May proclaimed Jewish Heritage Month

Mike Colle

TORONTO — It’s official. May is now Jewish Heritage Month in Ontario.

Bill 17, the Jewish Heritage Month Act, put forward in October last year by Eglinton-Lawrence Liberal MPP Mike Colle and co-sponsored by Thornhill Conservative MPP Peter Shurman and High-Park New Democrat MPP Cheri DiNovo, passed unanimously in the provincial legislature Feb. 23.

Colle said he wanted to “honour the significant achievements of Jewish Canadians across Ontario.”

The act is the first of its kind to become law in Canada. Ontario is home to more than 200,000 Jews, making it the province with the largest Jewish demographic. There are an estimated 360,000 Jews in Canada.

“Jewish Heritage Month is an opportunity to remember, celebrate and educate future generations about the inspirational role that Jewish Canadians have played, and continue to play, in communities across Ontario,” the act proclaims.

Speaking to The CJN the day after his bill passed, Colle said the Jewish community and its effects on the growth of Ontario are not discussed enough.

“Besides the list of incredible Jewish individuals in the province’s history… the legacy we need to pay attention to is the dogged determination [of Jews] to fight for social and human rights. That advocacy has left an indelible mark on the province,” he said.

Colle said May was chosen because it is “a significant month for the Jewish Canadian community. Various Jewish artistic and cultural events such as the UJA Walk for Israel, Toronto Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Music Week occur in May. Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day also frequently occur in May.”

He added its inspiration stemmed from seeing the Italian Heritage Month Act receive royal assent in 2010.

Bill 17 had widespread support among the Jewish community, including endorsements from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, B’nai Brith Canada, the National Congress of Italian Canadians – Toronto District, the London Jewish Federation, the Ontario Jewish Archives and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada.

In a statement, David Spiro, CIJA’s Greater Toronto co-chair, commended Queen’s Park for enacting the law.

“For more than two centuries, the Jewish community has worked side by side with Ontarians from all backgrounds to help build one of the greatest places in the world to raise a family,” he said.

“Just as Jewish Heritage Month offers an opportunity to reflect on our past, it serves as a reminder for all in our province to continue building on our collective achievements for the benefit of the next generation of Ontarians.”

Shurman called the bill’s passage a “great day” for the Jewish community.

Now that it’s law, the province and community are gearing up to celebrate this May in some form or fashion.

In a statement, Ted Sokolsky and Elizabeth Wolfe, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s president and CEO and board chair, respectively, praised the new law.

“Building and contributing to community and to society has always been a top priority for Jews since their arrival in Canada, and this honour recognizes those contributions as we continue to add to the diverse multicultural mosaic that has made Ontario a place envied by many around the world,” they said.

“This announcement will call for an extra celebration at this year’s UJA Walk with Israel, which for 45 years has taken place in May.”

A spokesperson for Premier Dalton McGuinty said it was too soon to tell what the province would do to recognize the newly created heritage month, but the premier is looking forward to “continued work and involvement with the Jewish community.”

However, Colle said McGuinty charged him with planning any event he wants and that the premier said “he’d be there whatever we decide to do.”

Colle and fellow MPP Eric Hoskins, the minister of citizenship and immigration, will co-host an event in May at Beth Torah Congregation to mark the new law.

It will be a night of “glorious celebration, guest speakers, music, recitals and food,” Colle said.