Ezekiel Hart: emancipating the Jews
In 1858, the United Kingdom passed legislation granting substantial civil rights to its Jewish citizens for the first time. It was preceded by Canada, however, which passed a similar act 27 years earlier. A significant cause of this legislative progress towards the Canada we know today was the courage and activism of Jewish businessman and politician Ezekial Hart (1767-1843).
On June 5, 1832, the legislature of Lower Canada enacted the Emancipation Act, which extended full and equal civil rights to the province’s Jews. Passage of the Emancipation Act was in large part a reaction to the earlier refusal of the legislature to allow Hart to take his seat in the house, due to his being a Jew, even though he had been elected by the people.
Hart was first elected to the legislative assembly of Lower Canada in 1807, making him the first Jew elected to office in the British Empire. Election day, however, was on Shabbat. Hart chose to delay taking his oath of office until the opening of the legislature the following January. That day, Hart pronounced his oath over a Hebrew Bible and replaced the last word in the phrase declaring that he was swearing “on the faith of a Christian” with “of a Jew.”
Although this was the manner in which Jews were generally sworn in to give testimony in court, numerous people objected to Hart’s actions, including the colony’s attorney general and several voices in the press. On April 18, Le Canadien published a poem decrying the choice of a Jew for a seat as more foolish than Caligula’s appointment of his horse as a Roman consul and priest. Later, after Hart expressed his readiness to swear the standard oath, the legislature rejected his offer and passed a resolution stating that, “Ezekiel Hart, Esquire, professing the Jewish religion, cannot take a seat, nor sit, nor vote, in this House.”
When new elections were held, in 1808, Hart was again elected by the people of his town, Trois-rivieres. This time, he uttered the standard oath of office, but the legislature again voted to expel him after tolerating his presence for only a few days. Hart did not run a third time for the assembly, although he continued to agitate for the rights of Jews. He continued to live and work as a businessman in Trois-rivieres, and served as an officer in the War of 1812 against the United States.
On June 5, 1832, mainly as a result of Hart’s activism, the legislative assembly of Lower Canada passed the 1832 Emancipation Act, which guaranteed full rights to those practicing the Jewish faith.
In 1830, Quebec’s legislative council had adopted a law that granted Jews the same religious rights as members of the province’s two officially recognized religions, Catholicism and Anglicanism. The bill included the right to register births, marriages and deaths, a privilege that had previously been denied to Jews. This was followed a year later by the bill guaranteeing the civil and political rights of Jews. The 1832 Emancipation Act was the culmination of a profound shift in law.
Ezekiel Hart died on Sept. 16, 1843, in Trois-rivières, at the age of 76. A prominent member of the community, he was accorded an impressive funeral, in which all the stores in Trois-rivières closed and the British army paid him final honours. He was buried in the second Jewish cemetery in Trois-rivières.
He was survived by his 10 children: Samuel Becancour, Harriet, Aaron Ezekiel, Esther Elizabeth, Miriam, Carolina Athalia, Henry, Julia, Abraham Kitzinger and Adolphus Mordecai.
In October 1909, the remains of Ezekiel Hart and others buried in the Jewish cemetery on Prison Street in Trois-rivières were moved to Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery of the Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
A one-act play about Hart’s life, The Member from Trois-rivières, was written in 1959 by Maxwell Charles Cohen for the National Bicentenary of Canadian Jewry (1759-1959). In 2002, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a commemorative plaque to Ezekiel Hart. A plaque was also commemorated to him at the Patrimoine de Trois-rivières.