Shooting reshapes Liberals' apology for 1939 refusal of ship of Jewish refugees

The killings of 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on the weekend has reframed the prime minister's plan for an apology on Canada's decision to close its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

'It is not enough to apologize for the past,' says B'nai Brith Canada

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, who were permitted to approach the docked vessel in small boats, June 3, 1939. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/National Archives and Records)

The killings of 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on the weekend has reframed the prime minister's plan for an apology on Canada's decision to close its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to deliver the apology next week for a federal decision in 1939 to reject an asylum request from more than 900 German Jews aboard an ocean liner that was nearing Halifax.

Five survivors from the boat, the MS St. Louis, are scheduled to be in the House of Commons next week to hear an apology 79 years in the making.

But the deaths of the 11 Jews and wounding of others at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday has affected the text of the apology.

The Prime Minister's Office says the apology will reflect what happened on the weekend as part of what is expected to be a wider message about anti-Semitism and racism.

Jewish leaders say many Canadian Jews will reject Trudeau's apology if it focuses too much on the past and not enough on the present and future.

The most recent figures on hate crime from Statistics Canada show the Jewish population was the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016.

"It is not enough to apologize for the past. There must be a pathway forward to deal with these incidents of anti-Semitism," said Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B'nai Brith Canada.

Trudeau set the date for the Nov. 7 apology weeks ago. Then came the mass killing in Pittsburgh, an act of violence that has shocked many Canadian Jews and sparked country-wide vigils.

In a letter to community leaders sent on the weekend, Trudeau wrote about speaking out against anti-Semitism and said he would "call on Canadians to do the same" — hinting at what might be a theme in his coming apology.

U.S., Cuba also turned away MS St. Louis

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who called for an apology two years ago for the St. Louis incident, said Trudeau would likely use the killings in Pittsburgh "as an illustration of why [anti-Semitism] is something we need to tackle with force today."

In 1939, a group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister Wiliam Lyon Mackenzie King's government to let the St. Louis dock in Halifax, but Frederick Blair — director of the immigration branch of the federal Department of Mines and Resources at the time — refused to allow it entry.

The ship had been previously turned away from Cuba and the United States. It was forced back to Germany and the passengers scattered in Europe, leading to the deaths of 254 of them in the Holocaust.

It also helped Hitler sell his "final solution" for the mass extermination of Jews, said Robert Krakow, a filmmaker who made a documentary about the MS St. Louis incident.

The U.S. State Department apologized in 2012 for the role of American officials in the incident.

Steve McDonald, director of policy with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the success of a similar apology for Canada will rest on whether Trudeau raises awareness of modern anti-Semitism.

"We certainly hope it is a catalyst for a greater discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism and what can be done by all of us regardless of our background," McDonald said.