From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: Why Canadian-Jewish Heritage Is Important Now More Than Ever

May 1, 2020

Editorial

The first Jewish Canadian to be elected to a legislature in Canada was Ezekiel Hart. In 1807, he was elected in Lower Canada with a legacy of securing rights and freedoms for the Jewish community and all minorities. Jewish people have been living here for some 300 years, and one of the first recorded Jewish presence was recorded in 1760 in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.

One of the most incredible stories was that of a young Jewish woman named Esther Brandeau who landed in New France in 1738 on a ship named the St. Michel. She hid her true identity during the trip by posing as a cabin boy named Jacques La Fargue. Shortly after arrival, Esther’s gender and religion were discovered and she was given the option to convert to Roman Catholicism and remain in New France or be deported. Esther refused to abandon her Jewish faith and was subsequently sent back to France in 1739.

Esther Brandeau’s story illuminates her unwavering commitment to Judaism and courage in the face of hardship at the time. Significantly, her example points to the persistent antisemitism and racism that was carried forth by new settlers from the Old Country. In as much as we are seeing that same form of hatred persist today against us by a few religious leaders who call for our death and destruction; by students on university campuses who threaten us with violence and intimidation and by bigots spreading coronavirus libel on the internet – what these haters fail to realize is that Jewish Canadians have played an integral role in shaping our nation for three centuries.

Since education is the best offence to hate and discrimination, we have partnered with the federal and provincial governments and with school boards to provide a concise guide recognizing Jewish Heritage Month each May. Even while our community represents some 1% of the Canadian population, we are proud of our remarkable accomplishments in every field and in every sector, in spite of anti-Jewish discrimination and historical barriers.  

We have been a part of every battle and effort to defend our nation. During the Second World War, and despite discriminatory restrictions imposed on Jewish Holocaust refugees, Jews fought in numbers that far exceeded their proportion of the population. Some 17,000 Canadian Jews – 20% of the Jewish population of military age at the time – fought for Canada on the front lines. Among these, 2,000 were awarded citations and medals, while 420 Jewish soldiers died and were buried with the Maple Leaf and Star of David engraved on their graves.

Our contributions include law (i.e., Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella); provincial and federal politics and international ambassadorships (over 41 Canadians Jews); music and entertainment (i.e., Leonard Cohen, Drake, William Shatner, Eugene Levy); sports (Zach Hyman, Michael Cammalleri, Cecil Hart, Noah Cantor); beloved authors (Mordechai Richler) and broadcasters (Barbara Frum, Evan Solomon) and scientists (Molly Shoichet) and numerous medical professionals – to say the least. Jewish Canadians have shown engagement in every human rights issue across the country, exemplified by substantial awarding of the Order of Canada and other distinguished medals for good citizenship.

Canada’s Jewish heritage is profound. Still, the continued injustice against the Jewish community persists, whether in the form of “Al Quds Day” on city streets, “Israeli Apartheid Week” on university campuses and/or distribution of hate material like “Your Ward News.” Outrageous discrimination of this nature has always motivated Canadian Jews to contribute more effort to making Canada a better place for everyone. Indeed, this is why our organization (FSWC) invests most of its funding on building a caring and compassionate society that will never again see the Esther Brandeaus of this world feel marginalized.

Shabbat Shalom,

Avi

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