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September 3, 2009

Antisemitism in Canada (Part 1: A Disgraceful History)

Dr. Michael Keefer

Dr. Michael KeeferA large majority of Canadians take pride in the degree to which our country has become multicultural, hospitable to immigration from all parts of the globe, and anti-racist in principle and practice.  Stand-up comedian Russell Peters looks forward happily to a future in which, after a couple of generations of energetic intercommunal sex, Canadians will average out in skin tone to a gorgeous brown colour—somewhat like his own, in fact.  (So: once again South-Asian Canadians got there ahead of the rest of us.  But what a prospect: grandchildren as good-looking as Russell Peters!  Can we hope they’ll be as smart and funny as well?)  

Let’s pause for a moment, though, to ask how well our desired self-image matches social reality.  Have we actually managed to free ourselves from racism?  Chinese-Canadians, Haitian-Canadians, Somali-Canadians, Jamaican-Canadians, Salvadoran-Canadians, Algerian-Canadians, Pakistani-Canadians: all these, together with people of many other ethnicities, could tell grim stories, if we chose to listen to them, of encounters with racism in our housing and employment markets, in our workplaces and places of leisure, and in institutionally-sanctioned behaviour by servants of the state, ranging from refugee-board personnel and the police to our federal government itself.  Not just stories from the distant past, but from here and now as well.   

There are of course countervailing stories, both new and old, of acts of spontaneous decency and generosity.[1]  But a country where First Nations people are disproportionately represented in the prison system, where police can effectively murder native men by dumping them, in the dead of winter, on roadsides outside prairie cities, and where politicians can with impunity order murderous violence against First Nations people non-violently protesting against the theft of their land[2] such a country has unresolved issues with racism.  

And what about the oldest and arguably most shameful form of racism, antisemitism?  It may not stand among the more urgent of our current issues.  Racism against First Nations people, for example, is a matter not just of violence, both structural and overt, but also of the fact that racist attitudes are effectively legitimizing an ongoing appropriation of First Nations lands and resources.  And Islamophobia finds expression in Canada not just in public sneers and acts of racially-motivated violence, but also, more substantively, in acts of state—the corruption or defiance of the law on the part of CSIS, the RCMP, and our federal government.[3]  But though it would be hard to argue that Jewish Canadians currently face problems of comparable intensity, there are two good reasons for giving close attention to the issue of antisemitism in Canada.  

The first is that this loathsome prejudice has a particularly disgraceful history in this country, which must be understood if we are to appreciate the intensity of Jewish-Canadian anxieties over any possible resurgence of antisemitism.  The second is that in June 2009 a group of Canadian parliamentarians calling themselves the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, or Coalition parlementaire canadienne de lutte contre l’antisémitisme (CPCCA), launched an inquiry into antisemitism in Canada—animated by the belief that such a resurgence, far from being a matter of merely abstract concern, is actually well underway.   

In what follows I will offer a brief historical outline of antisemitism in Canada; in a subsequent article I will consider what at this early stage is known, if not of the parliamentary inquiry’s work, at least of its context and presuppositions.  

*  *  *  *

The work of social historians over the past three decades into subjects including the World War I imprisonment of Ukrainian Canadians, the Mackenzie King government’s rejection of Jewish refugees from Nazism during the 1930s, and the World War II dispossession and imprisonment of Japanese Canadians, has effectively shattered the old myth of Canada as a uniquely tolerant, peaceful, and just society.  As Alan Davies remarked nearly twenty years ago, the “proud complacency” implied by the phrase ‘Canada the Good’ has been destroyed, and “our national self-righteousness has been left in tatters.  The vile odour of old hatreds still lingers in the air, and antisemitism is not the least of their acrid fumes.”[4]

There is evidence from 1890s Toronto of a significant level of fraternization between gentiles and the city’s small, prosperous and well-assimilated Jewish community.  But historian Stephen Speisman notes an abrupt shift between 1907 and 1911, corresponding to an influx of less privileged Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe: signs began to be posted, for example, excluding Jews from public swimming facilities.[5]

During the 1920s Canadian newspapers, both French and English, stigmatized Jews as dangerous aliens insinuating themselves into positions of influence, while at the same time—inconsistently, one might think—denouncing them at “the brains of the Communist movement.”[6]  “Gentiles Only” signs were posted in public places—in the Toronto Island parks, for example.  And antisemitic propaganda led, predictably, to antisemitic outrages.  

