Antisemitism in Canada during the World War II era

Since the fall of Judea, the Jewish people have existed in perpetual exile. Scattered in minority communities across the globe, and although secularism has increased in recent generations, they have strived to maintain their shared identity. Since the 19th century, Jewish immigrants to Canada primarily settled in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg, making these cities home to the largest populations of Jewish people in the country.  Concentrated in these larger cities, Jewish people were extremely visible, and in a period of increasing animosity towards Jewish people, they became subject to discrimination on many fronts. During the interwar years, a new wave of antisemitism, especially in the Western world, began to take hold. While the rise of anti-Jewish feelings was not new, the influx of immigrants during the 1920s, the economic and social changes of the post-war era, and influence from Europe meant that antisemitism was more pronounced and overt in Canada than ever before. Moreover, the growth of French-Canadian nationalism and insecurity, intensified under the influence of Nazi ideology, played a significant role in fostering a Canadian version of antisemitism. As such sentiments travelled across the nation, by the time the Stock Market Crash occurred in 1929, many turned to blaming the Jewish population for the country’s economic downfall. Into the 1930s, Canadians suffered through this period of extreme vulnerability, and many naïvely believed that Jewish people caused the global economic downturn. Blaming Jewish people for the ills of the world further entrenched antisemitism in popular opinion. Into the 1930s,Jewish people were subject to discrimination in public institutions, media articles, and political discourse. As antisemitism was most pronounced in Quebec, French-Canadian media frequently published antisemitic articles that eventually appeared in Ontario news outlets.

Prime Minister of the time, William Lyon Mackenzie King is known for many accomplishments that contributed to Canada’s national identity including the Statute of Westminster, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the Baby Bonus, the Citizenship Act, and leading Canada through much of the economic crisis and World War II. Although King’s wartime contributions were noble, the role he played in Canada’s refusal to admit potential Jewish refugees cannot be forgotten. Under King’s government, Canada stood idly by as six million Jewish people perished at the hands of Nazis in Europe. King justified his reluctance to admit Jewish refugees because he feared a backlash from the general public and his own cabinet members, and he did not want to risk his reputation or jeopardize his position as Prime Minister for upcoming elections. As Canada did not have an official refugee policy at the time, King entrusted Frederick Blair, the antisemitic director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources, with handling the Jewish Crisis in the late 1930s. Blair was given the authority to make almost every decision about who was granted admission into Canada.

It is important to note that although antisemitism was prevalent, the Canadian version of antisemitism was not comparable to that in Europe. Most Canadians did not advocate extreme notions about racial purity, eugenics, and a Jew-free world as Hitler and his followers did. Often brought up in the House of Commons was the production and circulation of antisemitic propaganda in Quebec. While many MPs denounced this and criticized it for its untrue and hateful portrayal of Jewish people, it proved to be popular among Quebecois. Le Devoir, the National Unity Party of Canada, and Le Canada were notorious in their anti-Semitic attitudes and circulation of propaganda that reflected this ideology. An issue of Le Devoir circulated in the house featuring an article by historian Esther Delisle where she wrote, Jews in the 1930s were “aliens, circumcised, criminals, mentally ill, trash of nations, Tartars, infected with Semitism, malodorous– they smell of garlic, live in lice-ridden ghettos, have greasy hair and potbellies, big crooked noses and they are dirty.” Works like this sparked debate among ministers about Canada’s position in the refugee crisis and fears of
antisemitism within the nation. Almost every French-language newspaper had warned the government against admitting refugees in 1938.

In Ontario, the CJC (Canadian Jewish Congress) recorded the gradual intensification of antisemitism in the province since 1933. As the depression worsened, antisemitism throughout the province increased which was not ideal for the Jewish fortunes within the province. Toronto was home to Canada’s largest Jewish community and public displays of antisemitism increased throughout the city during the 1930s and 1940s. Jewish people were increasingly denied service in business establishments, antisemitic symbols and signage were displayed, they were unable to obtain employment in high ranked occupational fields such as medicine or commerce, and not allowed to utilize public recreational areas such as beaches, and they struggled to find adequate housing. Nazi agents delivered propaganda and speeches in Toronto street cars. Within the educational system, teachers sought to excuse, minimize, and then justify Germany’s actions, and universities placed limitations on the number of Jewish people who were admitted. The Nationalist Party which originated out of the Swastika Club of the Beaches in Toronto wore swastika armbands and organized at Massey Hall in Toronto on 5 July 1938 demonstrating against Jewish people. Moreover, a large number of anti-Jewish signage was present on highways outside of Toronto and in other locations throughout the province. Placing the blame of Canada’s economic crisis on Jewish people was an avenue that many people were willing to take. For example, the notion that the Jewish people controlled the banks of Canada was a debate that was prominent among the cabinet as well as found within the popular opinion of Jewish people in both Canada and the United States. The Sphinx, a Toronto based magazine published an article in 1938 that said Jews had a “strangling effect on economic life.”

As events in Europe unfolded and increased violence towards Jewish people was tolerated, it became clear that these Jewish organizations had to attempt to combat antisemitism as quietly as possible. The CJC became the voice of the Canadian Jewry and worked closely with other Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and organizations to establish committees that tackled various antisemitic attitudes and behaviours, found throughout Canadian society. These cautious efforts relied primarily on quiet diplomacy, educational efforts, and the circulation of literature to tackle negative or indifferent public opinion of Jewish people. As ignorance was considered to be the cause of most anti-Jewish sentiments, these organizations worked to challenge negative perceptions and stereotypes of Jewish people and to provide evidence that highlighted the positive impact Jewish people had on the development of society.

As Canada entered the Second World War, like the rest of the nation, advocacy groups focused on the war effort and highlighted the Jewish contribution both at home and abroad. This meant that Canadians were unable to assert the notion that Jewish people were unpatriotic. Whether people were openly antisemitic or indifferent to the Jewish population, Canadian attitudes were less than favourable towards Jewish people. Without a shift in this mainstream public opinion towards Jewish people, Canada would turn its back to the thousands of people fleeing Nazi persecution in the late 1930s and 1940s.

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