A road trip to Quebec—into Canada’s earliest Jewish history, with Robert Walker

Historic houses in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. (Credit: Robert Walker)

After a seven-hour drive east of Toronto, I arrived in Trois-Rivières. I had finally started my Quebec road trip; a brief respite of hiking, sightseeing and enjoying the vast wilderness of La Belle Province.

I parked my car, and stepped outside, my legs feeling numb from driving all day, and I began walking around the downtown core, admiring the city’s historic centre, which resembled a scaled-down version of Quebec City.

Walking around as the sun was setting, I came across a large park, featuring a fountain and benches adorned with poems. But it was a giant rock that caught my eye. I noticed a huge boulder, about three feet wide and five feet tall, perched atop a platform, that made it more than six feet high.

I walked toward the rock to see what it signified, and I immediately noticed Hebrew writing and a coat of arms on a brass plaque on one side of the stone.

The plaque read, in French and then English, in part, “This plaque dedicated to the City of Trois-Rivieres… who in 1807 and 1808 elected Ezekiel Hart, a citizen of the Hebrew faith, as its member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada…”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Last year, almost to the day, I had ventured throughout northern Ontario, in search of the beauty of the great outdoors, and had accidentally ventured into the Jewish history of the area. It seemed that, once again, Jewish Canadian history was tapping me on the shoulder.

Without realizing it at the time, I had stepped foot into the birthplace of Canadian Jewry.

Founded in 1634 as the second permanent settlement in New France (the first being Quebec City), today Trois-Rivières is a city of 135,000 people, located on the St. Lawrence River and about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

As the city grew as a centre of commerce, it attracted Aaron Hart and his family from London, England, who came to the New World in 1759. Hart soon became a wildly successful merchant who acquired vast parcels of land in the region.  More than just a wealthy businessman; Hart was the de facto founder of Jewish life in Canada, having helped create Montreal’s first synagogue.

Hart was the commissary general, supplying the British forces led by General James Wolfe in 1760. He also served in the British military in 1775, and helped defeat the attempted American invasion of Quebec led by Richard Montgomery.

It was Hart’s son, Ezekiel, born in 1770 in Trois-Rivières, who was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada from 1807 to 1809 but was initially unable to take his seat in the legislature because the official oath to be sworn in included the phrase “on the true faith of a Christian.”

As I finished observing the memorial in Champlain Park to Ezekiel Hart, the first Jew elected to public office in Canada (and the second known Jew elected in North America), I crossed the street, and noticed that the park, located on one of the main streets in downtown Trois-Rivières, was aptly named Hart Street.

Barely 100 feet away from the Ezekiel Hart memorial is the Salle J.-Antonio-Thompson, a performing arts theatre. But 200 years ago, this theatre, located at 374 Rue des Forges, was the site of the Hart family home, and nearby, at 1873 Rue Notre Dame Centre, was where Ezekiel Hart created one of Canada’s first beer recipes.

Walking through the city of Trois-Rivières, seeing neighbourhoods and buildings, some of which were hundreds of years old, is a bittersweet experience.

Two hundred years ago, the Hart family were pioneers in a less than hospitable land, where they faced antisemitism and assimilation. They succeeded in business, and were elected to public office, but faced discrimination in claiming office.

But it was also here that the first Jews settled in Canada, paving the way for today’s 400,000 Jews to live in one of the most secure and prosperous countries on the planet. And it was also as a direct result of Ezekiel Hart’s difficulty in taking his seat in the legislature that in 1831, Louis-Joseph Papineau, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, sponsored legislation which gave Jews full democratic rights, the first place in the British Empire to do so. Papineau’s actions were based, in part, on Ezekiel Hart’s financial assistance in helping to repel the attempted American invasion of Quebec.

The original Hart family members never saw the fruits of their labours. But Jewish history is replete with leaders and pioneers never enjoying the growth they worked for. Three thousand years ago, Moses never laid eyes on Israel. Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, never saw the modern state of Israel. But like Moses and Herzl, the Hart family created a safe, secure home for hundreds of thousands of Jews, hundreds of years into the future.

Robert Walker is a Jewish community consultant in Toronto. His road trip through Northern Ontario was previously discussed with Ralph Benmergui on Yehupetzville.