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In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the French colony of New France, located in what is now Quebec. The region was settled by strict Roman Catholics, who, under Cardinal Richilieu's decree of 1627, refused the settlement of non-Catholics in the new French territory.
It was not until 1760, during the French and Indian War, that the first group of Jews, who were soldiers in the British army, set foot in Canada. The first Jewish settlement was in that same year, made up of Jewish officers, soldiers, merchants, and fur traders. After the British gained control of Montreal on September 8, 1760, a small Jewish population remained in the area. With the lifting of the decree of 1627, after the surrender of all of New France under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, small numbers of Jews began to arrive from the Thirteen Colonies, England, the Netherlands, and Germany. On June 5, 1832, Canadian Jews gained full rights as British subjects, including the right to sit in Parliament and hold public office.
The Jewish population of Canada rose slowly but steadily throughout the 19th century. In the 1840s, Jews from Western and Central Europe established small communities in Hamilton, Kingston, and Toronto. The 1871 census stated that, in total, 1,115 Jews lived in Canada, 409 of whom were located in Montreal, 157 in Toronto, 131 in Hamilton, and the remainder scattered along the St. Lawrence Rivers. The gold rush on the West Coast brought small numbers of Jewish traders, merchants, and wholesalers to Vancouver from California, England, New Zealand, and Australia. In 1886, Vancouver became the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which drew a handful of Jews who recognized potential business to the region. Also in the 1880s, large numbers of Eastern European Jews escaping the pogroms of czarist Russia sought refuge in Canada.
By 1901, Jewish communities had sprung up all over Canada. Montreal still maintained the largest number of Jews, with 6,975, followed by Toronto with 3,103. Winnipeg had 1,164 Jews, Vancouver had 224, and Nova Scotia, 152. From 1901 to 1911, 52,484 Jewish immigrants came to Canada, settling from coast to coast.
During World War I, records show that 100 Jewish officers and 4,600 soldiers served in the Canadian army. At least 100 died and 84 were decorated servicemen. However, these records are incomplete and the number of Jews in the armed forces is thought to be much higher.
At the end of World War I, in 1919, the Canadian Jewish Congress was founded to provide assistance to Eastern European Jews in Canada. During its first few years, the organization unified Canadian Jewry and established the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. The CJC was inactive from the mid-1920s until the Nazis came to power. During the 1930s, the Congress fought against Nazi propaganda, raised funds for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and worked to bring Eastern European Jews to Canada. Its efforts preceding and during World War II led to its recognition as the official representative organization of Canadian Jews.
The combination of the end of the war, and the establishment of the quota system restricting immigration into the United States, led to an influx of Jewish immigrants into Canada. However, the relaxed Canadian immigration regulations did not last long. With Hitler's rise to power, thousands of Eastern European Jews sought refuge in Canada, but were denied entry.
Two orders-in-council were enacted at this time. First, in 1930, the Canadian government barred all immigration from Europe with the exception of those with sufficient funds to support themselves on farms and those with immediate family already in the country. The second order came the following year with a further set of restrictions. Only British and American citizens with independent means or who were in the farming, mining, lumbering, or logging industries were considered for residency.
These anti-immigration policies reflected the mood of the country. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism were rampant with unemployment and poverty on the rise during the Depression. Taking in refugees increased competition for the already scarce number of jobs. In addition, French newspapers and publications attacked Judaism and protested the admittance of Jewish refugees into Canada. Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews but was constrained by the widespread opposition to immigration of any kind. In the face of such resistance, the Canadian immigration policy remained stringent. Between 1921 and 1931, only 15,800 Jewish immigrants were allowed into Canada.
On May 15, 1939, the St. Louis, a steamship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, set sail from Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. However, on May 30, when it reached the Havana port, the Cuban government refused to recognize the passengers' entrance visas and none was allowed to disembark. No other Latin American country would admit the refugees, and the St. Louis had to leave port. Canada and the United States were the Jews' last hope, but Mackenzie King ignored the protests of Canadian Jewish organizations and said the crisis was not a "Canadian problem." Frederick Charles Blair, the director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources was quoted as saying, "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." Canada only took in 8,000, or one percent of the 811,000 Jewish refugees admitted into countries across the world. Mackenzie adopted the policy of "none is too many" regarding the immigration of European Jewry seeking refuge from the Nazis.
Canada entered into World War II on September 10, 1939.
Approximately 17,000 Jews enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, which constituted more than one-fifth of the entire Jewish male population in the country. Of these men, 10,440 served in the army, 5,870 in the air force, and 570 in the navy. The war claimed the lives of 421 Jews, and 1,971 Jewish soldiers received military awards. Saskatchewan Jews were among the first to volunteer during both World War I and II, and many lost their lives in the European trenches. The province honored those who sacrificed their lives, including a number of Jewish heroes, by naming several lakes and mountains of the vast northern region after them.
After the war, the Canadian government instituted anti-discrimination laws and eased immigration regulations. The CJC worked to bring displaced persons to Canada and, between 1941 and 1951, 16,275 Jews immigrated to the country. Post-World War II immigration had a major impact on the composition of the Canadian Jewish population. The 1956 Hungarian uprising sent 4,500 Jewish refugees into the country, where they congregated in Toronto.
