The fight for equal­ity un­der the law

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

The winds of change blowing in the af­ter­math of the French Rev­o­lu­tion fi­nally reached the shores of the Saint Lawrence River in the early years of the 19th cen­tury. In­deed, the storms un­leashed by the calls for “lib­erty, equal­ity, fra­ter­nity,” pre­cip­i­tated rev­o­lu­tions in Europe be­tween 1830 and 1848, and even­tu­ally paved the way for the pas­sage of the Jewish Eman­ci­pa­tion Act of 1832 in French Canada, af­ter many tri­als and tribu­la­tions.

This act of the leg­isla­tive assem­bly of Lower Canada was one the most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to pre-con­fed­er­a­tion Cana­dian his­tory. This achieve­ment was due pri­mar­ily to the re­lent­less quest of prom­i­nent Jewish fam­i­lies to se­cure re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal rights for their com­mu­nity. My men­tor and friend, the late David Rome, who was the his­to­rian at the na­tional archives of the Cana­dian Jewish Congress, un­der­scored that with­out a re­lent­less, multi-gen­er­a­tional ef­fort on the part of the found­ing Jewish fam­i­lies of what even­tu­ally be­came the prov­ince of Que­bec, it would have taken longer for Cana­dian Jews to ac­quire ba­sic civil rights. He wrote in his mono­graph, Path­ways to the Present, “Cer­tainly the in­ter­twined pi­o­neer fam­i­lies of the Harts-josephs-ju­dahs-hayes con­sti­tuted a tal­ented group. Their re­pute and their ini­tia­tive won them the re­spect and good­will of their com­pa­tri­ots. It was re­spect gained not by shrink­ing into ob­scu­rity but by ag­gres­sive ac­tion in de­fence of an­cient rights and new lib­er­ties.”

This epic saga for free­dom started in 1807 – the very year of the start of Napoleon’s Penin­su­lar Wars in Por­tu­gal, which in­ten­si­fied the clash of the French and Bri­tish em­pires. Lon­don feared that in the event of the French em­peror’s tri­umph in the Old World, its North Amer­i­can colonies would fall prey to an em­bold­ened

The elec­tors re­jected the odi­ous anti-semitic rants of his op­po­nents and elected him [Hart] any­way.

French Em­pire in the New World. The ex­ac­er­ba­tion of po­lit­i­cal ten­sions and eco­nomic ri­val­ries be­tween French and English poli­ties in Lower Canada also played into the nar­ra­tive of a grow­ing an­i­mos­ity be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties. As if these con­flicts were not enough, war with the United States ap­peared to be in­evitable, as smoul­der­ing Amer­i­can bel­li­cos­ity threat­ened to erupt, as it did in 1812.

It was in such a world in tur­moil that Sir Henry James Craig, a vet­eran of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, set sail for the colonies as gover­nor gen­eral. De­ter­mined to deal with to what he viewed as in­sur­rec­tion and sedi­tion – but obliv­i­ous to the fact that French-cana­dian sym­pa­thies were not with Napoleon – he in­sti­gated a se­ries of dra­co­nian mea­sures, mis­tak­enly called the “Reign of Ter­ror,” on be­half of the of­fi­cial rul­ing oli­garchy in Que­bec. Spies, traitors and scoundrels were “seen” ev­ery­where, as fear and loathing brooded over the land. He ar­bi­trar­ily and il­le­gally im­pris­oned Pierre Bé­dard and oth­ers con­nected with the newly founded French-cana­dian news­pa­per, Le Cana­dien, and clashed with Louis Joseph Pap­ineau. Into this poi­sonous brew, Lon­don and Que­bec City poured the con­tentious is­sue of the el­i­gi­bil­ity of judges and Jews to sit in the leg­isla­tive assem­bly, which gave rise to the in­fa­mous Hart Af­fair.

