Jews in Cana­dian pol­i­tics

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - BILL GLAD­STONE SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

Ezekiel Hart of Trois-riv­ières, Que., was first elected to the Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly of Lower Canada in 1807, but be­cause he was Jewish, re­fused to be sworn into of­fice “on the faith of a Chris­tian.” His seat was de­clared va­cant and a by­elec­tion called, but again he was elected and again he de­clined the oath of of­fice. Hop­ing to end the im­passe, the French-cana­dian ma­jor­ity in the house drafted a bill to make Jews in­el­i­gi­ble for of­fice, but be­fore they could pass it, the gover­nor dis­solved the As­sem­bly.

The un­cer­tain stand­ing of Jews in the po­lit­i­cal life of Lower Canada was fi­nally re­solved in 1831, when an act was passed grant­ing Jews the same rights and priv­i­leges as all other cit­i­zens. As edi­tor A. D. Hart ob­served in the clas­sic 1926 vol­ume, The Jew in Canada, the Jews in England, that bas­tion of Western democ­racy, would not at­tain the same civic en­ti­tle­ments for an­other 20 years.

Over the last 150 years, Jews across Canada have served proudly in po­lit­i­cal life at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. Look­ing west, an early ex­am­ple is David Op­pen­heimer, mayor of Van­cou­ver from 1888 to 1891. Op­pen­heimer es­tab­lished Stan­ley Park and built much of the city’s in­fra­struc­ture. A mon­u­ment still stands in his hon­our at the en­trance to the park. Look­ing east, a much more re­cent ex­em­plar is Tom Mar­shall, who served as premier of New­found­land and Labrador in 2014.

A list of prom­i­nent fig­ures in Cana­dian pol­i­tics would have to in­clude Herb Gray, Canada’s first Jewish cabi­net min­is­ter un­der Pierre Trudeau’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment, who un­doubt­edly held the high­est of­fice as deputy prime min­is­ter. No­ta­bles on the left in­clude David Lewis, for­mer leader of the fed­eral NDP, and his son Stephen Lewis, for­mer leader of the On­tario NDP. On the right, Joe Oliver, for­mer Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ter of fi­nance, re­mains a prom­i­nent name. In a cat­e­gory all by him­self is Toronto’s leg­endary Joseph Sals­berg: highly re­spected and elo­quent, he was elected to public of­fice, first as al­der­man, then as a mem­ber of the provin­cial Par­lia­ment, de­spite the fact that he was an avowed com­mu­nist.

The list would also have to in­clude Jim Carr, Ir­win Cotler, Bar­ney Dan­son, Sa­muel Fac­tor, Sheila Fine­stone, Myra Free­man, Phil Givens, Yoine Goldstein Robert Ka­plan, Monte Kwin­ter, Mel Last­man, Henry Nathan Jr., Louis Ras­min­sky and many oth­ers.

The first Jewish al­der­man in Toronto was Bo­hemian-born New­man Leopold Steiner. He ar­rived in the city around 1856 and set up shop as a mar­ble cut­ter (he is cred­ited with carv­ing the crest above the main door of Uni­ver­sity Col­lege). He was elected to city coun­cil nu­mer­ous times through­out the 1880s and was elected to rep­re­sent Ward 3 in 1897.

“From the out­set, Mr. Steiner took a deep in­ter­est in mu­nic­i­pal pol­i­tics and re­ceived many hon­ours at the hands of the cit­i­zens of Toronto,” wrote S. J. Birn­baum in a 1934 es­say for the Jewish Standard.

A po­lit­i­cal re­former, Steiner was also the first Jewish jus­tice of the peace in On­tario and was ap­pointed hon­orary com­mis­sioner to the Pan Amer­i­can Ex­po­si­tion in Buf­falo, N.Y., in 1901. Although he mar­ried the daugh­ter of a rabbi, he was a Re­form Jew, whose con­nec­tion to his Jewish her­itage dwin­dled over the years. When he was given the hon­our of nam­ing a street run­ning east off Yonge Street, just north of Bloor, he “named it Bis­marck Av­enue af­ter the great Ger­man states­man – a mark of re­spect paid by a Jew to a Jew-hater,” Birn­baum ob­served. The street was sub­se­quently re­named Asquith Av­enue. Steiner died in 1903 and was buried in Mount Pleas­ant Ceme­tery.

Equally shrouded in the mists of his­tory is Louis M. Singer, Toronto’s sec­ond Jewish al­der­man, who was elected to city hall in 1914. Hav­ing grad­u­ated from Os­goode Hall Law School in 1908, Singer had a sharp mind and nat­u­ral elo­quence, which he put to good use dur­ing his tenure on city coun­cil dur­ing the era of the First World War. When the fed­eral gov­ern­ment sug­gested the dis­en­fran­chise­ment of all cit­i­zens of for­eign birth, Singer rose and gave an im­promptu speech to voice his strong op­po­si­tion. His ora­tion “was so im­pres­sive that it was re­pro­duced ver­ba­tim in all the daily pa­pers with eu­lo­gis­tic ref­er­ences,” ac­cord­ing to The Jew in Canada.

When Singer left pol­i­tics to pur­sue his law ca­reer in 1917, the press gen­er­ally took the view that city coun­cil had lost its most able and out­stand­ing mem­ber. “Al­der­man Singer has qual­i­ties of a leg­is­la­tor and an ad­min­is­tra­tor … who does not trade upon racial or re­li­gious prej­u­dice,” the Toronto Star noted. “He tries to show that the in­ter­ests of his own peo­ple are iden­ti­cal with the in­ter­ests of Toronto and Canada.”

Decades later, that same idea was en­cap­su­lated in the ca­reer of Nathan Phillips, who served as al­der­man for 25 years, then as Toronto’s first Jewish mayor from 1955 to 1962. He ti­tled his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Mayor of All the Peo­ple. “When it be­came public knowl­edge that I was to be a can­di­date for mayor, it wasn’t re­ceived favourably by the reg­u­lar es­tab­lish­ment of Toronto,” he wrote. “To them, a mayor of the Jewish faith was un­palat­able.”

Un­der Phillips’ tenure, an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for the de­sign of a new city hall led to the ap­proval of Fin­nish ar­chi­tect Viljo Rev­ell’s mod­ernist de­sign, an ac­com­plish­ment that would bring Toronto into the mod­ern era and up­grade the city’s self-im­age from small town to world-class cos­mopo­lis. He also over­saw plan­ning for the city’s first sub­way sys­tem, re­de­vel­oped much of the down­town and ap­proved the O’keefe Cen­tre, the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel and many other build­ings. He is memo­ri­al­ized to this day in the public square out­side city hall, known as Nathan Phillips Square.

It’s clear that Jews have played a ma­jor role in the po­lit­i­cal life of this great coun­try of ours, from the days of Ezekiel Hart for­ward.

Over the last 150 years, Jews across Canada have served proudly in po­lit­i­cal life at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

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