Jewish Canadian History
Early Jewish Migration
Jews who came to Canada in the century and a half prior to confederation in 1867 settled throughout what was then known as Lower and Upper Canada.
It is thought the first Jews who came to Lower Canada were of Portuguese origin, in 1697. Other records mention Ferdinande Jacobs, a Jewish trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company, who came to Lower Canada in 1732. The first arrival of Jews to Canada in significant numbers was a direct result of the establishment of the British forces. Many Jewish immigrants to Canada arrived as troops of General Jeffery Amherst who overthrew the city of Montreal in 1760. Several of these men chose to remain and, within years, Montreal’s first Jewish community was established. It was this burgeoning Jewish community that built Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Canada’s first synagogue, in 1768.
Many British Jews came from other parts of the Empire – including the 13 colonies of the United States – and settled in Canada by 1760. Soon after British, German, and American Jews began to make their homes here. The temporary enticements of the fur trade and the gold rush faded, but the Jewish settlers remained. In 1831, census results for Upper and Lower Canada listed 197 Jewish people. By 1851 this number had more than doubled to 451. Before 1867, Canada was home to almost 1,000 Jewish people.
Whereas earlier Jewish settlers were primarily drawn from the ranks of the British military, the Jewish Canadian in the mid-19th century was primarily middle class and engaged in business and trade. Around the mid-19th century, a community of about a hundred Jews settled in Victoria, British Columbia, to open shops to supply prospectors during the Caribou Gold Rush of the 1860s and, later, the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon.
Soon thereafter, several Jewish immigrants responded to coal mining company advertisements seen in Eastern Europe and came to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to work as coal miners. After a few years, most became peddlers and retail store operators. Several of them reported learning to speak Gaelic from their customers before they learned English. Many immigrants during the 1890s and after landed at the port of Saint John, New Brunswick, and settled there.
From 1881-1901, thousands sought refuge in Canada from the violent pogroms in their Eastern European homelands. During this period, Canada’s Jewish population increased from 2,443 to 16,401. Steamship agents arranged passage across the Atlantic to Pier 21 in Halifax and some remained in the East. Others made only a brief stop there before settling in large cities including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Others, encouraged by the government and Jewish philanthropists, came to Canada to join farm colonies in the West.
During the early years of the 20th century, the population of Canadian cities grew dense with the influx of immigrants, Jewish newcomers among them. They often struggled at first to make a living. As immigrant families became more established, those who started as peddlers earned enough to open shops of their own. Others worked as factory garment workers and tradesmen. Synagogues, Jewish schools, and Jewish cultural facilities appeared in almost every city in Canada. By 1914, there were 100,000 Jews in the country. From 1901 to 1927, the Jewish population of Canada grew from under 17,000 to 125,000, with Ontario and Quebec each having close to 50,000 Jewish residents.
While most Jews settled in urban areas, some accepted land grants in the Prairies on 11 Jewish farm colonies there. They formed close-knit rural Jewish communities that had Jewish schools, synagogues, and cultural activities. Farming in the Prairies depended on good weather conditions and modern tools and machinery, and the Jewish farm colonies often lacked both. Furthermore, many of these colonies were established on unproductive land; their meagre crops were mostly destroyed by hail, frost, or drought. Few of the Jewish colonists had had any prior farming experience, and none had ever witnessed the frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards of a prairie winter. Gradually, one colony after another was abandoned, as the colonists relocated to towns and cities.
Following implementation of the 1919 Immigration Act, the Canadian government tightened immigration restrictions and kept many Jews from immigrating to Canada. After 1927, Jewish immigration to Canada came to a near halt. The government did not change its policy during the 1930s despite increasing knowledge of the plight of Jews in Europe. In the years 1933-1939, immediately prior to the Second World War, Canada accepted fewer than 150,000 immigrants, of which only 5,000 were Jewish. During this time, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada (JIAS), established in the early 1920s, continued its efforts to lobby the government while directly assisting Jewish immigrants. While these laws were partly the result of the depressed economy in Canada, they also reflected the antisemitism of some key politicians of the day.