When Ezekiel Hart stood for a by­elec­tion in Trois-riv­ieres on April 11, 1807, he be­came “a ca­su­alty of this clash,” ac­cord­ing to Ger­ald Tulchin­sky, in his book, Tak­ing Root: the Ori­gins of the Cana­dian Jewish Com­mu­nity. Dur­ing the elec­toral cam­paign, Hart faced fierce com­pe­ti­tion from pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial land­lords, man­u­fac­tur­ers and lawyers, such as Matthew Bell, Thomas Cof­fin and Pierre Vez­ina. His Ju­daism be­came an im­me­di­ate is­sue, prompt­ing the elec­toral of­fi­cer, Judge Louis Foucher, to throw im­par­tial­ity to the winds of big­otry. His ver­bal on­slaughts against Hart were so vi­cious that one com­men­ta­tor noted that “no Span­ish monk, in the height of as­cetic zeal, could have poured on this sub­ject, more bit­ter in­vec­tive and in­tol­er­ant warmth.” But the elec­tors re­jected the odi­ous anti-semitic rants of his op­po­nents and elected him any­way.

When Hart re­fused to take the pre­scribed Chris­tian oath of of­fice, at­tor­ney gen­eral Jonathan Sewell and Pierre-am­able de Bonne, a mem­ber of the leg­isla­tive assem­bly, at­tempted to pre­vent him from tak­ing his seat. A com­mit­tee was formed to hear Hart’s rea­sons, but it de­cided none­the­less to ban him on the grounds that “Hart pro­fess­ing the Jewish faith can nei­ther sit nor vote in this cham­ber.”

De­ter­mined to face his ad­ver­saries, Hart stood again and was re-elected. This time, he took the re­quired oath on April 10, 1809, but it was to no avail: he was re­fused en­try to the assem­bly, as he was sim­ply a Jew and a Jew could not take the oath on “Saints Evangiles” in good faith. This de­ci­sion – which was en­dorsed by Lord Castlereagh, the colo­nial sec­re­tary in Lon­don – meant that this was the end of the road for Hart. But his brother, Moses, took up the ba­ton and pressed, to no avail, for leg­is­la­tion to re­move Jewish dis­abil­i­ties.

The strug­gle con­tin­ued as Sa­muel B. Hart, Ezekiel Hart’s el­dest son, would come to learn that pol­i­tics and public ser­vice still re­mained off lim­its to Jews in the years fol­low­ing 1807. But a new chap­ter opened in our story in 1830, as dra­ma­tized in the Her­itage Min­utes se­ries, when Lord Matthew Aylmer, the new gover­nor of Lower Canada, of­fered Sa­muel Hart the po­si­tion of mag­is­trate and jus­tice of the peace. Un­for­tu­nately, af­ter dis­cussing the mat­ter with his ad­vis­ers, Aylmer had to with­draw his of­fer to Hart. Fu­ri­ous, Hart wrote a let­ter that Aylmer per­son­ally agreed to for­ward to King Wil­liam. At the same time, other “Jewish sub­jects” of the King submitted a pe­ti­tion to the leg­isla­tive assem­bly of Lower Canada, de­mand­ing that Jews be al­lowed to hold public of­fice.

The year Napoleon Bon­a­parte was de­feated at Water­loo by his neme­sis, the Duke of Welling­ton, in 1815, Pap­ineau, who had op­posed Hart in 1807 and 1809, be­came the speaker of the leg­isla­tive assem­bly. He was not the same man: as an ex­pe­ri­enced and en­light­ened leader of his peo­ple, he was no longer willing to al­low prej­u­dice, par­ti­san pol­i­tics and eth­nic di­vi­sions to pre­vent cit­i­zens of Lower Canada from elect­ing their le­git­i­mate Jewish rep­re­sen­ta­tives freely and with­out re­stric­tions. Thus, un­der the stew­ard­ship of Pap­ineau, the leg­isla­tive assem­bly of Lower Canada fi­nally passed a bill in 1832 that ul­ti­mately guar­an­teed full rights to peo­ple prac­tis­ing the Jewish faith for the first time in the Bri­tish Em­pire.

On the 150th an­niver­sary of Con­fed­er­a­tion, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the 1832 bill con­trib­uted to the ex­ten­sion of the rights of Catholics, Pres­by­te­ri­ans, Wes­leyans and athe­ists, thus leg­isla­tively em­pow­er­ing the idea that would be­come cen­tral to our con­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture: cit­i­zens are equal un­der the law and are en­dowed with fun­da­men­tal rights, ir­re­spec­tive of race, gen­der, re­li­gion or per­sonal ori­en­ta­tion.

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