Irving Martin Abella, CM, O Ont, FRSC, historian, professor, administrator (born 2 July 1940 in Toronto, ON; died 3 July 2022). Irving Abella was a professor of history at York University from 1968 to 2013. He was a pioneer in the field of Canadian labour history and also specialized in the history of Jewish people in Canada. Abella was co-author of the book None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948, which documented antisemitism in the Canadian government’s immigration policies. Abella served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995 and helped establish the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University. He was a Member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Early Life, Education and Family
Irving Abella was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Louis and Esther Abella. He completed his postsecondary education at the University of Toronto, earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1963, his Master of Arts in 1964, and his Doctor of Philosophy in 1969. His doctoral thesis was on Canadian labour history. He taught Jewish and labour history at York University from 1968 to 2013. It was while completing his PhD that Abella met Rosalie Silberman, a law student six years his junior. They married in 1968. In 2004, Rosalie Silberman Abella became the first Jewish woman, as well as the first refugee, to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. She served on the court until her retirement in 2021. The couple had two sons, Jacob and Zachary.
Irving Abella began teaching history at York University in 1968 and became an early leader in the field of Canadian labour history. His work also brought attention to Canada’s treatment of Jews before and during the Second World War. ( See also MS St. Louis; Canada and the Holocaust; Anti-Semitism in Canada.) Abella believed his greatest accomplishment was creating the first university course in Canadian Jewish studies at York’s Glendon College in the early 1970s. He played an important role in establishing the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University. Toward the end of his career as a professor, he held the J. Richard Schiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry at York University.
Irving Abella is perhaps best known as the co-author, along with Harold Troper, of the book None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948. The book caused a sensation in Canada because it challenged the commonly accepted myth that Canada had always been a country that welcomed immigrants and refugees with open arms. Abella and Troper revealed that the Canadian government was not only discriminatory in its immigration policies, but antisemitic as well.
Other key works by Abella include Nationalism, Communism, and Canadian Labour (1973); On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949 (1974); Growing Up Jewish: Canadians Tell Their Own Stories(with Edwin Goldman and Rosalie Sharp, 1997); and A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life In Canada (1990).
Organizational Involvement and Activism
In addition to his scholarly work, Irving Abella was also very active in Canada’s Jewish community. He served as the director of the New Israel Fund, the editor of Middle East Focus, and the chairman of the Holocaust Documentation Project. He also served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995. Abella was president of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) from 1999 to 2000 and was chair of religious broadcaster Vision TV.
During his tenure as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Abella advocated putting pressure on the Canadian government to track down war criminals. An estimated 2,000 Nazi collaborators and war criminals came to Canada following the Second World War. The Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, often referred to as the Deschênes Commission, had attempted to track down war criminals in the 1980s. It did not lead to any criminal trials, however, and was criticized for its findings. In a 1997 interview with Mike Wallace, a host and journalist with the CBS News magazine 60 Minutes, Abella stated that admission to Canada was as easy as showing the trademark SS tattoo; this demonstrated the potential immigrant was reliably anticommunist. During the 1930s and 1940s, Vincent Massey had objected to Jewish immigration and the settlement of Jewish refugees from Europe primarily because Jews were suspected of being communist sympathizers.
Honours and Awards
Irving Abella and Harold Troper won the Leon Jolson Award in 1983 for None Is Too Many. In 1993, Abella was made a Member of the Order of Canada. The award noted how he “helped us to appreciate the rich and diverse roots of our country and broadened our understanding of the contributions generations of immigrants have made to Canada.” Also in 1993, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Abella received the Louis Rosenberg Distinguished Service Award from the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies in 2006. He also received honorary degrees from Western University and the Law Society of Ontario. In 2014, Abella was appointed to the Order of Ontario for “his contribution to documenting the story of Jewish Canadians, and his commitment to the principles of social justice and tolerance.” He also received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
Irving Abella died after a long illness just after his 82nd birthday. A pioneer in the field of labour history and the history of Jewish people in Canada, he will probably be best remembered for None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948. His work not only revealed antisemitism among Canadian government officials in the 1930s and 1940s but also led to a more open policy toward refugees. Abella’s archives, which include extensive oral history interviews he conducted, are held in the Irving Abella Collection at the Archives of Ontario.