It is estimated that between 1946 and 1960, 46,000 Jewish immigrants were admitted into Canada. Post-war immigration to Canada constituted a much higher percentage of the Canadian Jewish population than that of the United States. By 1990, Holocaust survivors and their descendents made up around eight percent of the U.S. Jewish population while, in Canada, they constituted between 30 and 40 percent of the Jewish community.
Influxes of immigrants from various Eastern European countries, the former Soviet Union, Israel, and South Africa characterize the history of the Jews in Canada. In addition, over the 20th century, approximately 25,000 Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Lebanon have settled in Montreal and Toronto. Their Sephardic tradition added a new element to the composition of Canadian Jewry.
In the 1970s, the rise of Quebec's separatist movement and French Language Regulations prompted the predominantly English-speaking Jewish population of Montreal to move to the other English-speaking regions of Canada. After the Parti Quebecois won the provincial election of 1976, a mass migration of 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, particularly young adults, left Quebec. The separatist movement was seen as a threat to the Canadian Jewish community, as an independent Quebec would economically and geographically uproot many of the 100,000 Jews in Montreal and divide and weaken the national community. Due to this widespread exodus, Toronto assumed Montreal's position as the center of Canadian Jewish activity. After the Liberal Party regained control of Quebec in 1985, and a nationwide economic recession lessened the appeal of the rest of Canada, the Jewish population of Quebec stabilized.
Today, the size of the Canadian Jewish community is estimated to be between 340,000 and 380,000. Out of a total population of 31.3 million, the Jewish population represents only a little more than one percent of the Canadian population. The majority of Canadian Jews reside in Ontario and Quebec, followed by Manitoba, British Columbia, and Alberta. Approximately 179,000 Jews live in Toronto, 93,000 in Montreal, 22,600 in Vancouver, 14,800 in Winnipeg, 13,500 in Ottawa, 8,000 in Calgary, and 5,000 in both Edmonton and Hamilton. By the 1990s, Canada had become the fourth largest Diaspora community.
The B'nai Brith Canada and the Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) are the two main Jewish advocacy organizations. CIJA oversees the activities of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee, and National Jewish Campus Life. B'nai Brith's independent parallel structure includes the League for Human Rights, the Canada Israel Public Affairs Committee (CIPAC), and the Campus Action Initiative. There are about twenty newspapers and journals, including the Jewish Tribune and the Canadian Jewish News, published by the Canadian Jewish community. 12,000 Jewish children attend Jewish dayschools and thousands more attend synagogue affiliated after-school programs.
Canada's relationship with Israel began in 1947, when Canada was represented on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Canada and 32 other countries voted in favor of a Jewish state, thus beginning a longstanding relationship with Israel based on a shared commitment to democratic values, understanding, and mutual respect.
Canada delayed granting de facto recognition to Israel until December 1948, and finally gave full de jure recognition to the new nation on May 11, 1949, only after it was admitted into the UN. A week later, Avraham Harman became Israel's first Consul General in Canada. In September 1953, the Canadian Embassy opened in Tel Aviv and Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Michael Comay, was appointed, although a non-resident Canadian Ambassador to Israel was not appointed until 1958.
Trade relations between the two countries soon developed. Canada exports agricultural products and raw materials to Israel, which, in turn, exports diamonds, textiles, clothing, and food products to Canada.
In 1957, after the Sinai Campaign, Lester Pearson, the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his proposal that UN troops be stationed in the disputed territory. Canadian troops were part of the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) that kept the peace in Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
The Canadian government has consistently supported every step the UN has taken in its effort to find a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. After 1967, members of the separatist Quebec movement sided with the Arabs in the conflict, and Canada has frequently been at odds with the Israeli government.
Relations between the Jewish Community and the Canadian government became strained after the first Intifada began in 1987. The conflict undermined public support for Israel and certain Israeli policies divided the Jewish community, making it difficult for Jewish organizations to present a unified front in discussions with the government.
When Iraqi missiles attacked Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, public opinion shifted overwhelmingly in favor of Israel. But, in 1992, when Ottawa hosted a series of multilateral peace negotiations on the topic of refugees, Israel took issue with the Palestinian representation and refused to participate.
In November 1995, a Canadian Federal Court decision stated that Jews from any country could not claim refugee status in Canada because they have automatic citizenship in Israel.
Canadian public opinion on the Arab-Israel conflict is, for the most part, neutral. In 2002, a study by GPC International found that 61 percent of Canadians say they are indifferent or non-committal, 19 percent side with Israel, and 20 percent sympathize with the Palestinians. Of those most familiar with the conflict, 32 percent identify themselves as pro-Palestinian, and 26 percent as pro-Israel.
In January 2011, Canada and Israel signed an umbrella pact for defense and military cooperation and bolstered that agreement in November 2011 amid the turmoil that had been set upon the Middle East and around the Arab World during the Arab Spring. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak settled a number of memoranda of understanding to facilitate information and intelligence sharing as well as cooperative arangements for the development and sale of military technologies.
