By David J. Cape
(July 1) As Canadians from all walks of life gather to celebrate Canada Day tomorrow, it is worth remembering the remarkable contributions made by Jewish Canadians over the last 250 years to build this tremendous country we are all so proud to call home.
Jewish Canadians have played an active role in Canadian public life since the 18th century. In 1760, Aaron Hart – considered the founding father of Canada’s Jewish community – arrived in Montreal. The country’s second post office was located in his home and, in 1798, he co-founded Canada’s first synagogue, Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese.
Despite significant discrimination, in 1807, Aaron Hart’s son, Ezekiel, was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. In 1832, a full 26 years before Great Britain, Lower Canada became the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to grant Jews full legal equality.
Full equality did not mean an end to antisemitism, an attitude that persisted long after Jewish Canadians were first elected as Mayor (William J. Hyman, Cap-Des-Rosiers, 1858), Member of Parliament (Henry Nathan, Victoria, 1871), or appointed to a provincial cabinet (David Croll, Windsor-Walkerville, Minister of Public Welfare, 1937), to the Senate (David Croll, Toronto-Spadina, 1955) or to the federal cabinet (Herb Gray, Windsor West, Minister Without Portfolio, 1969).
As a young lawyer, Bora Laskin – who, in 1970, was to become the first Jewish Canadian Supreme Court Justice – was, infamously, unable to find work at a Toronto law firm, despite his stellar academic record from law schools at both University of Toronto and Harvard. Notwithstanding, he went on to become Chief Justice in 1973.
Despite the presence of antisemitism in Canada, Jewish Canadians have a long and proud history of answering the call in times of war. Ezekiel Hart, mentioned above, served as an officer in defense of Lower Canada in the War of 1812, ultimately rising to the rank of Colonel.
In World War II, approximately 17,000 Jewish Canadians, more than one in five Jewish males, served in Canada’s armed forces, an enlistment rate 10% higher than the rest of Canada. Many perished, and are among the many brave Canadians who gave their lives to protect our country and the freedoms we cherish.
The two highest ranking Jewish Canadian officers in the armed forces were Major General Robert Rothschild, who served during World War II, and Major General Ed Fitch, who served in various peacekeeping missions and played a major role in the Canadian Forces operation to protect the Vancouver Olympics from terrorism. Since retiring, Major General Fitch continues to be an active member of the Jewish community and currently serves on CIJA’s Board of Directors.
From Leonard Cohen to Drake, from William Shatner and David Cronenberg to Seth Rogen, from Cecil Hart (of Hart Memorial Trophy fame) to Mike Cammalleri, Jewish Canadians have taken centre stage, contributing significantly to Canadian arts, culture and sport.
The Canadian Jewish community also counts several Nobel laureates within its ranks, including Saul Bellow (literature), Sidney Altman (chemistry), Rudolph Marcus (chemistry), Ralph M. Steinman (medicine) and Myron Scholes (economics).
Canada is a great place to be Jewish, a welcoming home in which our community has flourished. Many came here with nothing but a willingness to work and adapt to their new home. Those generations could hardly imagine our community’s tremendous achievements, made possible by a country that prioritizes merit, allows people to make the most of their talents, and safeguards our fundamental rights and freedoms.
As we celebrate Canada Day this year, Jews across this great country have so much to be proud of and so many inspirational heroes to esteem. Let us all commit to continue to carry the torch first lit by Aaron Hart, and endeavour to make significant, positive contributions to Canada, in our professions, in our homes, and in our communities.
Happy Canada Day!
David J. Cape is Chairman of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs , the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada.
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