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Making Present the Past: Canada’s St. Louis Apology and Canadian Jewry’s Pursuit of Refugee Justice

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Agency and the Holocaust

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in the History of Genocide ((PSHG))

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The six million Jews killed during the Holocaust include many who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 on the MS St. Louis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2018 apology for Canada’s failure of conscience in denying the MS St. Louis safe haven was a symbolic moment. Never again would Canada close its doors to all legitimate refugees and immigrants. Written against the backdrop of this historic apology, this article examines the evolution of Canadian Jewry’s relationship to immigration and international refugee crises. Two years after liberation, under international pressure and shifts in popular attitudes, Canada resettled 35,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors. Solidifying their position as an important ethnoreligious minority, Canadian Jews became humanitarian leaders. After the April 1975 fall of Saigon, Jewish leadership contributed to a private refugee sponsorship program that resettled more than 50,000 Indochinese “boat people” from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (1979–1980). More recently, Canadian Jewish individuals, groups, and synagogues sponsored more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, 1200 Yazidis, and hundreds of Armenian Christians. Has this humanitarianism been a specific response to the Holocaust? In what ways does the generous support toward non-Jewish refugees constitute a historic signpost in Canadian Jewry’s growing confidence, agency, and sense of security as Canadians?

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  1. 1.

    The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, “Prime Minister of Canada, Statement of Apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to the Passengers of the MS St. Louis” (Ottawa, ON, 7 November 2018).

  2. 2.

    Library and Archives Canada (LAC), William Lyon Mackenzie King Papers, volume 262, telegraph from George Wrong to King, 7 June 1939, Toronto, ON, Microfilm reel C-3751, Item 238579.

  3. 3.

    LAC, William Lyon Mackenzie King Papers, diary entry, 8 June 1939, Ottawa, ON, MG26-J13.

  4. 4.

    LAC, Department of Employment and Immigration fonds, RG 76, volume 440, file 670224 “Department of External Affairs—Confidential telegrams to Prime Minister at Washington, DC, U.S., on immigration matters.”

  5. 5.

    Irving Abella and Harold Troper, “‘The Line Must Be Drawn Somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1933–1939,” in The Canadian Jewish Mosaic, eds. Irwin Cotler, William Shaffir, and Morton Weinfeld (Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Canada Limited, 1981), 179.

  6. 6.

    The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee brokered a deal to secure the passengers temporary asylum in four European countries: Great Britain (288), France (224), Belgium (214), and the Netherlands (181). France, Belgium, and the Netherlands soon fell under Nazi occupation, and 254 of the former passengers perished in concentration camps or in hiding. Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller, Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

  7. 7.

    Bernie Farber, phone interview by Adara Goldberg, 11 January 2019. The Rabbinic Caucus of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), CJC’s predecessor, spoke with the Office of the Prime Minister about an apology for the MS St. Louis before Rosh Hashanah. Richard Marceau, phone interview by Adara Goldberg, 10 January 2019.

  8. 8.

    Shtadlans are individuals of wealth and influence within the community designated, on the model of the Eastern European shtetl, who represented the community’s interests to government and other influence-makers. Harry Joshua Stern, “Jewish Congress Goals,” in Judaism in the War of Ideas: A Collection of Addresses (New York, NY: Bloch Publishing, 1937), 73, as cited in Pierre Anctil, Le rendez-vous manqué: Les juifs de Montréal face au Québec de l’entre-deux-guerres (Montreal: Institut Québécois de Recherche sur la Culture, 1988), 282.

  9. 9.

    Farber, Interview.

  10. 10.

    Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties (Toronto: Fitzhenry &Whiteside, 1975) and Cyril H. Levitt and William Shaffir, The Riot at Christie Pits (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Denys, 1987).

  11. 11.

    Irving Abella, “Presidential Address: Jews, Human Rights, and the Making of Canada,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, New Series 11 (2000): 3–15.

  12. 12.

    Abella and Troper, None Is Too Many.

  13. 13.

    Abella, “Jews, Human Rights, and the Making of Canada,” 7.

  14. 14.

    A total of 186,154 displaced persons arrived in Canada from 1947 to 1952. Adara Goldberg, Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation, 1947–1955 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015).

  15. 15.

    Franklin Bialystok, Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).

  16. 16.

    Farber, Interview; and Eric Vernon, n.d., One Community, One Voice, Two Adjectives: 24 Years on the Political Front Lines with the Canadian Jewish Congress (unpublished). Collection of Adara Goldberg.

  17. 17.

    Eric Vernon, Phone Interview by Adara Goldberg, 8 January 2019.

  18. 18.

    Marceau, Interview.

  19. 19.

    Holocaust Memorial Day Act, S.C. 2003, c. 24 (Assented to 7 November 2003).

  20. 20.

