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Jews not welcome in wartime Canada

The Story

Canada likes to think of itself as a sanctuary for the oppressed. But, as we see in this CBC Television clip, the Canadian government did everything in its power to bar the door to European Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution. Irving Abella, co-author of the new book None Is Too Many, argues that Canada did less than other Western countries to help the Jews despite mounting reports of Adolf Hitler's genocide. Small countries managed to rescue 15,000 to 20,000 Jews, compared to 4,000 to 5,000 for Canada, says Abella. "It was a hideous, shameful, disgraceful record," says the Toronto-based history professor. At the heart of the closed-door policy was Frederick Charles Blair, the head of immigration in the Mackenzie King administration. In one letter, Blair compared Jews clamouring to get into the country to hogs at feeding time. But he couldn't have acted alone. Abella says his three-year search of official records showed that Mackenzie King, the wartime prime minister, and Vincent Massey, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, supported a tight cap on the number of Jewish immigrants. Saul Sigler, a Toronto businessman, tells the CBC he tried in vain to get his brother and sister into Canada. Blair's response, according to Sigler? "Why don't you people learn to live with your neighbours wherever you are? Why are you hated?" 

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: Oct. 6, 1982
Guest(s): Irving Abella, Oskar Morawetz, Saul Sigler
Host: Mary Lou Finlay, Barbara Frum
Reporter: Linden MacIntyre
Duration: 11:32

Did You know?

• The title, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933 to 1948, comes from an anecdote relayed in the book. Authors Irving Abella and Harold Troper recount how a civil servant, when asked how many Jews Canada would accept after the Second World War, quipped: "None is too many."

• Canada's refusal to help European Jews escape the Nazis' clutches, first exposed by None Is Too Many, is generally accepted today as fact. In a 1995 speech to Holocaust survivors in Toronto, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said: "We turned our backs on Jewish refugees from Europe when we could have saved lives, when we should have saved lives. Instead, we washed our hands of the matter." See a clip of Chrétien visiting Auschwitz in 1999.

• Canada's immigration policy slowly became more accepting of Jews after the Second World War. It wasn't until the 1950s that Canada allowed Jews again in large numbers, as it had between the 1880s and the First World War. Restrictions on Asian immigrants outlived the limits on Jewish newcomers, lasting until the 1960s.

• Frederick Charles Blair, the civil servant highlighted in this clip, was born in Carlisle, Ont., in 1874 to Scottish parents. An elder in the Baptist church, he was in charge of upholding immigration restrictions as director of the Immigration Branch in the Department of Mines and Resources. His correspondence in federal archives are rife with anti-Semitic remarks. Upon his retirement in 1943, Blair was given a prestigious award for meritorious public service.

• Many historians point out that the Canadian government's actions, while shameful, largely reflected Canadian public sentiment at the time. "Anti-Semitism was rife throughout Canada, where, in some places, Jews could not hold particular jobs, own property, or stay in certain hotels," states "Forging Our Legacy," a 2000 paper by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. "It was most strident in Quebec, however, where right-wing, nationalist French-language newspapers castigated Jews ... ."

• Canada has also been criticized for ignoring the plight of more than 900 European Jews aboard the ship SS St. Louis in 1939. The refugees' plea for safe haven was refused by Canada, Cuba and other Western Hemisphere nations. The ship was forced to return to Europe where almost half the Jews later died in camps or from other war-related causes. In 2000 in Ottawa, several Canadian Christian leaders apologized to 25 of the SS St. Louis survivors.

• One of the clergymen who apologized to the survivors of the SS St. Louis was Doug Blair. The Baptist minister is the great-nephew of Charles Frederick Blair, the bureaucrat who orchestrated Canada's limit on Jewish immigration and who personally advised the government to ignore the pleas of the Jews aboard the St. Louis. "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" Doug Blair asked the gathered survivors, the CBC reported.

• The book None Is Too Many became a best-seller and is considered a landmark piece of Canadian historical scholarship. A play based on the book premiered at the Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse Stage in 1997.
• Irving Abella, historian and co-author of None Is Too Many, and who is featured in this clip, later served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His wife, judge Rosalie Abella, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004.



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