asked how many Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe would be permitted entry. Following the end of WWII, 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust were permitted to enter Canada, and a second wave of refugees from Europe arrived in the late 1950s after the failure of the Hungarian revolution. More recently, Jews have arrived from Morocco, Tunisia, the former Soviet Union and South Africa. Today 400,000 Jews call Canada home.

Jews have contributed to the development of Canadian society in myriad ways:

Jews have dedicated their lives to protecting Canada. Jews have served in Canada’s armed forces even before Confederation. In the Great War more than one-third of all Jewish Canadian males, 4,695 men, served in the Canadian Expeditionary. During the Second World War 16,880 men, or 38 per cent of the male Jewish Canadian population, volunteered for active service, while almost 2,000 won military awards. More than 5,000 Jewish women served in various capacities in the combined World Wars.

Jews have made enormous contributions to every level of Canadian politics: Although Jews in federal politics remained rare until after the Second World War, already in 1807 Ezekiel Hart was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada (now Quebec. However, he was barred from office because of his Jewish religion. By 1832, a reform was passed that allowed Jews to swear their own religious oath of office. Henry Nathan, a Jew from British Columbia, was elected in 1871 to the new Canadian House of Commons. Jews led the fight against discrimination in housing, jobs and recreation in the 1940s and 1950s alongside the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labour Committee. The first Chair of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, was a Jewish woman and long-time activist, Tillie Taylor from Saskatoon, appointed in 1972. Bora Laskin became the first Jewish judge on the Supreme Court in 1970, and was later promoted to Chief Justice. Irwin Cotler, federal Minister of Justice, and a leading international human rights activist, spearheaded the 2005 Civil Marriage Act which formally recognized marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Jewish mayors, elected officials and professional civil servants continue to play significant roles across Canada.

Jews have made significant contributions to the infrastructure of Canada: In the1860s, Jacob Henry and Jesse Joseph, of Montreal, helped develop Canada’s first telegraph system and the St. Lawrence Railroad. Jewish architects have given shape to Canadian cities: Benjamin Brown designed the iconic Balfour Building on Spadina Avenue in the 1920s. Moshe Safdie designed Habitat ’67 in Montreal, the National Gallery in Ottawa and Vancouver Library Square. Outside of Canada, Toronto-born Frank Gehry, designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Civil Engineer Larry Tanenbaum is known for his work on the transit systems of Toronto and Calgary.

Jewish business leaders have encouraged development of future generations of entrepreneurs and business people. Jewish entrepreneurs have transformed their small family businesses into major industries. The Reitman family started out with a small women’s clothing store in Montreal in 1926. 90 years later, Reitman’s is the primary women’s clothing specialty chain in Canada, with over 800 Canadian stores. Murray Koffler of Toronto founded Shoppers Drug Mart. The Bronfman family of Montreal owners of Seagram’s Distillery, co-founded Taglit Birthright, providing a free, educational travel experience to Israel for young Jewish adults. Many Jewish business leaders are highly regarded for their public contributions to philanthropy and humanitarian work and are leaders supporting many public causes across Canada and abroad.

Jewish contributions to medicine and other sciences are well known. Leon Katz was a pioneer in biomedical engineering, inventing and modifying important medical equipment such as the original heart-lung bypass machine used for the first open-heart surgery in Canada. Reva Appleby Gerstein, psychologist and educator is a pioneer in Canadian mental health, establishing several treatment centres and founding Mental Health Week. It is interesting to note that until after WWII there were explicit quota restrictions on the number of Jewish students accepted by Canada’s universities. By 1945 The University of Manitoba was the first in Canada stop these discriminatory policies, however, they remained in place at McGill until the early 1960s.

Jewish Canadians have contributed to athletic achievements on the national and international level. Jews have been celebrated hockey players, figure skaters, basketball, ice hockey, fastball, softball, tennis, lacrosse and golf athletes, boxing champions. Hy Buller, who grew up in Saskatchewan, played for the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers. Montreal-born Ben and Joe Weider were helped turn the sport of bodybuilding into a mainstream, competitive activity by founding the International Federation of Body Builders. Jews are also Canadian sportscasters, writers, league officials, and team owners.

Of course, literature, music and performing arts have been deeply influenced by Canadian Jews – visual artists, musicians, singer-songwriters, actors and directors, broadcasters and producers. To name just a few, novelist Mordecai Richler, poet and musican Leonard Cohen, rapper Drake, singer-songwriter Corey Hart, Steven Page, former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies, and Geddy Lee, lead vocalist of the rock band Rush. Where would television be without the creator of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels, Lorne Greene, from T.V.’s Bonanza, and William Shatner of Star Trek fame. The Mirvish family and John Hirsch have made outstanding contributions to live theatre production. Matthew Teitlebaum was head of the Art Gallery of Ontario during its major expansion and Victor Rabinovitch was President of the Canadian Museum of History), our largest museum, for more than a decade.

As Canada celebrates 150 years, we celebrate all that Jews have contributed as leaders, entrepreneurs and visionaries to the Canadian mosaic. We are proud of the quality of contributions that so many people continue to make for the benefit of all Canadians.

To kickoff Canada’s birthday celebrations, enjoy this performance of O Canada in Yiddish

Happy 150th Canada!

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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