Anti-Semitism in Canada

From the beginning, anti-Semitism in Canada was never restricted to the extremists of society. Rather, it has always been part of the mainstream, shared to varying degrees by all elements of the nation.

From the beginning, anti-Semitism in Canada was never restricted to the extremists of society. Rather, it has always been part of the mainstream, shared to varying degrees by all elements of the nation. Until the 1950s it had respectability; no one apologized for being anti-Jewish - no one asked them to. Expressions of anti-Semitism were heard in the halls of Parliament, read in the press, taught in the schools and absorbed in most churches. Indeed, anti-Semitism existed in Canada 100 years ago, when there were scarcely any Jews living here.

Early Manifestations

The earliest manifestation of anti-Jewish sentiment was the expulsion in 1808 of Ezekiel Hart from the Québec legislature, though this may have been more the result of his politics than his religion. A major exponent of anti-Semitism in the 19th century was the prominent writer and critic Goldwin Smith. A pathological anti-Semite, Smith disseminated his hatred in dozens of books, articles and letters. Jews, he charged, were "parasites," "dangerous" to their host country and "enemies of civilization." His bilious anti-Jewish tirades helped set the tone of a still unmoulded Canadian society and had a profound impact on such young Canadians as W.L. Mackenzie King, Henri Bourassa and scores of others. Indeed in 1905 in the most vituperative anti-Jewish speech in the history of the House of Commons, borrowing heavily from Smith, Bourassa urged Canada to keep its gates shut to Jewish immigrants.

Anti-Semitism was particularly acute in Québec, where the Church associated Jews with modernism, liberalism and a host of other "dangerous" doctrines. From 1880 through to the 1940s such Catholic journals as La Vérité, La Semaine réligieuse and L'Action sociale and activists such as J-P Tardivel helped spread anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the province.

Jules-Paul Tardivel
Jules-Paul Tardivel, journalist, novelist (1851-1905). Until his death he devoted himself to his two lifelong obsessions: ultramontanism and nationalism.
The most notorious incident of violence against Jews occurred in Québec City in 1910 when, following a particularly inflammatory address by a well-known anti-Semite, Joseph Plamondon, some of the audience attacked Jewish storekeepers and damaged their businesses. The aggrieved Jews launched a civil action against Plamondon. Four years later the courts finally awarded them minimal costs; but the onslaught continued.

Anti-Semitism Between the Wars

Leading the attack from the 1920s was the respected French-Canadian intellectual Abbé Lionel Groulx. In many ways what Goldwin Smith was to English Canada in the 19th century, Groulx was to French Canada in the 20th century. His savage denunciations of the Jews influenced the province's elite - its clerics, politicians, teachers and journalists. Not only were Jews denounced in the Catholic press but popular newspapers also joined in the assault. Out of this was created the "Achat Chez Nous" movement, an attempt by Church and nationalist leaders to institute a boycott of all Jewish businesses in the province, thus forcing the Jews to leave. As well, since in the view of the Catholic and Protestant clergy Québec was a Christian society, Jews were barred for years from various school boards. What is most surprising about this concerted campaign against the Jews was that they made up only 1% of Québec's population.

Anti-Semitism was not limited to one province; it existed - indeed thrived - elsewhere in Canada. In English Canada such organizations as the Social Credit Party, the Orange Order and the Native Sons of Canada were rife with anti-Jewish sentiment. For Canadian Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, quotas and restrictions were a way of life. Many industries did not hire Jews; educational institutions such as universities and professional schools discriminated against them. Jewish doctors could not get hospital appointments. There were no Jewish judges, and Jewish lawyers were excluded from most firms. There were scarcely any Jewish teachers, and Jewish nurses, engineers and architects had to hide their identity to find jobs in their fields.

Furthermore, there were restrictive covenants on properties preventing them from being sold to Jews. As well, many clubs, resorts and beaches were barred to Jews. Signs warning "No Jews or Dogs Allowed" or "Christians Only!" could be found on Halifax golf courses, outside hotels in the Laurentians and throughout the cottage areas of Ontario, the lake country of Manitoba and the vacation lands of BC.

Worst of all, at least from the point of those Jews desperate to get out of Nazi-infested Europe, anti-Semitism had permeated into the upper levels of the Canadian government. While Prime Minister King was worrying that Jewish immigration would "pollute" Canada's bloodstream, his government was ensuring that no more would be coming. It is no surprise therefore that Canada had by far the worst record of any Western or immigration country in providing sanctuary to the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Why Was Canada So Anti-Semitic?

Some hated Jews for religious reasons - after all, they had "killed Christ" and had refused to repent or convert. To others the Jew was the symbol of the millions of aliens who had entered Canada since 1900. They hated Jews because they were the most visible element of this "mongrelization" of Canada. To the Canadian elite - its leaders, teachers and intellectuals - the Jew did not fit their concept of what a Canadian should be. Theirs was to be a country of farmers and homesteaders, and they believed Jews could not become successful agriculturalists. They saw Jews as city people in a country that wished to build up its rural base.

Since WWII anti-semitism has been on the decline in Canada. New ideas - and leaders - replaced the old order; attitudes, old habits and traditions were slowly transformed. The creation of the state of Israel changed stereotypes about the Jew, and overt anti-Semitism was reduced. In the House of Commons, there was still an occasional outburst from Social Credit members, and from a tiny handful of Parliamentarians from Québec, but for the most part vocal attacks against Jews have been banished from the public arena - though not necessarily from board rooms and private clubs.

By the 1970s and 1980s most of the earlier barriers had been removed. Human rights commissions, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and scores of statutes and judicial decisions guaranteed that the discrimination once so rampant in Canada against Jews - and others - would never reappear. Jews were now playing an increasingly crucial role in all sectors of Canadian society - in politics, law, medicine, arts and business.

Though recent polls indicate that there is still a tiny residue of anti-Semitic feeling in this country, highlighted by the occasional act of anti-Jewish vandalism and by the activities of some right-wing Holocaust-denial groups, for Canadian Jews, anti-Semitism is no longer a major concern. Ironically, what most concerns Jewish leaders is not rates of anti-Semitism but rates of assimilation; to many, that is the real threat to Jewish survival in the 21st century.

See also Prejudice and Discrimination.

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