In 1933, Canadian Jews were traumatized by two events, again in Toronto: Jewish bathers at the Balmy Beach waterfront park were attacked by youths brandishing swastikas; and a baseball game at Christie Pits between a largely Jewish and an Anglo-Saxon team devolved, after the intervention of gangs carrying swastikas and shouting Nazi slogans, into street-fighting that went on for some six hours.  

Radical antisemitism in Québec found expression in Adrien Arcand’s Parti National Social Chrétien, a clerico-fascist Nazi knock-off that in 1937 established an Ontario wing, the National Social Christian Party.  In one of his poems of this period, the great Montréal poet Abraham Moses Klein mocked Arcand as a bumbler who, in trying to formulate a party manifesto, couldn’t get beyond the first sentence: “À bas les maudits Juifs!”[7]

But while parties like Arcand’s National-Social-Christians or the equally antisemitic Nationalist Party of Canada, founded in Winnipeg by William Whitaker and A. F. Hart Parker, could appropriately be described as fringe formations, their central doctrine had become mainstream.  Most Canadians no doubt disapproved of the arson attack, during a Sabbath service, that destroyed a Montréal-area synagogue in the summer of 1937.  And yet signs reading “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” appear to have been tolerated, as were politer versions of the same message like the notice posted at the entrance to St. Andrews Golf Club in Toronto: “After Sunday, June 20 [1937], this course will be restricted to Gentiles only.  Please do not question this policy.”[8]

The dominant ideologies in English- and French-speaking Canada—Anglo-Saxon and Québécois nativism, permeated in both cases by antisemitism—made it easy for the top federal bureaucrat responsible for immigration in Mackenzie King’s government, the infamous Frederick Blair, to enforce a policy of excluding Jewish immigrants.  The most notorious consequence of this policy, in May 1939, was the refusal of landing rights to the MV St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Hamburg.  Refused also by Cuba and the U.S., the St. Louis was obliged to return to Europe, and a large proportion of its passengers, who had agonizingly been within sight of a safe haven, were murdered in the Holocaust.

Between 1933 and 1939, Canada accepted only some 4,000 of the 800,000 Jewish refugees who escaped from countries controlled by the Nazis.  Australia, by way of comparison, accepted 15,000, Britain 70,000, and the U.S. 200,000.  In proportion to population sizes, Canada accepted only about one-fifth as many Jewish refugees as these other countries.

The antisemitism of the majority of Canadians did not go wholly unchallenged.  Senator Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, intervened persistently on behalf of Jewish refugees; and after 1940 especially, some of the Canadian churches made forceful efforts to alert Canadians to the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews of Europe.[9]

However, an appalling level of antisemitism remained widespread.  By late 1942, information about Nazi exterminationist policies was generally available.  Nonetheless, a mid-1943 Gallup poll which asked Canadians to list the most undesirable potential immigrants to this country found that Jews were put in third place, after only Japanese and Germans.  In 1946—by which time detailed accounts of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps had been public for more than eighteen months—the same poll was repeated.  This time, Jews were advanced to second place: only the Japanese were regarded as more undesirable immigrants.[10]

*  *  *  *

During the post-war period, the institutional structures buttressing Canadian antisemitism were gradually disassembled.  Immigration restrictions were relaxed (though only after 1947!); this, following the King government’s shameful denial of access to refugees from Nazism, led to the interesting result that Canada’s Jewish community contains a higher proportion of Holocaust survivors and their descendants than is the case in the U.S.  

