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Second reading of Bill S-232, An Act respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

Second reading of Bill S-232, An Act respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

Second reading of Bill S-232, An Act respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

Second reading of Bill S-232, An Act respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

Published on 16 February 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Joan Fraser (retired)

Hon. Joan Fraser:

Honourable senators, I am not our caucus’ critic on this bill. That is Senator Jaffer. So at the conclusion of my remarks I will move the adjournment in her name, but she has kindly allowed me to speak today.

I want to thank Senator Frum for presenting this bill, which I think can have a profoundly constructive impact on the fabric of Canadian society for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Jewish heritage in Canada is vast and rich. It goes from coast to coast to coast. We heard Senator Wetston talk about his childhood in Cape Breton. Many of us remember Senator Jack Austin, who served here with such great distinction and I believe was born in Edmonton but fervently represented British Columbia in this chamber and at all points in between. There have been great Jewish contributions to this country for many years.

I’m going to speak basically about my region, my city, because that is the part of Canada that I know best: Montreal.

The Jewish history in Montreal and contribution to Montreal is absolutely extraordinary. As far back as 1768, as Senator Frum reminded us, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue was founded in Montreal, the oldest synagogue in Canada, one of the oldest in North America, and it’s still going strong, I’m here to tell you, and a good thing, too.

Jews have been part of our history since then and even a bit before. There has been pretty constant immigration, but we had two great waves of Jewish immigration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and then again after the Second World War when many thousands of Holocaust survivors came to our country.

In Montreal, in 2011, there were still nearly 6,000 living Holocaust survivors, and they have had an impact on the consciousness of our community that should never be underestimated.

We still have about 90,000 Montreal Jews. A quarter of them are Sephardic, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Most of the Jewish immigration to Canada for many years was Ashkenazi, but the Sephardic Jews have come and in part have enriched us because so many of them are naturally francophone, and this has had a tremendous impact on our understanding of the Jewish community but also of the world, particularly the Middle East.

Montreal Jews over the years have built a rich, vibrant and absolutely extraordinarily generous community. It is almost impossible to go anywhere in Montreal and not be reminded of the extraordinary generosity of the Jewish community. The generosity has gone first, of course, to the Jewish community itself, which has had the benefit of hospitals and schools and social programs of an extraordinary richness, but also generosity to the entire community. Wherever you go, you’re going to see Jewish names as donors of great philanthropy: Bronfman, Cummings and Hornstein. Many will remember our former colleague Senator Leo Kolber, also a philanthropist.

Some years ago I was having lunch with the Israeli consul in Montreal, and he mentioned the generosity of the Montreal Jewish community. Since that was the only Jewish community that I knew, I said, “Oh, is it unusual? I thought all Jews were generous.” He said, “Yes, but Montreal is absolutely extraordinary.” And that is true.

I’m going to name you some Montreal Jews who have contributed to Montreal and to Canada. This is not an exhaustive list. It’s just a bunch of names that occurred to me when I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper for about 10 minutes. So nobody should be insulted if your very favourite person is not on this list. It’s a fault in my memory, not in anybody else’s.

Let’s start with politics. Ezekiel Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in 1807, the first Jew ever elected in Canada. Now, there’s more to that story and I’ll get back to it in a minute, but there have been many other illustrious Montreal Jews who have contributed to the political life of our country.

We all know and respect our former colleague Irwin Cotler, the great human rights advocate whose most famous clients included Nelson Mandela and Maher Arar.

Everybody remembers the wonderful, eloquent David Lewis, who made his career in Ontario, okay, but he was educated in Montreal. One of the most gorgeous stories is about when he was being interviewed at McGill University for a Rhodes Scholarship. One of the examining panel was Sir Edward Beatty, then the President of the CPR. I think it was Beatty who asked David Lewis, “If you were Prime Minister, what’s the first thing you would do?” Lewis answered, “Nationalize the CPR.” They gave him the Rhodes Scholarship anyway, and I think it had to be in part due to his great political courage.