Officials and politicians enforced a strict antisemitic policy. In 1939, the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 Jewish immigrants, left Germany and was refused entry into port in Canada and elsewhere. It was eventually forced to return to Europe, where many from that voyage ultimately perished in the Holocaust. “None is too many,” was a response from Frederick Blair, Government of Canada’s Director of Immigration, when he was asked how many Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe would be permitted entry. The outcome reflects the tragic consequences of Canada’s closed-door policy to refugees at the time, but it also served as a catalyst for the more open immigration policy and new immigration initiatives to come.
After 1947, Canada once again opened its doors to Jewish immigrants.
More than 1,000 displaced Jewish children came to Canada as part of the War Orphans Project, started in 1948. By 1949, Canada had accepted more than 40,000 Holocaust Survivors. Most were aided in their transition to Canada by organizations and agencies such as JIAS, JVS (Jewish Vocational Services), and JF&CS (Jewish Family and Child). Many were brought in through immigration projects targeting specific trades and occupations such as tailors and farmers. A second wave of European refugees arrived in the late 1950s after the failed Hungarian Revolution.
Conditions for Jews in North African Arab countries worsened after the creation of Israel in 1948 and especially following the Six-Day War in 1967. Many departed for Israel, Europe, and elsewhere, including Canada, where many French-speaking Moroccans settled in Montreal.
During the 1970s, Soviet Jews were persecuted and denied permission to emigrate, resulting in the term refusnik. In the 1980s, after many years of political pressure from governments and Jewish organizations around the world, the Soviet Union eased its restrictive rules on Jewish emigration. Large numbers of Jews left for Israel, the United States, Canada, and Europe. The majority who came to Canada settled in Ontario, especially Toronto.
Prominent Jewish Canadians
Leonard Cohen: Born in 1934 in near Montreal, Cohen was a poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter. Moving on from a successful career as a writer, Cohen devoted his time to his music. He was the recipient of many prizes and accolades, including the Order of Canada. His most famous song is Hallelujah and his most recent album, You Want it Darker, was released in 2016, just three weeks prior to his death.
Drake: Born Aubrey Drake Graham in Toronto, Drake is a rapper, musician, singer, and songwriter. He is one of the world’s best-selling musicians having sold more than 170 million albums. He has also won numerous awards and has had the most top 10 singles (54), the most charted songs (258), the most simultaneously charted songs in a single week (27), the most Hot 100 debuts in one week (22), and the most continuous time on the Hot 100 list (431 weeks). More than 750,000 people follow Drake on Instagram.
Barbara Frum: An acclaimed radio and television journalist, Barbara Frum enjoyed a long and prolific career in print media and on television. She was most known as a news anchor and for her interviews on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She received many awards including the Order of Canada.
Naomi Klein: Montreal-born Naomi Klein is an author, social activist, and filmmaker known for her controversial stances on globalization, capitalism, and climate justice. She has received acclaim for her social critiques and is best known for her books No Logo and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.
Howie Mandel: From North York, Mandel is best known as a comedian and game show host. He has acted in many movies and served as a judge on shows such as Canada’s Got Talent.
Lorne Michaels: Born in Toronto, Michaels is an actor, comedian, film and television producer, and screenwriter. He began his career in radio for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before moving to the United States. There he is best known for creating and producing the long-running satire Saturday Night Live along with other comedy and late-night television series. Michaels is the recipient of 20 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Mordecai Richler: Born in 1931 in Montreal, Richler was a journalist and author who published ten novels, many of which focused on the Anglophone Jewish community of Montreal. Famous works include The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney’s Version, St. Urbain’s Horseman and Solomon Gursky Was Here. He was awarded many prestigious literary prizes before his death in 2001.
Seth Rogen: A Vancouver native and a graduate of Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camp, Rogen is a comedian and actor. He has appeared in several well-received movies and been nominated for an Emmy.
Moshe Safdie: As a teenager, Safdie immigrated from Israel to Montreal where he graduated from McGill with an engineering degree. Now a world-renowned architect, his debut project was Habitat 67, a major feature of the World’s Fair in Montreal, Expo 67. From there he launched a prolific, international career with a wide variety of projects. In Israel he’s known for, among others, Mamilla in Jerusalem, planning the city of Modi’in, Yad Vashem, the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies, Ben Gurion International Airport, and the Hebrew Union College. In Canada, notable projects include the National Gallery, Quebec City’s Museum of Civilization, and Vancouver’s Library Square.
