Good afternoon, and thank you for this opportunity to speak to your committee in support of Bill , the Canadian Jewish heritage month act.
I would like to thank , MP for York Centre, for his role as the driving force behind this bill that has been so warmly received by the Jewish community, and for his efforts moving it forward in the House of Commons. I had the privilege of sponsoring Bill in the Senate, and was gratified by the unanimous support it received there.
As a proud member of Canada's Jewish community, I enthusiastically support the purpose of Bill , which is to formalize the month of May as a time to celebrate Canadian Jewish culture, and to honour the significant contributions made by Canadians of Jewish faith ever since the earliest days of colonial settlement. The story of the Jewish people in Canada has been, by and large, a story of acceptance, tolerance, and mutual embrace. While not without blemish, Canada has been a country where Jews have been able to enjoy religious freedom, safety, and prosperity.
Today, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish community in the world. Many of those are the descendants of the 35,000 Holocaust survivors whom Canada accepted after World War II.
The month of May was a thoughtful choice as the month to celebrate Jewish heritage. Jewish heritage month is already celebrated at that time in the province of Ontario. Since its adoption, in 2012, Ontario's Jewish heritage month has received widespread support among citizens, community organizations, and local governments across the province.
The month of May has also been proclaimed by the United States as a time to celebrate the contributions of the American Jewish community, and has been ever since 2006, when President George W. Bush and Congress passed a resolution deeming it such. May is also the month that Israel celebrates one of its more joyful holidays, Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day.
One of the key advantages of formally establishing Jewish heritage month into law is that it gives community organizations the inspiration and lead time they need to plan events. For example, in Toronto, the annual Jewish film festival is held during Ontario's Jewish heritage month to celebrate and showcase Jewish film-making from around the world. This is an example of the type of activity that can now become national in dimension.
Across the United States, you will find a wide range of activities during Jewish American Heritage Month, from lectures at the Library of Congress and National Archives, to cooking classes and klezmer music performances in American cities throughout the country.
During the Senate human rights committee hearing on Bill , Senators heard from leaders of the Jewish community about the impact that Jewish heritage month will have on Canada. Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said this about a Canadian Jewish heritage month:
The concept of heritage months offer a proactive approach to peeling back the ignorance that really serves as the engine or driver of the kind of intolerance that all of us would wish to see diminish and eradicated. It is in this context that I think they play an important role in helping other Canadians appreciate the shared values of specific communities...They bring down that sense of suspicion and hostility that is born from a sense of ignorance about other faith communities.
Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B'nai Brith, agreed on the importance of a Canadian Jewish heritage month, saying:
This act is most welcome. It will recognize the many achievements of Canada’s Jewish community, the members of which faced many hurdles from the outset of Canada’s original existence as a colony and yet were able to greatly contribute to the fabric of Canadian society. Despite facing systematic racism, our community has never seen ourselves as victims, viewing roadblocks as opportunities rather than obstacles. It is because of our perseverance and our willingness to stand up to adversity and better ourselves that the Jewish community was able to help build this country up, despite our small numbers.
Mr. Mostyn added that in order for Jewish Canadian heritage month to be successful, it cannot be an insular celebration, a Jewish community celebration only for the Jewish community. He said:
...there is no point in any community holding a celebration for itself. We are all part of Canada and the essence of any heritage day has to be how we communicate the contributions of our particular community to other communities....
Speaking for myself, it is my hope that with the establishment of the Canadian Jewish heritage month, all Canadians will have the opportunity to learn about the culture and history of Jewish Canadians, and appreciate the integral role that the Jewish community has played in shaping Canada, be it in the fields of education, medicine, the arts, politics, journalism, business, and many more.
I am proud that Canadian Jewish heritage month has received unanimous support so far. It is exciting to think that Canada will have a national Jewish heritage month starting as early as May 2018.
I look forward to any questions you may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and colleagues from all parties for this opportunity to testify before you on Bill , the Canadian Jewish heritage month act.
It's a different experience sitting on this side of the table, but it is a privilege to bring this bill before you along with its Senate sponsor, Senator Frum, who has worked closely with me to make the Canadian Jewish heritage month a reality.
The substance and intent behind this bill began as a motion in the previous Parliament presented by the Honourable Irwin Cotler, the former member for Mount Royal. While it unfortunately did not pass at the time, the overwhelming and multi-party support shown so far for Bill has been an uplifting experience. As I have stated previously, I have dedicated my efforts on this bill to Irwin Cotler.
To this end, in addition to Senator Frum, I want to particularly thank members of Parliament and for their strong support of this initiative to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Jewish Canadians across Canada.
