The Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Joanna Sloame
The first known Jew to settle in what is now Canada was Ferdinande Jacobs, a fur trader with Hudson's Bay Company who came to Manitoba in 1732. However, the first European to reach the territory was Jacques Cartier, a French explorer who sailed to Quebec in 1535. Subsequently, in 1608, the land became a French colony, and was named "New France." As a French territory, Quebec was settled by strict Roman Catholics, who, by order of Cardinal Richilieu's decree of 1627, prohibited non-Catholics from settling in any part of the colony.
The first group of Jews arrived in Canada in 1760 as soldiers in the British army during the French and Indian War. Aaron Hart, a commissary officer under General Amherst during the British attack on Montreal in 1760, was the first Jewish settler in the same year. After Montreal was lost to the British on September 8, 1760, and all of New France surrendered under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, a number of Jewish officers and soldiers remained in Quebec. They settled there as merchants and fur traders and were soon joined by relatives from England and the Thirteen Colonies.
In December 1768, under the new British rule, twelve families from New York moved to Montreal. Berlin-born army purveyor and later fur trader, Ezekiel Solomon, along with Hart, founded Canada's first synagogue, Shearith Israel Congregation, known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. It followed the same Sephardic tradition as the synagogue the settlers had attended in New York, although all the founding members were Ashkenazi Jews of Dutch, British, and German origin. The first synagogue building was built in 1777, and Jacob Raphael Cohen of London became its first rabbi in 1778. It was not until 1846 that Montreal's second congregation and the first Ashkenazic synagogue in British North America was established. The Synagogue of English, German, and Polish Jews was finally able to construct a synagogue in 1858 and was renamed Shaar Hashamayim.
During the America Revolution from 1775 to 1781, the majority of Jews living in Quebec took the side of the British in the conflict, despite family connections in the colonies. In 1807, Ezekiel Hart, the son of Aaron Hart, was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada, but was unable to assume office as he refused to be sworn in "on the true faith of a Christian." It was not until 1831, upon request of the Jewish population of Montreal, which numbered 107, that the Jewish community received legal recognition from the Legislative Assembly of Quebec. Under the act, the Jewish communities of Montreal, Quebec, and Trois Rivieres were allowed to own land slated for the construction of a synagogue and cemetery. On June 5, 1832, Canadian Jews gained full rights as British subjects, including the right to sit in Parliament and hold public office.
By 1861, the Jewish population of Montreal stood at an estimated 400 persons and, by 1900, had swelled to 7,000. At the turn of the century, the community continued to expand due to the influx of large numbers of Eastern European Jews fleeing Czarist pogroms and persecution in Romania, combined with the United States' new restrictive immigration quotas. During the nineteenth century, the small Jewish community of Lower Canada had integrated itself into the rest of Canadian society. But the new waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe were more "ethnically" Jewish and created their own institutions and communities with less focus on involvement with the surrounding population.
During the 1930s, thousands of Eastern European Jews sought refuge in Canada but were refused entry. Immigration was curtailed through legislation, restrictions in the total number of immigrants admitted into the country, and financial and other requirements for admittance. Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews but was constrained by widespread opposition to immigration of any kind. In the face of such resistance, the Canadian immigration policy remained stringent.
By the 1940s, there were 80,000 Jews living in Montreal, most of whom worked in factories or owned small family businesses. The arrival of post World War II refugees expanded the Jewish community further. In the late 1950s, 20,000 French-speaking Jews arrived from Morocco and other North African countries, bringing their Sephardic culture and traditions to a primarily Ashkenazic community. By 1970, the Jewish population of Montreal numbered approximately 120,000.
The rise of Quebec's separatist movement and French language regulations in the 1970s prompted the predominantly English-speaking Jews to relocate to other English-speaking regions of Canada. When the Parti Quebecois won the provincial election in 1976, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, particularly young adults, left Quebec. The Jewish population feared an independent Quebec would economically and geographically uproot a large number of the 100,000 Jews in Montreal and would divide and weaken the national Jewish community. Due to this mass migration, the 1980s saw Toronto assuming Montreal's position as having the largest Jewish community. After the Liberal Party regained power in 1985, and a nationwide economic recession lessened the appeal of the rest of Canada, the Jewish population of Quebec leveled out slightly, but Montreal never regained its former status as the center of Canadian Jewish activity.
Today, Montreal's Jewish population is approximately 90,000. It is the most Orthodox of North American Jewish communities, explained by Quebec's French Catholic heritage and its emphasis on religion in society. Until 1998, Quebec lacked a nondenominational public school system. Catholic schools only admitted Catholics, so Jewish students were forced to attend Protestant schools. Today, around 55 percent of Jewish children attend the twenty-two Jewish day schools in the province. This is by far the highest percentage in North America. In addition, a network of Jewish public libraries was established to serve the Jewish communities, as Quebec did not have its own public library system until recently. The Montreal community boasts a B'nai Brith Youth Organization, the Canadian Zionist Federation, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Foundation for Yiddish Culture, singles groups, and a genealogical society. However, the prosperity of the community will depend on political developments over the next few years.
First Synagogue in Canada
Congregation Shaar Hashamayim
"Canada", "Montreal", "Quebec" Encyclopedia Judaica
Israelowitz, Oscar. Canada Jewish Travel Guide. Israelowitz Publishing. Brooklyn, NY: 1992.
Tigay, Alan M. (ed.) The Jewish Traveler. Hadassah Magazine. Northvale, New Jersey: 1994.
Renata Polt, The Jewish Traveler: Montreal. Hadassah Magazine, (May 2005), 46-52.