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In Attendance at the St. Louis Apology

This post is part of The Exchange. The opinions expressed by contributors shared on The Exchange do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of CIJA, its staff, or Board of Directors.


I was privileged to be invited as a representative of CIJA to attend Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for turning away the MS St. Louis in June 1939. As a Canadian, as a Jew, and as an immigrant, it made me incredibly proud.

On the train ride back to Toronto, I reflected on the day, and decided to share a few thoughts:

Immediately upon entering the House of Commons, I was struck by how full it was. It appeared that every single Member of Parliament was at their seat, and even though we walked in during the general debate, I understood they were there for the impending statement, and it was stirring to see our government united for such a moment.

As I looked around the rest of the gallery, I saw a phenomenal representation of the Jewish community. Holocaust survivors, students, teachers, rabbis, professional community members, and lay leaders all made up the crowd that was there to receive this important announcement. It was significant for this cross-section of our community to be present since it demonstrates both where we are coming from and where we are going.

My seat was on the balcony behind the Prime Minister, and I was seated in the second row. I took a look around and saw some familiar faces – people I knew personally and those who I have seen many times on the news and, leaning forward, I even caught a glimpse of the Prime Minister as he responded to a question about Canadians’ rights to privacy.

At one point, I realized I may have been leaning forward a little too far when I found myself a bit too close to the woman sitting in front of me, so I moved back and tried to make myself comfortable in the restricted seats. The woman in front of me then turned to the man sitting next to her, and it was then that I realized I had essentially been breathing on the head of the Honourable Justice Rosalie Abella. At the outset, I should say that Justice Abella is one of my personal heroes and one of the kindest people I have ever met, and it was pretty wonderful finding myself sitting immediately behind her and her husband Irving Abella for this special occasion.

As I watching this powerful duo interacting in front of me, I realized that where I was sitting added a totally new dimension to the experience I was about to have at the PM’s apology. Not only was I sitting behind a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and a noted Canadian historian, I was sitting behind the Abellas, two people who represent something much greater than the powerful positions they hold in society.

Justice Abella was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany after the war to parents who had survived the Holocaust. Her husband is a scholar and specialist in Canadian Jewish history and author of the book None is Too Many, which details Canadian immigration policies during the War – policies for which the PM was about to apologize. Together, the Abellas symbolize the potential for what Jews in Canada can become, and they are undoubtedly one of Canada’s greatest couples. I tried to keep my distance though – lawyers get excited around famous legal minds.

Soon, the Speaker announced that the PM was to make a statement. The PM stood to a room that had just gone silent and began to deliver his remarks.

His speech was well written and well delivered. It provided a detailed history of the MS St. Louis and its fateful voyage from Hamburg with refugees hopeful to disembark in Cuba. When they were denied entry to that island, the PM spoke about their efforts to enter other Central American countries, then the United States and, eventually, Canada.

He spoke about the deplorable policies of Canada’s past Liberal government under Mackenzie King, of the refusal to let even a single refugee off the boat, of the impact that the Evian Conference of 1938 had on Canadian immigration policies, and how, because of Canada’s refusal to admit these refugees, they were destined to return to Europe, where 254 of them would meet their fates at the hands of the Nazis.

His speech turned to the idea of antisemitism more broadly, and of the role that Jews have played in the development of Canada. He mentioned the horrendous attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and how Canada was committed to helping and protecting its Jewish community.

His speech was longer than I had expected it to be, but I listened intently to each word, watching the faces of the people in the room. Members of the opposition nodded along as the PM voiced his support not only for the Jewish community, but for the State of Israel, and for his opposition to the BDS movement, and the people in the gallery were glued to his words, some beaming with pride for what was finally happening.

Prime Minister Trudeau meets with Ana-Maria Gordon and her family in Centre Block. November 7, 2018.
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Le premier ministre Trudeau rencontre Ana-Maria Gordon et sa famille à l’édifice du Centre. 7 novembre 2018.

