Ontario NDP under fire for nominating Steve Parish, the former Ajax mayor who supported naming a street after a Nazi officer

Steve Parish

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is trying to shore up relations with the Jewish community after one of her candidates defended naming a street in Ajax after a Nazi.

Even though the candidate, Steve Parish, has apologized for his remarks and Horwath has issued a statement committing her party to stamping out antisemitism, some Jewish advocacy groups remain skeptical.

In November 2020, Parish, who was the former mayor of the suburban community east of Toronto, urged town council to keep a street name honouring Hans Langsdorff, commander of a Second World War Nazi warship, despite opposition from the local Jewish community and others. In the end, council voted 4-3 to rename the street.

In a statement to The CJN on Jan. 24, Horwath said her party is “committed to the vital work of calling out and stamping out the evil of antisemitism, with concrete actions and funding, not just words. As the Ontario NDP leader I am committed to working alongside Jewish leaders, community members and party members to be vigilant, transparent, and accountable when addressing antisemitism.

“I recognize that the pain caused to the Jewish community by Mr. Parish because of his role in the naming and renaming of Langsdorff Avenue in Ajax was very deep and real. Steve Parish has apologized unreservedly and acknowledged the pain it caused for Jewish Ontarians. I recognize that his apology was without equivocation.”

In that apology, delivered as part of remarks at his formal nomination meeting Jan. 22, Parish described the 1933-1945 Nazi government of Germany as “the most evil regime in the history of mankind.”

He did not, however, retract his support for honouring a defender of that regime with a street name.

(The town of Ajax names its streets after ships and sailors who fought in the Second World War. The town itself in named after HMS Ajax, one of the British warships that defeated Langsdorff in the Battle of the River Plate, off South America in 1939.)

“I want to say clearly and unequivocally that the Nazi regime that ruled in Germany from 1933 to 1945 was the most evil regime in the history of humankind. They were responsible for the Holocaust and the death of approximately six million Jews in Europe,” Parish said. “Indeed, the terms genocide and crimes against humanity come from that terrible part of our history. This caused pain to some people in the Jewish community in Ajax and beyond in Ontario, and for that, I am profoundly and completely sorry and I offer my complete, unconditional and most sincere apology.”

ajax nazi street

Adam Wiseman, the Ajax resident who led the fight to change the street name, was unimpressed by Parish’s words.

“It’s a strange apology that doesn’t say anything about his actual comments,” Wiseman said. “He assumes that everyone knows the Holocaust was a horrible thing, but the fact is half of Canadians don’t know that, and that’s probably how the Langsdorff name got approved in the first place.”

Political reaction to Parish’s comments was swift. The Conservative party statement declared his defence of the street name “not only offensive to Ontario’s Jewish community and victims of the Holocaust, but also our brave soldiers who fought against Nazi tyranny.”

Ajax Liberal candidate Amber Bowen, whose grandparents survived Auschwitz, said in a statement “My heart is heavy and my soul is tired. Today I think of my grandparents Alex and Elizabeth Mandel, who survived Auschwitz. I am so disappointed to read about Steve Parish’s support for naming a street after a high-ranking Nazi officer. Antisemitism has no place in Ontario.”

In an interview she added Parish’s remarks “seem to shift the blame to the Jewish community for being offended.”

Jewish advocacy groups were similarly unimpressed. In a news release Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was “troubled” that a Canadian candidate would defend a Nazi.

“No street in Canada should be named after an individual who fought for the genocidal Nazi regime that murdered six million Jews and millions of others, regardless of whether or not that individual was directly complicit in the murders,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, FSWC’s director of policy. “It’s very shocking that the NDP had chosen Parish as a candidate in the first place, following his public display of support for having a street named after a Nazi warship captain. It’s time for the party to show leadership and speak out.”

B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn said in his group’s news release “This statement does not suffice for B’nai Brith Canada. While Mr. Parish appears to have quietly acknowledged that the Nazi regime was evil and committed the Holocaust at his nomination event, this was stating a non-controversial and historical fact, not an apology for his behavior.”

“Mr. Parish… must let the public know whether or not he has changed his views. If he has changed his views, Canadians deserve a proper apology.”

Beyond Parish’s defence of a German who former enemies say was an honourable officer, NDP critics say this issue serves to highlight a broader problem of antisemitism within the party.

One such critic is Emma Cunningham, who said that the issue was “the final straw” that finally convinced her to resign as president of the party’s Pickering-Uxbridge Ontario riding association.

In a thread on Twitter, she cited other instances where NDP candidates have been criticized for promoting antisemitic views.

“My maternal grandfather was beaten within an inch of his life on Kristallnacht,” she said. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”

“Steve Parish is the current issue, but the NDP really needs to acknowledge it has this blind spot about antisemitism,” she added.