"Israel needs strong reliable partners, of which Canada is certainly one. I would argue they could not find a more supportive country on the planet and partner in efforts to bring about stability in the region," MacKay told the Foreign Press, "And so this is a very unique and valued opportunity to find the ground in which Canada can support (Israel) in a meaningful way."
Organized anti-Semitism did not surface in Canada until the 1920s and 1930s when the Ku Klux Klan, Western Guard, and Aryan Nations formed. These hate-groups promoted intolerance of Jews, Catholics, and Blacks.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of Nazism and xenophobic sentiments were prevalent. In recent years, there have been a couple of cases of anti-Semitism covered heavily in the Canadian media. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Erst Zundel, a German immigrant in a printing business in Toronto was charged with internationally distributing anti-Semitic hate propaganda denying the Holocaust. Zundel attempted to create a global network of neo-Nazis through his website and writings. He was sentenced to deportation to Germany, where he was immediately arrested and charged with Holocaust denial. His trial there is still pending.
In 1984, James Keegstra, a high school social studies teacher and mayor of the small town of Eckville, Alberta, was charged under the anti-hate law with unlawfully promoting anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial and Jewish international conspiracy theories. He was convicted in 1985, had the conviction overturned on appeal in 1991, and was convicted again at a second trial in 1992 and fined $3,000.
What to do with Nazi war criminals living in Canada was another key issue in the 1980s. When the public became aware of the manner in which these war criminals gained entry into the country, the Jewish community demanded government action. In 1986, the government responded by appointing Justice Jules Deschenes to investigate the issue. In 1987, he published his findings in a report that was embarrassing to the government. He cited corrupt government policies and procedures, including the disregard of regulations that would have blocked Nazis from immigrating. Deschenes looked into 1,700 instances and, in his final report, recommended extensive investigation into about 250 immigration cases, 20 of which required immediate attention from the government. Deschenes' proposal for the sanction of the trials of war criminals in Canada was soon made into law.
Anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise in Canada since the early 1990s. In 1982, the League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith started documenting anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment. In the annual 1993 report, the total was the highest in twelve years and had increased 200 percent since 1988. The 1994 audit documented 290 incidents, and the 2004 audit recorded 857 anti-Semitic incidents, the highest number in twenty-two years. A Talmud Torah Elementary School in Montreal was firebombed and relations between Jewish and Muslim students at Concordia and McGill Universities deteriorated.
In September 2002, Arab students at Concordia University rioted in protest of a visit by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was the culmination of three years of tension between the Arab and Jewish communities. Montreal police had to use pepper spray on the protesters and made five arrests.
In the summer of 2011, after nearly two years of deliberation and investigation, a special Parliamentary Coalition setup to Combat Anti-Semitism released a report that found that anti-Semitism is a growing threat in Canada, especially on campuses and universities. The panel gave several recommendations to help reduce the scourge of public unrest, including the training of police forces across Canada in how better to deal with antisemitism; the sponsorship of conferences at universities that seek to counter antisemitic events, such as "Israeli Apartheid Week"; and the adoption of a clear and concise definition of what antisemitism entails.
“Our work on the Inquiry Panel final report has taken us over two years to complete,” said Mario Silva, Chair of the Inquiry Panel. “And we are calling on the Government of Canada to take our recommendations under serious consideration to combat the wave of antisemitism we are witnessing in our nation. Canada is founded on a set of shared values and antisemitism is an affront to all we stand for in this country.”
Click on a city/province for more information and an exclusive virtual history tour:
Synagogue in Canada
1461 Blanchard Street
Tel. (604) 382-0615
Located in Victoria, British Columbia, Congregation Emanu-El is the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in Canada and has been made a Canadian Heritage Site. The synagogue was built in 1863 and restored in 1982.
Lubavitch of British Columbia
5750 Oak Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
Tel: (604) 266-1313
Lubavitch Center of Winnipeg
2095 Sinclair Street
Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society
Baron de Hirsch Congregation, Beth Israel Synagogue (Orthodox)
1480 Oxford Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
In 1890, the eighteen Jews of Halifax founded the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society. In 1894, the congregation bought a church on the corner of Starr and Hurd Streets and established Beth Israel Synagogue. Over the years, the shul has relocated a number of times and has been at its current location since 1956.
Jewish Russian Community Center
5987 Bathurst Street
"Canada," "Montreal," "Toronto," Encyclopedia
The History of the Jewish People by Eli Birnbaum
Canadian Jewish Virtual Museum and Archives
University of Calgary: Peopling North America
Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Israel Diplomatic Network
Israelowitz, Oscar. Canada Jewish Travel Guide. Israelowitz Publishing. Brooklyn, NY: 1992.
Tigay, Alan M. (ed.) The Jewish Traveler. Hadassah Magazine. Northvale, New Jersey: 1994.
The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Annual Report 2005, Canada.
Photo Credits: CIA World Factbook map of Canada
Associated Foreign Press, "Canada, Israel to Bolster Military Cooperation", November 16, 2011.