The Jewish Canadian story demonstrates that one can make an extraordinary contribution to broader society and possess unshakable loyalty to one’s country, while remaining deeply committed to one’s community, faith, and traditions.
As Prince William recently told a gathering of British Jews: “During a year when many in the Jewish community have had cause to feel under threat, for no reason other than simply the fact of your Jewishness, your unity is all the more precious. Your commitment and loyalty to one another, and to society more widely, is ultimately what keeps you strong.”
Jewish Canadians have a long history of public service. In so doing, Jewish Canadians earned civic rights and freedoms that have had a formative impact in the development of Canadian democracy.
- In 1760, Aaron Hart – considered the founding father of Canada’s Jewish community – arrived in Montreal with British general Amherst and his troops. Hart moved to Trois-Riviere, built a successful business and contributed to public life. The second post office in Canada, for example, was in Hart’s home. In 1768, he co-founded Canada’s first synagogue: the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal.
- His son Ezekiel Hart went on to become a pioneer in civic life. He was elected to the Lower Canada Assembly in 1807 but was denied admission as his colleagues voted to bar him from sitting in the Assembly on account that he could not take his oath of office as a Christian. Persistent as ever, Hart was re-elected in 1808 and, though he constantly affirmed he was justified in taking his oath on the Hebrew Bible, took the regular oath and sat in the Assembly. He endured social hostility and even outright antisemitism to serve Lower Canada.
- In 1832, Lower Canada became the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to grant Jews full legal equality (26 years before Great Britain did so).
- In 1858, the first Jewish mayor was elected in Canada (William J. Hyman in Cap-des-Rosiers).
- In 1871, Henry Nathan of Victoria was the first Jewish Canadian elected to the House of Commons.
- In 1955, David Croll, a WWII veteran, was the first Jewish Canadian appointed to the Senate. Croll had served in the House of Commons and was considered one of the smartest members of the governing caucus, but was never appointed to Cabinet. At the time, a Globe and Mail columnist speculated that this was due to “racial stigma” and suggested Croll was not in cabinet as a result of “discrimination by procrastination”. Croll had previously made history as the first Jewish Canadian appointed to a provincial cabinet (in 1937).
- In 1960 Tillie Taylor became Saskatchewan’s first female magistrate – and later went on to become the first chair of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (in 1972).
- In 1969, Herb Gray became the first Jewish Canadian appointed to the federal cabinet.
- In 1970, Bora Laskin became the first Jewish Canadian appointed to the Supreme Court. As a young lawyer, Laskin had been unable to find work due to substantial antisemitism in legal firms in Canada at the time, despite his stellar academic record from the University of Toronto and Harvard Law. Laskin went on to become Chief Justice in 1973.
- In 2004, Rosalie Abella became the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada
Jewish Canadians have been deeply engaged in Canadian innovation, culture, business, and public policy.
- In 1887, Emile Berliner, a Jewish immigrant to Montreal, invented the gramophone. Since then, Jewish Canadians have contributed significantly to a wide range of research and business fields, including medicine, law, academia, sports, manufacturing, retail, construction, and real estate – to name just a few.
- Jewish Canadians have contributed immensely to the fields of literature (Mordechai Richler and Adele Wiseman), journalism (Barbara Frum and Sonia Ben Ezra) music (Leonard Cohen and Drake), and television and film (Ivan Reitman, Lorne Michaels, David Cronenberg, William Shatner, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis and Seth Rogen), sports (Cecil Hart, Bobbie Rosenfeld and Louis Rubenstein) and dance (Celia Franca, Pauline Donalda, and Melissa Hayden).
- Jewish Canadians have had an indelible impact on Canadian public policy over the 20th Century and to the present day, with significant public service from – to name just a few – David Lewis, Herb Gray, Irwin Cotler, Rosalie Abella, Marshall Rothstein, and Canada’s first Jewish Finance Minister – Joe Oliver.
Jewish Canadians have a long and proud history of serving Canada during times of war.
- Ezekiel Hart, mentioned above, was a pioneer in Jewish military service. As an officer in the 8th Battalion of Trois-Rivières militia – underLieutenant Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry – Hart served in the defense of Lower Canada in the War of 1812. Hart eventually rose in the ranks from Lieutenant to Colonel.
- Jewish community archives bear the names of 577 Jewish Canadians known to have died while serving in Canada’s Armed Forces in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.
- In World War I, records – which are incomplete and therefore considered a low-ball estimate – show approximately 4,700 Jewish Canadians served in Canada’s Armed Forces.
- In World War II, some 17,000 Jewish Canadians – more than one in five Jewish males across the country – served in Canada’s Armed Forces. In total, 9.6% of Jewish Canadians served in Canada’s Armed Forces, a rate 10% above the national average.
- Since the two world wars, Jewish Canadians have served with distinction in Canada’s Armed Forces in Korea, peacekeeping missions around the world, and in Afghanistan.
- Jewish Canadians have risen through the ranks to serve among Canada’s top commanders. The two highest ranking Jewish officers in Canadian history were Major-General Robert Rothschild (who served during WWII, landed on D-Day, and was wounded in the Battle of Normandy in July 1944), and Major-General Ed Fitch, who served in various peacekeeping missions and played a major role in Operation PODIUM, the Canadian Forces operation to protect the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics from terrorism. Today, Major-General Fitch is retired, lives in Victoria, and is an active member of the Jewish community (serving on the Board of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – CIJA).