Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and honoured to rise to support this bill to create a Jewish heritage month.
This bill recognizes that Canada has a large Jewish community and reminds us of the important contribution that Jewish people have made throughout our history. The bill seeks to designate a month, the month of May, to recognize, highlight, and celebrate Jewish heritage. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to talk about how important the Jewish community and its contributions are to Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Quebec has become what it is today because of the strength of presence of each of its citizens, people of all origins, of all faiths, and of all communities. Our society is built on the contributions that each and every man and woman who participated in our country's journey have made throughout history.
The Jewish community is an integral part of Quebec life. Jewish cultural heritage and traditions have over the decades woven into the fabric of Quebec and its culture. Jewish culture has been a part of Quebec for centuries. It all began surprisingly with one Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman from the Bayonne region in France, who arrived in New France in 1738 and declared her Jewish origins to the authorities, who were mainly from the Church.
It was not until Aaron Hart settled in Trois-Rivières in 1761 and the first synagogue in Montreal was founded on what is now known as the corner of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Notre-Dame that Jewish culture truly took root in Quebec.
The Jewish community also faced prejudices during the election of Ezekiel Hart, who was twice elected the member for Trois-Rivières, but barred from taking a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada because of his Jewish faith. The Jewish community would forever be part of Quebeckers' future when Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of the great figures of our history, had legislation passed at the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, on April 12, 1832, namely “An Act to declare persons of the Jewish Religion entitled to all of the rights and privileges of the other subjects of His Majesty in this Province”.
Thanks to the struggle waged by the Jewish community and the Hart family and the support of progressives in Louis-Joseph Papineau's party, Quebec became the first colony in the British Empire to emancipate Jewish citizens and grant them full rights. The Jewish community flourished and grew, swelled by waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Each year starting in 1904, an average of 10,000 Jews settled in Canada from eastern Europe and other parts of the world. They continued to stream in throughout the 20th century and into the present day. Among them were the ancestors of many illustrious figures who have done much to define Quebec, its culture, and its contribution to the world.
These luminaries include Leonard Cohen, one of Montreal's greatest poets; Moshe Safdie, the architect who built monuments in all of our major cities, including Habitat 67 in Montreal, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City; Phyllis Lambert, to whom we owe the preservation and restoration of Montreal's architecture; and others, such as Pauline Donalda, David Lewis, Stephen Lewis, Irwin Cotler, and Victor Goldbloom, Quebec's first Jewish cabinet minister.
The motion we are discussing today is about the Jewish contribution to Canada's growth and prosperity. I would also like to emphasize their contribution to solidarity in our country, the labour movement, and the workers' defence movement. One person who comes to mind is Léa Roback, an activist, feminist, and union organizer who led job action such as the Montreal garment factory strike by 5,000 women workers. She also represented the 3,000 RCA Victor workers in Montreal, and she fought for abortion rights and housing and against apartheid and the Vietnam War.
The Jewish community and its culture have left an indelible mark on our city. Every street in Montreal is, in a way, a shared heritage, a place where time stands still. Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent from the St. Lawrence to the CP rail line, past Sainte-Catherine, Fairmount, and Jean-Talon, is itself a living legacy, a true human monument to immigration and the heritage of the communities that built our city.
If there were only one public place in Montreal, just one meeting place for people and communities, it would be Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Like so many neighbourhoods, this boulevard is also un undeniable part of the Jewish community. Dotted with signs and landmarks that Quebeckers have come to know, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is now also home to the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
Montreal and its streets, shops, meeting places, and landmarks are also the stage for the characters and childhoods evoked by Mordecai Richler, who paints a portrait of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Saint-Urbain, among other things, in a collection of stories simply entitled The Street, and who chronicles, autobiographically, his youth in Montreal, Jewish life in Montreal in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but also the life of the francophones, anglophones, Greeks, and Portuguese who were his neighbours.
It is impossible to talk about a relationship with people of the Jewish culture and faith in our country without talking about the darker days of humanity, the days between 1933 and 1945 in particular.
I am respectfully aware of the pain and trauma forever etched in the bodies, minds, and souls of the survivors, forming a permanent memory that is passed down from one generation to the next. However, it is important to talk about what happened to make sure that we never forget.
As citizens, we must remember and acknowledge the crimes of the Holocaust. I was able to do so on three occasions in recent years: first at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a reminder of the unthinkable built in the middle of Berlin; then, at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which is just as heartbreaking and intimate; and then finally here in Ottawa, just steps from Parliament, where we finally inaugurated a monument in memory of the millions of Holocaust victims. We were the only country among the Second World War allies that did not yet have a monument to commemorate the suffering of the Jewish people, even though the Jewish community has deep roots in Canada.
Today, we have a place to remember the genocidal violence of unimaginable proportions that took place during those years. The monument also serves as a reminder of our dark role in those events, since our government, here in Ottawa, chose to admit less than 5,000 Jewish refugees during that time and turned away many others, despite the horrors that were occurring in Europe.
We have a duty to remember. This duty to remember is also expressed by our choices regarding the kind of society we want, our decision to be a country that wholeheartedly welcomes refugees who have been persecuted or are fleeing violence, our decision to form a society that is open to others and that celebrates diversity, because the future of our country lies in its diversity.
It is this blending of cultures that characterizes and brings to life Quebec and its streets, alleyways, public spaces, CLSCs, church basements, community centres, places of worship, newspapers, and radio and television programs everywhere on a daily basis. It is this mosaic, vibrant and pulsating, yet calm and peaceful, that has always been part of Quebec's history and will always be part of our reality, which is a good thing.
We are a diverse nation, or in the words of Boucar Diouf, who, like me, lives in Longueuil, a tightly-knit diverse nation. That is one of the things that makes Quebec so compelling and such a source of inspiration. It is also what has given us our reputation as a nation of peaceful coexistence, which has found expression many times over the years.
We have had many debates over the past few years about what it means to be a Quebecker, about politics and religion, about the place of different cultures, about secularism, about coexistence and the relationships between citizens born here and those born elsewhere. These are important, legitimate debates, and I have always fought tooth and nail to defend the right of Quebeckers and their representatives in the National Assembly to have these debates.
However, we must never forget that we are talking about men and women, about families, about people, about citizens, about our neighbours, and that our primary obligation is to welcome them with our words and with our hearts. All of us, particularly we who have been elected by the citizens to represent them, have a responsibility to express that welcome, a Quebec welcome.
In the face of both differences of opinion and differences in background, no matter what debate is happening in Quebec, we need to remember that we share one land, a land that binds us. We need to remember that every person in Quebec is a Quebecker, and all Quebeckers are at home in Quebec. To paraphrase a former premier of Quebec, no matter what is said or done, Quebec will always be the homeland of 8 million citizens from here and from elsewhere, unconditionally, regardless of their birthplace, beliefs, language, or background. This can never be said often enough, and I am very proud to be here to say it myself this evening.