In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents essays on 10 significant moments in Canadian Jewish history.
Ezekiel Hart of Trois-Rivières, Que., was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1807, but because he was Jewish, refused to be sworn into office “on the faith of a Christian.” His seat was declared vacant and a byelection called, but again he was elected and again he declined the oath of office. Hoping to end the impasse, the French-Canadian majority in the house drafted a bill to make Jews ineligible for office, but before they could pass it, the governor dissolved the Assembly.
The uncertain standing of Jews in the political life of Lower Canada was finally resolved in 1831, when an act was passed granting Jews the same rights and privileges as all other citizens. As editor A. D. Hart observed in the classic 1926 volume, The Jew in Canada, the Jews in England, that bastion of Western democracy, would not attain the same civic entitlements for another 20 years.
Over the last 150 years, Jews across Canada have served proudly in political life at all levels of government. Looking west, an early example is David Oppenheimer, mayor of Vancouver from 1888 to 1891. Oppenheimer established Stanley Park and built much of the city’s infrastructure. A monument still stands in his honour at the entrance to the park. Looking east, a much more recent exemplar is Tom Marshall, who served as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2014.
A list of prominent figures in Canadian politics would have to include Herb Gray, Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, who undoubtedly held the highest office as deputy prime minister. Notables on the left include David Lewis, former leader of the federal NDP, and his son Stephen Lewis, former leader of the Ontario NDP. On the right, Joe Oliver, former Conservative minister of finance, remains a prominent name. In a category all by himself is Toronto’s legendary Joseph Salsberg: highly respected and eloquent, he was elected to public office, first as alderman, then as a member of the provincial Parliament, despite the fact that he was an avowed communist.
The list would also have to include Jim Carr, Irwin Cotler, Barney Danson, Samuel Factor, Sheila Finestone, Myra Freeman, Phil Givens, Yoine Goldstein Robert Kaplan, Monte Kwinter, Mel Lastman, Henry Nathan Jr., Louis Rasminsky and many others.
The first Jewish alderman in Toronto was Bohemian-born Newman Leopold Steiner. He arrived in the city around 1856 and set up shop as a marble cutter (he is credited with carving the crest above the main door of University College). He was elected to city council numerous times throughout the 1880s and was elected to represent Ward 3 in 1897.
“From the outset, Mr. Steiner took a deep interest in municipal politics and received many honours at the hands of the citizens of Toronto,” wrote S. J. Birnbaum in a 1934 essay for the Jewish Standard.
A political reformer, Steiner was also the first Jewish justice of the peace in Ontario and was appointed honorary commissioner to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. Although he married the daughter of a rabbi, he was a Reform Jew, whose connection to his Jewish heritage dwindled over the years. When he was given the honour of naming a street running east off Yonge Street, just north of Bloor, he “named it Bismarck Avenue after the great German statesman – a mark of respect paid by a Jew to a Jew-hater,” Birnbaum observed. The street was subsequently renamed Asquith Avenue. Steiner died in 1903 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Equally shrouded in the mists of history is Louis M. Singer, Toronto’s second Jewish alderman, who was elected to city hall in 1914. Having graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1908, Singer had a sharp mind and natural eloquence, which he put to good use during his tenure on city council during the era of the First World War. When the federal government suggested the disenfranchisement of all citizens of foreign birth, Singer rose and gave an impromptu speech to voice his strong opposition. His oration “was so impressive that it was reproduced verbatim in all the daily papers with eulogistic references,” according to The Jew in Canada.
When Singer left politics to pursue his law career in 1917, the press generally took the view that city council had lost its most able and outstanding member. “Alderman Singer has qualities of a legislator and an administrator … who does not trade upon racial or religious prejudice,” the Toronto Star noted. “He tries to show that the interests of his own people are identical with the interests of Toronto and Canada.”
Decades later, that same idea was encapsulated in the career of Nathan Phillips, who served as alderman for 25 years, then as Toronto’s first Jewish mayor from 1955 to 1962. He titled his autobiography, Mayor of All the People. “When it became public knowledge that I was to be a candidate for mayor, it wasn’t received favourably by the regular establishment of Toronto,” he wrote. “To them, a mayor of the Jewish faith was unpalatable.”
Under Phillips’ tenure, an international competition for the design of a new city hall led to the approval of Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s modernist design, an accomplishment that would bring Toronto into the modern era and upgrade the city’s self-image from small town to world-class cosmopolis. He also oversaw planning for the city’s first subway system, redeveloped much of the downtown and approved the O’Keefe Centre, the Sheraton Hotel and many other buildings. He is memorialized to this day in the public square outside city hall, known as Nathan Phillips Square.
It’s clear that Jews have played a major role in the political life of this great country of ours, from the days of Ezekiel Hart forward.