On a cool April 16, 1933, ball players warmed up at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. Like nearly everything else in the city, the teams were ethnically segregated and so a Jewish team faced an Anglo-Saxon opponent. A Nazi flag was unfurled and anti-Semitic abuse was screamed. The chanting young men left, pausing only to paint a swastika on a park building. Two nights later the Jewish team was back and so were the angry young men. As the flag returned and taunts began, a scuffle ensued. Cars filled with supporters of both sides screamed to the scene. Pipes and bats were swung. Bones and teeth were smashed. Blood flowed as an hours-long riot spilled into the streets.
Newspapers suggested that the Jewish community was to blame for what they dubbed the Christie Pitts Riot. Editorials insisted it was an aberration and that anti-Semitism did not exist. City council promised to address Toronto’s many Swastika Clubs. But nothing was done. To deny a cancer is to allow its growth or a lanced tumour to return.
Canadian anti-Semitism is a long, sad tale. It began with Esther Brandeau. She had disguised herself as a man to secure passage on a ship but her identity was revealed in 1738 upon her arrival in Quebec. The deception was fine but her Jewishness was not. According to the French and Quebec law, she was banished. The British Conquest changed the laws but not mindsets. A Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was elected to represent Trois-Rivières in Lower Canada’s legislative assembly. He was ejected with a resolution stating, “Anyone professing the Jewish religion cannot take a seat nor sit nor vote in the House.”
Canada’s prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, perhaps believing he was being liberal in his attitude rather than perpetuating a stereotype, said, “A sprinkling of Jews in the North-West would be good. They would at once go in for peddling and politiciking, and he is of as much use in the new country as cheap jacks and chapman.” Goldwin Smith, the influential public intellectual who was among the founders of Canadian liberalism, wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles advocating the deportation of Jews. He wrote, “Few greater calamities perhaps have ever befallen mankind than the transportation of the negro and the dispersion of the Jew.” Clifford Douglas advocated a Jewish-free Canada in Social Credit, the book that led to the creation of the Social Credit Party that formed Alberta’s government. Henri Bourassa, the father of Quebec nationalism, stated, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people a country can have…they are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” While he later renounced racism, Quebec’s powerful Abbé Lionel Adolphe Groulx never did. The widely-read periodicals he edited and sermons he influenced were virulently anti-Semitic and bathed a generation of Quebec Catholics in a racist cauldron.
With the sanctioning of Canada’s elites, it is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism weaved itself into society’s fabric. Many universities restricted Jewish enrollment or banned Jewish entry into certain programs. A Quebec program called achat chez nous promoted the boycotting of Jewish businesses. Golf and other private clubs banned Jewish membership. Signs proclaiming “No Jews Allowed” were seen at many beaches, hotels, parks, and restaurants across Canada.
In July 1939, 917 German Jews aboard St. Louis sought refuge in Canada after being denied sanctuary elsewhere. In cabinet and House debates, it was explained that if turned away they would end up back at Hitler’s mercy. They were turned away. Deputy Minister of Immigration Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish people Canada should accept. He replied, “None is too many.” The ship left. Over two hundred people that we could have saved perished in the gas chambers. Hitler’s Holocaust was the shrinking of the sentence: You cannot live among us as Jews. You cannot live among us. You cannot live. We were participants in the shrinking sentence and withering humanity.
Canadians should feel proud of promoting not just tolerance but the acceptance and celebration of differences. But we need vigilance. Those who fan hatred’s embers are among us now, speaking of immigration restrictions and Canadian values tests. They are speaking in code at the moment but as Mr. Trump has demonstrated, it is a short step from code to clarity and far too easy to spark racist embers to flames.
Let us beware of the future by being aware of the past. Let it serve as warning and invitation to reject those who promote a return to a dark version of ourselves that deserves to remain in the past and never, ever return.
If you found this column of value, please share it with others. I tell a fuller story of Canadian anti-Semitism in Last Step to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, available online through Chapters-Indigo and Amazon. https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html?ikwid=john+boyko&ikwsec=Books&ikwidx=5