'Unwanted people': When Manitoba's beaches were forbidden to Jews
Province was home to overt anti-Semitism through 1930s and '40s, and stats show it's on the rise again
While anti-Semitism reached a peak in Europe during the Second World War, we sometimes forget that it also spread in Canada through the 1930s.
In Manitoba, nationalist groups were propagating Nazi ideology and Jews were excluded from private clubs and popular vacation spots.
Before digging into old Manitoban newspapers, filmmaker Andrew Wall thought it was a rumour. He could not imagine that, in Victoria Beach, where his family has owned a cottage for decades, Jews were discriminated against in a not-so-distant past.
In August 1943, the Victoria Beach Herald, the community newspaper, published an editorial dissuading cottage owners from renting or selling their properties to these "unwanted people."
Wall did some research and realized that not only were Jews discriminated against in Victoria Beach, but there were Nazi rallies in Winnipeg in the late 1930s.
"I was stunned!" Wall said.
"I grew up understanding the Second World War, but opening the Winnipeg Free Press, and [seeing] on the first page that there was a Nazi rally happening in Winnipeg, with massive banners, just before the Second World War ... that was shocking!"
"And even more shocking — how have we not remembered this?"
'They were going to ruin the place'
Victoria Beach was not the only place where Jews were discriminated against in Manitoba — most of the resorts in the eastern part of Lake Winnipeg excluded them, confirms Daniel Stone, a retired professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.
"The fanciest places in Manitoba were owned by the Anglo establishment," he said. "They were so-called gentlemen's agreements not to sell to Jews because people thought they were going to ruin the place."
Stone adds that the most famous example of this is Victoria Beach because, at the time, the Winnipeg Free Press editor, John Dafoe, denounced it.
"The Nazis of Europe are making it plain to the Jewish people that they would not live with them. Here, in Manitoba, the summer residents of Victoria Beach are engaged in a similar crusade," Dafoe wrote on August 17, 1943.
The prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie himself, bought all the lands surrounding his house because he did not want Jews to become his neighbours.- Belle Jarniewski
In response, Stone said the editor of the Victoria Beach Herald stated that his opinions "were much more moderate" than the ones of other people who lived in Victoria Beach.
The Jews' exclusion was not restricted to vacation spots. In Winnipeg, they could not buy or rent properties in Tuxedo or around Wildwood Park, according to Stone. They were also not welcomed in private clubs like the Puffin Ski Club.
Aside from that, the University of Manitoba School of Medicine was also screening its applications. An official quota system was adopted in 1932 to reduce the number of Jews that could get into the profession.
The Dean at the time was advocating that "certain nationalities and groups" would never be accepted as doctors, according to an essay on Manitoban anti-Semitism from Jonathan Fine.
This quota system was not abolished before 1945-1946, said Stone.
Winnipeg and the Nationalist
The rise of nationalist groups in Manitoba in the 1930s exacerbated discrimination against the Jews.
While Hitler was gaining power in Germany in 1933, William Whittaker launched the Canadian Nationalist Party in Winnipeg. His newspaper, The Canadian Nationalist, was promoting and spreading his fascist and anti-communist propaganda.
In the early days of the journal, its editorials underlined the absence of hatred related to race and emphasized equality among citizens. However, around 1935, the newspaper became frankly anti-Semitic, said Stone.
The newspaper was publishing documents like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, "a 19th-century forgery," which suggests that Jews have a specific strategy to control the world, said Stone.
The historian adds that Whittaker and his nationalist group, inspired by the Nazi ideology, took to the streets of Winnipeg several times.
In June 1934, a dozen anti-fascist, Jewish and communist groups confronted them at Old Market Square. It was enough to intimidate the Nationalist Party to avoid holding public demonstrations afterward.
The newspaper, however, continued to disseminate anti-Semitic ideology.
As a duty of remembrance, in 2011 Wall produced a movie titled The Paper Nazis about this growing sentiment in the Manitoban capital.
"Here is our footnote, it's a small footnote in a better picture, but it's our history," said Wall.
"Compared to many places, Manitoba, even in a really nasty period, was really good," said Stone. In Quebec and Ontario, for instance, some of those restrictive clauses were part of the law, adds the historian.
'None is too many,' a federal policy
Discrimination against Jews was indeed far from being restricted to Manitoba.
In the 1940s, Canada as a whole closed its doors to immigrants who were trying to flee the Nazi regime in Europe.
When asked how many Jews should be allowed in Canada, Frederick Blair, the director of immigration between 1936 and 1943, answered: "None is too many."
In 1939, the federal authorities refused more than 900 refugees who arrived on the German liner MS St. Louis, and who were trying to escape persecution in Europe.
"The government was really anti-Semitic," confirms Belle Jarniewski, director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.
"The prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie [King] himself, bought all the lands surrounding his house because he did not want Jews to become his neighbours," she said.
Out of 150,000 immigrants Canada accepted during the Holocaust, between 1933 and 1945, there were 8,000 Jews.
Jarniewski's parents succeeded in settling in Canada in the early 1950s after surviving the horror of death camps.
She says that immigrants who did cross Canadian borders were not disenchanted by anti-Jewish sentiment upon their arrival because anti-Semitism was already part of their daily life.
Learning from history
Anti-Semitism was not new in Canada in the 1930s; it has always existed, according to Stone. Persecutions declined gradually between the 1950s and 1970s with the disappearance of restrictive clauses.
That being said, the historian underlines that anti-Semitism has been on the rise for the last 10 years.
Statistics Canada says hate crimes against Jews reported to authorities in Canada increased by 41 per cent in 2017.
"Manitoba, unfortunately, bears some of the problems that you see throughout North America at the moment," said Stone, giving the example of the 2017 neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In response, Jarniewski asserts that education is vital. Every time the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada welcomes students, she asks them how many people they think the country accepted during the Holocaust.
"They think about Canada today, and they answer 'a lot!'" she says. "They are always surprised."
She mentions that in 2018, 79 years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the Jews who were on the MS St. Louis.
"I think Canada has learned from history, from all these Jews that the country could have saved and did not save," said Jarniewski. "Maybe it changed the way immigration policies are thought of today."
Nonetheless, for Wall, the rise of hate crimes is a sign that a movie like The Paper Nazis is useful now more than ever.
- A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Virginia city where a neo-Nazi demonstration was held in 2017. In fact, it was Charlottesville.Feb 02, 2020 5:24 PM CT