I believe this bill has come to the committee at an important time. I understand that you just concluded a study on systemic racism and religious discrimination. I had the opportunity to sit in on some of those meetings, in particular to hear from representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B'nai Brith Canada on the anti-Semitism Jewish Canadians face, and have long faced. As we know, Jewish Canadians are the most targeted group for hate crimes in Canada.
What we're seeking to achieve with this bill is to recognize and share the history and experiences of Jewish Canadians across the country. A Canadian Jewish heritage month would present the opportunity to educate and celebrate Canadian Jewish heritage with Canadians of all backgrounds and would further strengthen and preserve the diversity we pride ourselves on as Canadians.
Canada is home to approximately 400,000 Jews, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, and the history of Jewish Canadians is long and storied. The early Jewish immigrants to Canada came mostly from western and central Europe, followed by eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Following the Second World War and the shame of the MS St. Louis, approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors made it to Canada, followed by refugees from the Middle East and north Africa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish immigration from north Africa, particularly Morocco, brought many francophone Sephardic Jews to Quebec. Beginning in 1990, there was a significant Jewish immigration to Canada from the former Soviet Union, including a large Russian Jewish community.
This very brief history hides the incredible diversity of cultures and experiences that Jewish Canadians have brought with them. I have met Jewish Canadians from all corners of the world: South Africa, Russia, France, Israel, Morocco, India, Iran, Argentina. I'm proud that my own riding is a microcosm of this incredible diversity. In many ways, the diversity of Jewish Canadians mirrors the mosaic of our broader Canadian society, each of us bringing with us our own customs and traditions, making Canada stronger because of them.
I want to share with you my own Canadian Jewish experience. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where there is a very small and very Scottish Jewish community. Many of you may have seen me in my kilt, proudly sporting the Jewish tartan.
In 1983, my mother, Edna, and I left Scotland to embark on what she called a “great adventure”. She brought me to Canada to build a better life and future for us both. Knowing barely a soul, we settled in Toronto because she knew there was a thriving Jewish community that would welcome us and provide us the support we needed. As part of that, we brought and integrated our own traditions to the local Jewish community and Canadian society as a whole. This is an experience I share with a great many Canadians who have found refuge or opportunity in this country.
I want to highlight an example. On July 1, 1946, Holocaust survivors Jacob and Fanny Silberman gave birth to a daughter in an IDP camp in Stuttgart in occupied Germany. Jacob Silberman held a law degree from a renowned Polish university. When he started, he faced a Jewish quota and was one of just a lucky handful of Jews accepted to the school. The classrooms even had segregated seating, known as the bench ghetto.
After surviving the Holocaust, Mr. Silberman applied to emigrate to Canada, but as a lawyer he was rejected by Canadian authorities.
To our shame, Canada had largely closed its borders to Jews since 1933, and they remained closed until 1948, when a small number of tailors were allowed entry to the country. Jacob Silberman was finally given permission to emigrate as a tailoring cutter in 1950, but after arriving, despite his credentials, he was barred from practising law because he was not a citizen. The moment his then four-year-old daughter heard that, she made up her mind she would be a lawyer. In her own words she says:
When people said, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”, I said, “A lawyer.” I knew no women who were lawyers. All I knew was he couldn’t be it, and he wanted to be it, and I would be it.
That daughter is Justice Rosalie Abella. She was appointed to Ontario's Family Court when she was 29. She was then the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 and is now the second longest serving justice on the court.
As she tells it, she was:
...female, Jewish, and an immigrant, in a male profession… It can be a great advantage to understand that you’re different, you’re never going to be like everybody else, and that’s good. Enjoy the fact that you’re different.
Her story, struggles, hard work, and success are emblematic of the history of Jewish Canadians.
My own riding of York Centre became home to a large number of Holocaust survivors like Justice Abella's parents who built new lives here in Canada.
In September I joined Holocaust survivors and the Prime Minister to inaugurate the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, joining local memorials like the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in my riding in Toronto and the Wheel of Conscience at the Canadian Museum of Immigration on Pier 21 in Halifax, which form part of the legacy of survivors and their families.
Their stories are our stories as Canadians and have played out in communities big and small across our country. I am certain every member of this committee can find a history of Jewish Canadians in their communities.
While the largest Canadian Jewish communities are in Montreal and Toronto, part of this bill's purpose is to recognize the role and tell the stories of Jewish Canadians in cities and towns from sea to sea to sea, whether Shefford, Longueuil, Winnipeg, Estevan, Chestermere, or Vancouver.
Each community has a rich history and a story to share, like Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria—Canada's oldest synagogue has been in continuous operation since 1863—or the Jewish community of St. John's, which is one of the oldest in Canada, having arrived in Newfoundland in the 1770s. Even the very small Jewish community in Iqaluit, numbering just 20 people according to the latest census, adds to the fabric of the Canadian Jewish experience.