Ontario had taken a start in dismantling other institutional supports of antisemitism with the Racial Discrimination Act of 1944, which banned the posting of signs excluding a particular religious or social group.  During the 1950s, the practice of writing “restrictive covenants” into property deeds in order to prevent Jews or other “undesirables” from purchasing houses or cottages in particular areas or neighbourhoods was successfully challenged in the courts.[11]

However, other no less intolerable practices remained in place until at least the early 1960s.  McGill University limited Jewish admissions to 10%; the University of Toronto required higher entrance grades from Jews than from other applicants; and Mount Sinai Hospital, in operation by the late 1950s, was denied status as a University of Toronto teaching hospital until 1962.[12]

In other respects as well, antisemitism remained endemic.  For example, Jews were not admitted as members of Toronto’s Granite Club, or of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.  Another club on the Toronto islands, the Queen City Yacht Club, or QCYC, was formed in part by people excluded from, or disgusted with, the RCYC.  The children of RCYC members, some of whom I knew, called it the JewCYC.  And until the 1970s, the children of gentiles were discouraged by some of their high-school teachers from entering University College at the University of Toronto—or Jew U, as some people called it.  

Jewish-Canadian writers played a considerable role in the delegitimizing of antisemitism in this country.  By the late 1960s no-one with any interest in English-Canadian culture could ignore the fact that A. M. Klein was generally acknowledged as the finest English-language poet Canada had produced, and Irving Layton as his most eloquent and forceful successor; or that Mordecai Richler, Adele Wiseman and Leonard Cohen stood high in any list of the country’s most talented novelists.  (Cohen was also of course a popular poet and singer-songwriter whose early books and albums laid the foundation of his huge present-day international reputation.)  Other Jewish-Canadian writers, among them the poets Eli Mandel and Miriam Waddington, added to a growing recognition, in a period obsessed with questions of national identity, that Canada’s Jewish community had made a contribution out of all proportion to its size to our cultural maturation and self-definition.

Nonetheless, few Canadians who came to adulthood during that decade can have altogether avoided contact with a residual and still vicious antisemitism.  

*  *  *  *

Looking back over more than forty years, I am astonished to recall how casually my contemporaries bandied about terms of racist—including antisemitic—abuse.[13]

My own parents were not free from racist attitudes: as a small boy in the 1950s, I was discouraged from playing with Luigi and Savino, the sons of our Sicilian next-door neighbours.  (While the prejudice in this case may been as much a matter of social class as of ethnicity, there is no doubt that attitudes to southern Europeans in 1950s Toronto were strongly tinged with racism.)

However, racially abusive language of any kind was forbidden in our home.  For my mother, any sneering at the people who had given us Mendelssohn, Heine and Heifetz was out of the question; my father, more simply, taught us that to speak slightingly of people disadvantaged in fact or merely by common opinion was dishonourable.   

But on one occasion, in 1962, I remember antisemitism coming, so to speak, close to home.  In that year Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was part of the Grade 9 English curriculum.  In my class it was badly taught, with no attempt to undo the play’s antisemitic stereotyping.  (The Merchant is on balance antisemitic, even though A. M. Klein took the title of a wartime book of poems, Hath Not A Jew, from the opening words of one of its most famous speeches.)  

A classmate of mine, emboldened perhaps by Antonio’s vicious abuse of Shylock or by Graziano’s vile jeering in the trial scene, developed a brief habit of calling me a dirty red-headed Jew.[14]  The words were less shocking than the fact that they were spoken, more than once, in the presence of responsible adults, whose only response was a benign boys-will-be-boys smile.  Though neither Jewish nor particularly red-haired, I was indeed scruffy; when I managed to find my classmate alone, he became a dirty and bloody-nosed Anglo-Saxon.  

