The first Jews in Canada

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - AL­LAN LEVINE SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

When Canada first be­came a coun­try, 150 years ago, there were slightly less than 1,200 Jews liv­ing here. But Jewish set­tle­ment in French, and then Bri­tish, North Amer­ica, goes back much fur­ther.

In 1677, Joseph de la Penha, a young Sephardi Jewish mer­chant, ship owner and fi­nancier of pri­va­teers from Rot­ter­dam, Nether­lands, landed on the coast of Labrador and claimed the ter­ri­tory for the Stadtholder Wil­liam of Or­ange. Some years later, one ver­sion of this story goes, when Wil­liam be­came King Wil­liam III of Eng­land, de la Penha saved the king from drown­ing dur­ing a stormy sea voy­age. An­other ver­sion has it that one of de la Penha’s ships had pro­tected the English coast from at­tack by the French in 1696. In any event, to show his grat­i­tude, Wil­liam be­queathed de la Penha all of Labrador. This gen­er­ous gift was con­firmed in an of­fi­cial doc­u­ment in 1697.

More than three cen­turies later, in 1927, when the Ju­di­cial Com­mit­tee of the Privy Coun­cil ruled that Labrador be­longed to the then colony of New­found­land, Isaac de la Penha, the can­tor at Mon­treal’s Span­ish and Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue and one of Joseph de la Penha’s di­rect de­scen­dants, filed a law­suit claim­ing Labrador for the fam­ily. The case stalled, but was restarted in 1950 by a group of de la Penha’s de­scen­dants in Europe and Is­rael. Noth­ing came of that, ei­ther. Then, in 1983, Daniel de la Penha, a re­tired physi­cian in South Carolina who was also a de­scen­dant, launched a third claim for part of Labrador in the New­found­land courts. Af­ter los­ing his first chal­lenge, he ap­pealed to the prov­ince’s Supreme Court. Alas, New­found­land chief jus­tice Alex Hick­man ruled that de la Penha did not have suf­fi­cient proof “that he was en­ti­tled to a piece of Labrador.” De la Penha ap­pealed his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the court re­fused to con­sider it.

De­ter­min­ing who was truly the first Jew to call Canada home is a toss up be­tween two en­trepreneurial traders: Sa­muel Ja­cobs … and Aaron Hart


Jewish im­mi­grants on board the Gen­eral Stur­gis ar­rive in Hal­i­fax in 1948.

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