Trudeau to offer formal apology in Commons for fate of Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will deliver another official apology in the House of Commons, this time over the fate of the MS St. Louis.

In 1939, Canada turned away 907 German Jews seeking asylum; 254 later lost their lives in the Holocaust

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)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will deliver another official apology in the House of Commons, this time over the fate of the MS St. Louis.

"When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis, we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community," Trudeau said in a statement, which doesn't say when he plans to deliver the apology.

The prime minister said that while an apology can't change Canada's history or bring back those who lost their lives, acknowledging the result of the decision to turn away the MS St. Louis — the deaths of 254 people in the Holocaust — is key to learning from the past.

"It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story, and continue to fight against anti-Semitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: 'Never again,'" Trudeau said. "I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House."

The Prime Minister said in a Toronto synagogue on Tuesday evening that he would apologize on the floor of the Commons for the turning back of the ship in 1939 1:01

Trudeau has previously sought to atone for wrongs committed by governments of the past with official apologies in the House of Commons.

Since the last election, Trudeau has personally apologized to gay men and women targeted for their sexuality, he apologized for Canada's 1914 decision to turn away the Komagata Maru ship that was carrying 376, mostly Sikh, migrants, and he exonerated six Tsilhqot'in chiefs who were hanged in 1864 for their role in the killing of six white colonists.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugs a drummer after delivering a statement of exoneration on behalf of the government of Canada to the Tsilhqot'in Nation and the descendants of six Tsilhqot'in chiefs. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister also apologized to survivors of the Indian residential school system in Newfoundland and Labrador, people who were left out of the initial apology delivered by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008 because those schools weren't federally run.

The prime minister's father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, spurned these sorts of official apologies, saying: "I do not think the purpose of a government is to right the past. It cannot rewrite history. It is our purpose to be just in our time."

It was Conservative Brian Mulroney who bucked the trend in 1988, when he apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians (former U.S. President Ronald Reagan the same year signed a similar apology to Japanese-Americans who were interned).

Stephen Harper followed suit in 2006 with an apology for the head tax that unfairly penalized Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923. The apology to Indian residential schools followed two years later.

Though panned by some critics as "virtue-signalling" and gesture politics, apologies often mean a lot to the people to whom they're directed.

In 1939, the MS St. Louis left Germany carrying 907 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution from the Nazi regime. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States before a group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister Mackenzie King's government to let it dock in Halifax.

'None is too many'

The Canadian government heeded anti-Semitic sentiment by severely restricting Jewish immigration in this era. From 1933 to 1945, only about 5,000 Jewish refugees were accepted because of what Trudeau called Tuesday "our discriminatory, 'none is too many' immigration policy" in place at the time.

Thus, when the government refused to let MS St. Louis passengers disembark, the ship returned to Europe.

About half the passengers were taken in by the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Belgium. About 500 of them ended up back in Germany, where 254 were killed in concentration and internment camps.

In a statement, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre applauded Trudeau's announcement as a "meaningful step" toward acknowledging the shameful chapter.

"While an apology can never change the past, it can awaken the national conscience to ensure such grave mistakes are never repeated in the future," centre president Avi Benlolo said.

The announcement took place during a gala in Toronto to mark 30 years of the March of the Living, an event that teaches about the horrors of the Second World War while honouring Holocaust survivors .

The CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a group that promotes Jewish interests in Canada, welcomed Trudeau's announcement.

"We applaud the Prime Minister for committing to formally apologize in the House of Commons for the St. Louis incident — a shameful example of Canada's 'none is too many' policy toward Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution," said Shimon Koffler Fogel.

"Canada is extraordinary not only because we strive to uphold the highest ideals, but also because we have the courage to address moments in our history when we failed to do so. A formal apology will be a powerful statement to Holocaust survivors and their families, including St. Louis passengers who live in Canada today."

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker, Evan Dyer and the Canadian Press