It struck me at the time that, as Presbyterians, my family had gone some small distance toward being Jewish: most of the Bible readings in Calvin Presbyterian Church each Sunday were from the Old Testament.  And indeed our church, led by the Reverend Donald Herron, was engaged in inter-faith ecumenical dialogues with Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s Holy Blossom Synagogue.  As an elder of the church, though a very casual Christian, my father took part in these discussions.  He professed himself intrigued by the tendency, as he claimed, for the Jews to have Presbyterian names like McGregor,[15] and the Presbyterians Jewish names like Keefer.   

Some fifteen years later, my father was delighted to hear of an encounter I had had in an antiquarian bookstore in England.  When I wrote a cheque to pay for my purchases, the bookseller brusquely informed me that I had misspelled my name.  

His name was Kieffer—the spelling my family had used until the late 18th century.  His family, originally from Strasbourg, had emigrated to England in 1850.  My ancestors left Strasbourg in the 1730s for New Jersey—from which they were driven to Upper Canada after my quadruple-great grandfather died in the late 1770s defending Long Island from George Washington’s army: the victorious rebels told his widow she would have to pack up and leave as soon as her elder son turned sixteen.  

“And so you know,” the rude Mr. Kieffer said, “that we’re Jewish?”  

Were some Strasbourg Kieffers (the bookseller’s family among them) Jews, and other Strasbourg Kieffers gentiles?  It seems unlikely.  

Some years previously, I remembered, one of my brothers was in Strasbourg on business, and took time out to search through baptismal registers for evidence of the family’s pre-emigration history.  He found nothing.  

Perhaps he had been looking in the wrong place.  

*  *  *  *

What might we conclude from even such an elliptical account of Canadian antisemitism as the foregoing?  

It may perhaps give us some insight into the sensitivities of Canadian Jews to any suggestion of a renewal of antisemitism.  

It might also suggest that a parliamentary inquiry into antisemitism could have contributed significantly, in the 1950s or 1960s, to bringing Canadians to a shame-faced recognition of the degree to which our public discourse and practices had become contaminated by a contemptible, incendiary, and, in the last analysis, exterminationist prejudice.  

What functions might such a parliamentary inquiry have forty years later, in 2009?  The sequel to this article will be devoted to consideration of that question.  


1. Here’s one from seventy years ago.  My mother-in-law’s family immigrated from what is now Ukraine in 1936.  Natalie was fourteen.  To the end of her life her eyes would fill with tears when she remembered how, in 1939, at a time when immigrants from eastern Europe were vigorously discriminated against, one of her teachers at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, Miss May Sinclair, intervened to prevent her from entering sweatshop work to help support her family.  Recognizing the girl’s talent, Miss Sinclair paid from her own modest salary the fees that enabled her to master the art of dress-designing and enter a career she had longed for.

2. Native land at Ipperwash, Ontario was expropriated by the federal government during World War Two for military use.  A half-century later, exasperated by the government’s refusal to return the land, native people peacefully reoccupied it.  Ontario Premier Mike Harris is on record as having ordered the Ontario Provincial Police to attack the occupiers.  Although an unarmed native man, Dudley George, was killed by police gunfire in the ensuing fusillade, Harris has not had to face any legal consequences.

3. I am thinking of such recent events as RCMP complicity in the abduction and torture of Maher Arar, CSIS participation in the Guantanamo interrogations of Omar Khadr, and the Harper government’s defiance of court rulings that oblige it to seek Khadr’s release from American custody.  

4. Alan Davies, ed., Antisemitism in Canada: History and Interpretation (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), “Introduction,” p. 6.  Other important studies of Canadian antisemitism include Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982); Pierre Anctil, Le Rendez-vous manqué: les Juifs de Montréal face au Québec de l’entre-deux guerres (Montréal: Institut Québécois de recherché sur la culture, 1988); and Irving Abella, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990).    

5. Stephen Speisman, “Antisemitism in Ontario: The Twentieth Century,” in Davies, ed., Antisemitism in Canada, pp. 114, 116.