    Vernon, One Community, One Voice, Two Adjectives, 3–7 and Farber, Interview. Less successful were “redress” efforts, with the War Crimes Unit (est. 1987) launching and prosecuting only two dozen cases of WWII war criminals in the Unit’s history.

  21. 21.

    Irving Abella, “Confronting Our Dark Past,” The Globe and Mail, 18 January 2011. and Joanna Smith, “Halifax Monument to the ‘None is Too Many’ Vessel Looking for a New Home,” The Star, 17 November 2015.

  22. 22.

    Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, “Speaking Notes at the Unveiling, at Pier 21, of The Wheel of Conscience, a Monument to Commemorate the MS St. Louis” (Halifax, NS, 20 January 2011).

  23. 23.

    The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, “Statement” (7 November 2018).

  24. 24.

    The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, “Prime Minister Announces St. Louis Apology” (Ottawa, ON, 8 May 2018).

  25. 25.

    Valerie Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540–2006 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007), 176 and Alexandra Zabjek, “How ‘the 56ers’ Changed Canada,” The Ottawa Citizen, 15 October 2006, B4.

  26. 26.

    Peter I. Hidas, “Canada and the Hungarian Jewish Refugees, 1956–1957,” East European Jewish Affairs 37, no. 1 (2007): 77, 80.

  27. 27.

    Peter Duschinsky, Kurt Jensen, Michael Molley, and Robert Shalka, Running on Empty: Canada in the Indochinese Refugees, 1975–1980 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017).

  28. 28.

    LAC, Statutes of Canada: An Act Respecting Immigration to Canada, 1976. Ottawa, ON: SC 25–26 Elizabeth II, chap. 52.

  29. 29.

    Howard Adelman, Canada and the Indochinese Refugees (Regina: L.A. Weigl Educational Associates, 1982).

  30. 30.

    Morton Beiser, Strangers at the Gate: The ‘Boat People’s’ First Ten Years in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); “Boat People: A Refugee Crisis Series,” CBC Digital Archives. Accessed 2 January 2019.; and Harold Troper, “In Search of Safe Haven: The Refugee Experiences of Five Families,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Accessed 18 December 2018.

  31. 31.

    For the War Orphans Project, see Goldberg, Holocaust Survivors in Canada, 75–101.

  32. 32.

    E. David, Interview with Adara Goldberg, 4 February 2014, Vancouver, BC.

  33. 33.

    Journey to Freedom Day Act, S.C. 2015, c.14 (Assented to 23 April 2015).

  34. 34.

    “Refugee Crisis, Drowned Syrian Boy Shift Focus of Election Campaign,” CBC News. Last updated 3 September 2015. and “Alan Kurdi Photo Demands the World to Care about Refugees,” CBC Radio, 4 September 2015.

  35. 35.

    The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength” (London , UK, 26 November 2015) and “Justin Trudeau’s Promise to Take 25,000 Syrian Refugees This Year ‘Problematic’,” CBC News. Last updated 28 October 2015.

  36. 36.

    Trudeau’s emphasis on Syrian Christians caused a blowback among some refugee resettlement groups that charged that in focusing on the Christians, Trudeau was tossing other refugee populations under the bus.

  37. 37.

    The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, “Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada on World Refugee Day” (Ottawa, ON, 20 June 2016) and Michelle Zilio, “Liberals’ revised goal met as 25,000th Syrian refugee arrives in Canada,” The Globe and Mail. Last updated 28 February 2016.

  38. 38.

    Mira Sucharov, “Sponsor a Refugee: For Canadian Jews ‘It’s the Human Thing to Do’,” Haaretz, 3 December 2015.

  39. 39.

    Jodie Shupac, “JIAS Tells Torontonians How to Sponsor Syrian Refugees,” Canadian Jewish News, 24 September 2015, 32.

  40. 40.

    Michelle Freedman, Phone Interview by Adara Goldberg, 10 May 2018.

  41. 41.

    Bernie Bellan, “Operation Ezra—2017 ends with 45 Yazidi Refugees Starting a New Life in Winnipeg!” Operation Ezra/Jewish Winnipeg. Accessed 1 November 2018.

  42. 42.

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  43. 43.

    Marceau, Interview.

  44. 44.

    B. L. Ware and Wil A. Linkugel, “They Spoke in Defense of Themselves: On the Generic Criticism of Apologia,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 59, no. 3 (1973): 273–283.

  45. 45.

    Joy Koesten and Robert C. Rowland, “The Rhetoric of Atonement,” Communication Studies 55, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 68–69.

  46. 46.

    Koesten and Rowland, “The Rhetoric of Atonement,” 69.

  47. 47.




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Goldberg, A. (2020). Making Present the Past: Canada’s St. Louis Apology and Canadian Jewry’s Pursuit of Refugee Justice. In: Kühne, T., Rein, M. (eds) Agency and the Holocaust. Palgrave Studies in the History of Genocide. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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