Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology to Canada’s Jewish community
An apology 80 years after the fact is still valuable
On Nov. 7, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to Canada’s Jewish community for an event that occurred almost 80 years ago. In June 1939, Canada refused landing rights to the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees. The ship returned to Europe, where the refugees were dispersed among Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The latter three countries were later overrun by the Nazis, resulting in the deaths of 254 passengers.
Trudeau’s delivery was sober, articulate and sincere. He acknowledged that by turning away the St. Louis’ passengers, as well as countless other Jews who tried to find sanctuary in Canada, the country had deprived itself of many future productive citizens. He acknowledged that Canada’s anti-Semitic policies had helped to facilitate the Holocaust, since Hitler could see that the future Allied countries were not interested in helping European Jews.
Trudeau also explained the extent of anti-Semitism in Canada before and after Second World War. He acknowledged the Jewish community’s contributions to Canada, including its commitment to charitable endeavours, an important statement given anti-Semites’ belief that “Jews only help themselves.”
Trudeau also referred to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel and its apparent harassment of Jewish students at Canadian universities. The BDS movement is a legitimate protest against the Israeli government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. But if BDS activists harass Jewish students only because they are Jewish, then that is anti-Semitism.
I didn’t expect that part of the apology would be to me. The Prime Minister apologized for/to the “7,000 Jewish prisoners of war” who were held in Canada with the very people who had persecuted them. These people were not POWs; they were internees, Jews from enemy countries who had been in Britain when the war began and were interned under the Enemy Aliens Act. Many teenage boys and younger men were sent to camps in Canada and Australia; some were sent on the same ships as Nazi POWs and some were held — at least initially — in the same camps as Nazi POWs.
One of those 7,000 Jews was my own father, a refugee from Germany who was interned in a camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec, from which he was released by late 1941. He would probably not have been pleased to be called a prisoner of war, implying that he had fought for an enemy country. After his internment he joined the British army.
I wonder as well whether father would have accepted this apology, had it been offered before he died in 1998. My own opinion, as a descendant to whom the apology was also offered, is that I am grateful for the prime minister’s acknowledgement that anti-Semitism was rife in Canada before, during and after the war. I’m also grateful that he acknowledges the extent of anti-Semitism now and promises to intensify efforts through the Security
I wonder as well whether father would have accepted this apology, had it been offered before he died in 1998.
Infrastructure Program to protect places of worship (not only Jewish synagogues, but also mosques and Hindu Temples).
Eighty years after the event, does this apology actually matter? It matters to some survivors of the St. Louis (one is still alive in Canada), and to the descendants of the St. Louis’s passengers. It may also matter to some people who were interned and their descendants. It matters to those members of Canada’s Jewish community who agitated for the apology. More broadly, it is an educative tool that informs all Canadians about anti-Semitism and the harm it has done and still does. And that is a good thing.