William Shatner: A native of Montreal, Shatner was a stage actor working at the Stratford Festival and on Broadway. He is best known for his portrayal of Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but he also starred in many other long-running television shows.
Adele Wiseman: Born in Winnipeg, in 1956 Wiseman published her first novel, The Sacrifice, which won many awards including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. In addition to writing novels, she also published plays, children’s stories, essays, and works of non-fiction.
Jews Who Changed Canadian History
Israel (Izzy) Asper: Born in Manitoba, Asper studied law at the University of Manitoba and became one of Canada’s foremost tax attorneys. A media magnate, he owned a multi-billion-dollar media empire. From 1970 to1975 Asper served as the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party. In 2003, with a $351 million investment, his dream to establish the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg was realized.
Irwin Cotler: Born in Montreal, Cotler was a professor of law at McGill and served as the director of its human rights program from 1973 until 1999. He also held several visiting professorships and represented high profile internationa political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In 1999, Cotler became an MP for the Liberal Party and was appointed Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General in 2003. This was followed by many other senior government appointments. Currently, Cotler serves as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
Sydney Halter: Born in Winnipeg and trained as a lawyer, in 1956 Halter became Commissioner of the Canadian Football Council, later becoming the first Commissioner of the Canadian Football League, a post he held for eight years. He was also actively involved in the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission from 1966 to1982. In 1977, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and received numerous honours in the sports world.
David and Cecil Hart: A decedent of Canada’s first Jewish settler, Aaron Hart, David Hart was the father of former Montreal Canadiens head coach Cecil Hart who led the Canadiens to Stanley Cup victories in 1931 and 1932. David Hart established the NHL Hart Memorial Trophy, presented to the league’s most valuable players. Cecil Hart was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
Ezekiel Hart: Hart was born in Quebec in 1767. He worked as a businessman, fur trader and militia officer. In 1807, Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada (Trois-Rivières, Québec). While he was the first Jew to be elected in the British Empire, he was barred from office because he refused to take an oath requiring him to state that he was a Christian. As a result of his own and his son’s political legacies, in 1832, with the passage of the Emancipation Act, Jews were accorded full rights.
David Lewis: An immigrant to Montreal in 1921, Lewis was a well-known Canadian progressive involved in socialist-labour causes. A labour lawyer by profession, he was instrumental in establishing the New Democratic Party (NDP). Lewis was first elected as an MP in 1962 and served as the head of the NDP from 1971-1975. Lewis was named to the Order of Canada.
David Oppenheimer: Born in Germany, then moving to Canada via the United States, Oppenheimer arrived in 1858 to cash in on the gold rush. An entrepreneur and businessman, Oppenheimer was elected as the second mayor of Vancouver in 1888. During his tenure, he established the fire department, a ferry across Burrard Inlet, the streetcar system, Stanley Park, and more. He was also a noted philanthropist.
Léa Roback: Born in 1903 and raised in Montreal, during a stay in Europe, Roback became involved in communist circles – an engagement that continued in Canada following her return. In the late 1930s she became a successful labour organizer leading one of the most significant union victories in Canada. She also advocated for suffrage for women and, in the 1960s, was a campaigner for peace and other causes. She received numerous awards.
Fanny ‘Bobby’ Rosenfeld: Rosenfeld immigrated to Canada as an infant and grew up in Ontario. She excelled in basketball, hockey, track, and softball but was best known for winning gold and silver medals in track at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. She also won numerous national awards. Following her retirement as an athlete, Rosenfeld became a well-known sportswriter. There, she promoted and defended women’s sports and served as a role model for many sports-minded women, particularly those from the working class.
Tillie Taylor: Born in Saskatoon in 1922, Taylor became a judge with a lifelong commitment to social justice. She supported communism and was an early adherent of the ideology underlying the New Democratic Party. Despite barriers she faced as a woman studying law, she earned her law degree in 1956. In 1960, she became the first woman appointed as a Provincial Magistrate in Saskatchewan and used her clout to promote legal opportunities for Indigenous persons. Taylor was named the first Chairperson of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission in 1972 and continued her engagement in a wide variety of social causes in subsequent years.