The enactment of the Canadian Jewish heritage month would ensure that the rich history of Jewish Canadians is recognized, shared, and celebrated across this great country, inspiring all Canadians to build a better, more diverse, and more tolerant Canada for generations to come.
I want to thank you for your consideration of this bill, and I look forward to your questions.
I wanted just to say thank you to both of you for this very important piece of legislation that you've introduced, Senator Frum, and that you've sponsored, Michael. Thank you for acknowledging two titans of the community, one of whom is the president in the back there, Mr. Cotler, and also Justice Abella, whom I've had the honour of appearing before. She is quite a titan.
In terms of personal anecdotes—since she was sharing them so liberally, Michael—a piece of Jewish heritage right in my own riding is that on Maria St., in the Junction, is the oldest synagogue in Ontario, which has a plaque outside of it. This is something that I learned only in terms of representing the community, but there's Jewish heritage everywhere and all around us.
I wanted to address my question briefly to you about something that you raised, Senator Frum, and then I'll turn it over to Dan Ruimy. I invite you both to comment.
You mentioned, Shimon Fogel, I think, in reference to this idea about a heritage month being an opportunity to peel back ignorance. I think that is the phrase you used. You also talked about overcoming suspicion and hostility. That's something that we have definitely heard a lot of. Michael referenced a study we just concluded on systemic racism and discrimination.
We talked a lot about breaking down barriers by improving dialogue. It prompted me to think about interfaith dialogue—having Jewish leaders engage with other leaders of different backgrounds.
Do you see this kind of bill as a springboard to promoting more of that kind of dialogue that is so pivotal to breaking down anti-Semitism and breaking down the types of discrimination that we're seeing right now?
Thank you both for being here today. I don't have a lot of time, so I'm going to jump right into it.
My parents emigrated from Morocco to Montreal, where I was born and raised. I left Montreal years and years ago, and I moved to a little town, Maple Ridge, with a handful of Jewish people. I've owned a business there for the last six years. I didn't really have any connections to the Jewish community whatsoever. We don't have a Jewish community there.
One thing that happened after I was elected was that a gentleman had come in with an issue, and as he was leaving, he turned and said to me, “Why were you hiding the fact that you're Jewish?”
I said, “Excuse me?”
He said, “What do you think the newspaper would say if I called them up right now and told them you're a Jew?”
For me, that was the very first time that I'd ever encountered something to that extent, and having a month like this.... I mean, honestly, you don't go around shouting, “Hey everybody, I'm Jewish.” I mean, you live in the community that you live in.
Do you see Jewish heritage month as an opportunity to perhaps, for some of us folks, be able to shout out to our community, “Hey, look”? I'd like your thoughts on that.
I want to thank you both very much for your evidence today.
I will just make some observations on some of the evidence from my own experience. I grew up in York Mills, where half the community is Jewish, and very much in the shadow of World War II. My family were refugees from Estonia who had a parallel experience. Many of those in my family and my community, the Estonian community from the Soviet gulag, lost their lives there. I was surrounded by kids who had families with similar experiences of the Holocaust, so there was a lot of sharing going on, and a lot in common there.
I heard, with interest, the comments about Rosalie Abella. My grandmother, who largely raised me, was actually a lawyer back in the 1920s in Estonia. She didn't practise here, but her grandmother was a Rosenberg, up the maternal line, and a straight maternal line to me, so you know what that means, at least according to the Lubavitchers, who keep trying to persuade me to put my poor, suffering son into Hebrew school. I'm just trying to get him to learn a bit of French. If I could get that done, that would make me happy.
In any event I've seen great things happen. I had a student staffer formerly with me who was from Saskatoon, and you see another great community there. She was not Jewish at all, but she started a klezmer band in her high school, which continues to this day.
My observation about the value of what you're doing is this. I look back to that time when I was growing up and we were coping with events that were pretty immediate. I've seen a lot of anti-Semitism disappear in the community, and in the communities that I've known since then.
At the same time, in parallel, I've seen new anti-Semitism arise in other places. While some understanding has grown, I've seen things here when we were elected, when the south Lebanon war took place and I was on the foreign affairs committee. Things were said that I thought were unthinkable and that we would never hear after the events of the Holocaust and World War II.
The work needs to be done. It appears that it perhaps never, ever will be complete. That is the way and the fate of the Jewish people, sadly, but this is a positive step towards doing that. I commend you both on bringing this forward, and thank you.
I think that completes our business for today.
Yes, Mr. Vandal.