There have been other people who have had possibly debatable political courage. Some of you will recall the story of Fred Rose, the Montreal MP who was a faithful communist and indeed later was imprisoned, I believe, convicted, anyway, of spying for the Soviet Union and ended his days in Poland having been stripped of his Canadian citizenship. I doubt any of us would have shared the ideals he had, but he lived by the courage of his convictions.

One of my favourite examples is the late Victor Goldbloom, who was at first a cabinet minister in Quebec, where he was responsible for, among other things, saving the Olympic Games, but who then, of course, went on to make great contributions in other fields. Perhaps he is best known in Canada as the former Commissioner of Official Languages, but he was also the head of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews for many years. He spent his life building bridges.

What about the arts? Oh, my! Rich, rich contributions in the arts! You could go back to the school of the Jewish Painters in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s, who I have always believed were far better collectively than the Group of Seven, even if not as well known. We have had poets, A.M. Klein; Irving Layton; Louis Dudek; Leonard Cohen, a poet and a singer; the great novelist Mordecai Richler; the unforgettable William Shatner, not to mention the fact that for many years Montreal was a tremendous centre of Yiddish culture — Yiddish theatre, papers and societies. Not any more as true as it was, but it was a phenomenal centre for many years.

Jurists. Remember Morris Fish, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada? The late Alan Gold was Chief Justice of Quebec’s Superior Court, and one of the great mediators and arbitrators and negotiators of this country. It was to him that governments turned to solve things like the Oka crisis — not easy tasks. Then, of course, you all knew our colleague Yoine Goldstein, who was himself often thought of as a candidate for the Supreme Court.

I could go on. I could talk about medicine and business, of course. All that philanthropy had to come from success somewhere, mostly business. But what I want to stress is that all this success and generosity is all the more remarkable because in my city and province, as elsewhere throughout the Western world, Jews have not always been welcome. I mentioned Ezekiel Hart. He was twice elected and twice expelled from the legislative assembly by his peers there, basically because he was a Jew. It was not until more than 10 years after Ezekiel Hart died that Louis- Joseph Papineau passed an emancipation act at last to allow Jews to serve in our political institutions.

We’ve all got bitter awareness of the policies in the 1930s that came under the general heading of “none is too many.” No Jewish immigration at all would still be too many Jews coming into our country. We know how many died as a result. And it goes on. There is still vandalism of synagogues; resistance to the construction of new synagogues. We have come a long, long, long way in our society, but we still have some way to go. Anti- Semitism, which is one of the most deeply rooted and pernicious aspects of our civilization, is not yet dead.

I’d like to quote for you some remarks from former American President Barack Obama. A couple of years ago he was speaking to an American group on the occasion of Jewish American Heritage Month. He said a couple of things that I think are worth putting on the record:

. . . Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire. And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.

I’m going to quote another element of his speech in a moment, but I would just like to add here that that is why I think this bill is important. It’s important for all of us to be aware not only of the richness, the wealth and the extraordinary contribution that the Jewish heritage has made to this country but also of the fact that we can never consider ourselves immune to the forces of abuse and of hatred.

The Jewish community in Montreal has been an extraordinary source of outreach. Jews were never afraid of learning French. The first couple of families I ever met in Montreal who were Jewish, each, as it happens, spoke five languages. English and French were just two of them. That was fine. In particular, one family I remember, would tell jokes over the dinner table in the language best suited to the jokes. I was just dazzled.

But we are not immune. The particularly deep-rooted nature of anti-Semitism requires that we be reminded again and again — perhaps not every day, but for one month every year? That would be good: to be reminded of both the good and the dangerous.

I’m going to conclude by quoting President Obama again. He said:

. . . to make our values live . . . . requires courage. It requires strength . . .

So may we always remember that our shared heritage makes us stronger, that our roots are intertwined. May we always choose faith over nihilism, and courage over despair, and hope over cynicism and fear.

I believe that will be the result if Canada adopts this bill and lives up to the promise that it offers.

I move the adjournment in the name of Senator Jaffer.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!