While the PM spoke, I noticed that immediately across the room from me sat a mother with what looked to be a newborn baby, sitting calmly in its mother’s arms. I noticed the people sitting around this mother and baby, and looked a few seats down the row, where I saw an elderly woman, who I recognized as Ana Maria Gordon – the only surviving passenger of the St. Louis living in Canada. I believe the young baby in its mother’s arms to be one of Ms. Gordon’s four great-grandchild.

Ms. Gordon was sitting on the balcony facing the Prime Minister as he delivered his apology. She sat upright, stoic, watching him as he spoke and did not move. She was only four years old when she traveled with her family on that fateful ship, but she represented a different time and a different place, which our government was reckoning with today.

She is a Holocaust survivor, who survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp with her mother, while her father survived Buchenwald. After the War they reunited, eventually making their way to Mexico, then the United States, and finally to Canada. In an CJN interview, she talked about how she was nervous to be attending the PM’s apology in Parliament, but she also spoke about how she welcomed it. In the interview she notes, “I think it’s a very good thing. I find a lot of meaning in it because we tend to forget. We think that history is about the past. But history repeats itself.”

Ms. Gordon not only represents that history, but she is history – a history of the Jewish People, displaced from one place to the next, finally making their way to Canada, and being present in the House of Commons for an apology which was a long time coming.

I watched the PM reach the apology part of his speech through the eyes of Irving Abella. At the PM’s mention of the earlier policy of “none is too many,” I saw the gentle nudge from Justice Abella to her husband’s knee, a recognition of his life’s work and really his esteem as a scholar in the field, and I tried to imagine what it was like for him at that moment, the current government revisiting this time in our country’s history with an affirmation of apology, and a promise that it will never happen again. Justice Abella beamed with pride.

The PM said, “We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, as well as their families. We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction, whom we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps. We used our laws to mask our antisemitism, our antipathy, and our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”

Though there are different opinions in our community (of course) about the timing and reasoning of this apology, I support the government taking this meaningful step. No, Canada was not directly responsible for the fate of the Jews aboard that ship, and sure, it did not impact Canadians per se, but accepting some responsibility for the fate of those aboard the ship goes a long way. It shows our community that Canada seeks to meaningfully engage about their role in history. It demonstrates their support for the countless ethnic and religious communities that make up our country. And, it proves that, when it comes to issues relating to antisemitism and immigration, the government is prepared to take a long, hard look at their policies and to make a decision that is not only politically expedient, but also righteous.

I do not necessary identify with the Liberal Party of Canada, but today’s apology in the House of Commons, to my surprise, was a joint effort of every party of the Federal Government. Andrew Scheer rose and gave a moving address of his own on behalf of the Conservative Party, which was followed by addresses by the leaders of the NDP, Bloc, and Green parties. Each was poignant in its acknowledgement of a past wrong, and each agreed that Canada can, and should, do more in the face of hostility towards both Jews and immigrants. Having been following, perhaps too closely, the news from our neighbours in the south, seeing this meaningful cooperation amongst political parties, as well as a thoughtful and disciplined approach to an important issue in society, was refreshing, and made me feel both proud and lucky.

I left the House of Commons feeling particularly proud to be a Canadian today. I paused for a moment on my way out and, looking back at the Peace Tower high above Parliament, I thought about what Canada represents for so many around the world. I am an immigration lawyer, and though I spend a lot of my time challenging the Government of Canada for its decisions and its policies as it relates to immigrants, I know there is a process behind each and every decision, and that there is a Canadian ideal that my clients and I strive for with each application, judicial review, or appeal to the Federal Government.

Witnessing this apology in the House of Commons today was a remarkable experience that I will not soon forget. It made me proud to be a Canadian, Jewish immigrant in Canada; it made me feel blessed for what my family and I have been able to achieve in this country; and it made me hopeful that no matter what political party is in charge, there is a strong and organized Jewish community – with organizations like CIJA and JIAS – watching our backs, and a federal government that is doing the same.

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