Ezekiel Hart: eman­ci­pat­ing the Jews

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - – MATTHEW GINDIN

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.

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