6. Speisman, p. 117.  Inconsistencies of this kind were identified by Jean-Paul Sartre as a standard component of antisemitism: “We are told in almost the same breath that behind the Jew lurks international capitalism and the imperialism of the trusts and the munitions makers, and that he is the front man for piratical Bolshevism with a knife between its teeth.  There is no embarrassment or hesitation about imputing responsibility for communism to Jewish bankers, whom it would horrify, or responsibility for capitalist imperialism to the wretched Jews who crowd the rue des Rosiers.  But everything is made clear if we renounce any expectation from the Jew of a course of conduct that is reasonable and in conformity with his interests, if, instead, we discern in him a metaphysical principle that drives him to do evil under all circumstances, even though he thereby destroy himself.  This principle, one may suspect, is magical.”  Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. George J. Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), pp. 38-39.

7. The Klein poem is “Hormisdas Arcand,” from The Rocking Chair (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948).  Sartre proposed an explanation for the parallel inability or refusal of French antisemites to formulate coherent political platforms: “Anti-Semitic associations do not wish to invent anything; they refuse to assume responsibility; they would be horrified at setting themselves up as a certain fraction of French opinion, for then they would have to draw up a program and seek legal means of action.  They prefer to represent themselves as expressing in all purity, in all passivity, the sentiments of the real country in its indivisible state.”  Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p. 32.      

8. James W. St. G. Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada: Historical Case Studies (Waterloo: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997), p. 186.  

9. See Alan Davies and Marilyn Nefsky, How Silent Were the Churches? (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).  

10. Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law, p. 190; Gerald Tulchinsky, Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 402-03.  

11. See Walker, “Noble and Wolf vs. Alley,” in “Race,” Rights and the Law.  

12. Tulchinsky, Canada’s Jews, p. 415.  

13. Words like Yid, Chink, Wop, Kike, Spic, and Polack were part of the everyday discourse of Toronto’s not-so-innocent schoolchildren.  (Not Paki or Nigger, so far as I can remember: substantial immigration from South Asia and the Caribbean was still in the future.)  

14. Why “red-headed”?  There may have been a note in our edition of the play alluding to an early stage tradition of playing Shylock in a red wig.

15. I doubt there were any actual McGregors in Rabbi Plaut’s congregation.  My father’s comment was, I would guess, a joke based on the fact that McGregor’s Happy Foot Health Socks were (and still are) manufactured and marketed by a Toronto garment firm owned by one of the city’s prominent Jewish families.  His opposite numbers in the inter-faith dialogues may well have included a member of that family.  
Reg: Antisemitism in Canada (Part 1: A Disgraceful History)

By Dr. Michael Keefer

This is just a brief comment on Dr. Keefer's piece on racism/anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most important task a nation can carry out is an honest review of its own history. Our racism of course stems mainly from our British roots and is closely linked to colonialist and imperialist practices. Happily, the post-WW2 generations have started to come to grips with racism, but it is an endless struggle that must be carried on unceasingly.

This could not have happened however, without the efforts of many decent people, who - over the years - have abhorred the racist behaviour of so many, including those in high places in our various governments.

If we are to continue this struggle in a rational and sensible way, then surely we must - as citizens - take collective responsibility for our own historical narrative and confront it whenever possible.

Anti-Semitism, which I suggest ought to include anti-Islamic behaviour, is indeed a scourge that must be confronted whenever and wherever it shows itself.

I remember a story told to me years ago by an old Palestinian gentleman...he said that he remembered as a boy, his father going to a Jewish neighbour's home to light the Sabbath lamps. He said that the custom was for the Jewish neighbour to light his family's lamps on the Muslim Holy Day.

That of course was before the troubles in Palestine grew so volatile that such practices were frowned upon by leaders of both religious groups.

My question for Dr. Keefer is- to what extent, if any, do you think that political Zionism in Israel has contributed to racism there and if so - has it had negative repercussions for a multi-cultural society such as ours?

Jim Reed,
Dungannon, Ontario

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