Sydney Harris, a retired Ontario Provincial Court judge, a former president of Canadian Jewish Congress and a fierce fighter for Jewish causes, human rights and civil liberties, died on Jan. 17 of kidney failure after a short illness. He was 91.
Sydney Harris, second from left, with, from left, Mark Harris, Rev. Roland de Corneille and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Harris was born in Toronto, the grandchild of immigrants who came to Toronto in the 1880s. He graduated from the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School.
During the war, he worked as an administrative lawyer in Ottawa. Together with Harold Rubenstein, he founded the law firm of Harris & Rubenstein.
In 1976, Harris was appointed a judge of the Ontario Provincial Court, Criminal Division. Among his noteworthy decisions were his acquittal of the gay magazine Body Politic and three officers of Pink Triangle Press for possession and distribution of obscene materials in 1978 and his dismissal of charges, in 1983, against Magder Furs for selling goods on Sunday, at a time when Sunday shopping was illegal.
After his retirement in 1982, he served as a small claims court judge, a part-time member of the Ontario Assessment Review Board, a referee for the Law Society of Upper Canada and a lay appointee of Council for the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors.
Until the last few years, he remained active in Canadian Jewish Congress. Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of CJC, said that before becoming national president in 1974, Harris had served as chair of the CJC’s community relations committee and chair of the Ontario region from 1968 to 1971.
Farber said that as a member of the CJC’s national executive, Harris attended meetings wherever they were held. He always travelled to them by train, as he didn’t like flying.
“He called me regularly, offering advice, with great wisdom and prescience,” Farber said.
Together with Sid Midanik and Ben Kayfetz, he worked hard against the neo-Nazi threat, at a time when the Canadian Nazi Party was disturbingly active. “They hired a private investigator who infiltrated the Canadian Nazi Party, and his information led to its collapse,” Farber said.
Farber praised Harris’ dignity, calling him “a gentleman and a man who exemplified Jewish honour. The likes of people such as Sydney Harris come rarely in a lifetime. He will be sorely missed.”
Harris was the regional chair of the Canadian Council of Reform Congregations, a founding member and president of Upper Canada Lodge, B’nai Brith, president of Toronto Jewish Vocational Service (now JVS), and Canadian Friends of Boys Town Jerusalem, serving as its president. He was active at Holy Blossom Temple – his family was among its founding members – and later Temple Sinai.
Harris worked as an advocate for amendments to the Criminal Code against hate literature and for the protection of shchitah. He opposed religious education in the public schools and capital punishment. During the 1950s and ’60s, he was an active supporter of the campaign for civil rights in the United States.
He was devoted to his family, his son Mark said, calling him “a learned man, a devoted son, an inspiring father, grandfather and teacher, and a pure and loving husband.”
Mark said his father’s many activities included doing the New York Times crossword puzzles, drinking single malt Scotch, chess, gardening, travelling, spending time at the family cottage and leading family religious ceremonies such as Shabbat and Pesach seders.
He loved to read, not just law and Jewish history, and had “a serious passion” for Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group, an “alternate lifestyle group of early 20th-century writers, artists, philosophers, lovers and thinkers,” Mark said.
Harris is survived by his wife of 59 years, Enid; his son Mark (and Mark’s wife, Ricki) and his son David; grandchildren Lindsay and Brett, and his sister, Thelma Rose.