Jewish Heritage Month in Canada : Remembering history and celebrating legacy

May marks the celebration of Jewish Heritage Month in Canada, as the country takes an opportunity to learn about the rich history of Jewish Canadians, as well as the substantial role that they play in all areas of Canadian life.

Jewish Heritage Month has been celebrated in Canada ever since 2018, when Parliament unanimously passed a bill proclaiming its recognition. But it is only to highlight a history that goes much further back than the 21st century.

A deep history

It is believed that many of the first Jews who came to Canada arrived throughout the early-to-mid 18th century. Many of those joined as part of a regiment of British Forces, troops of General Jeffrey Amherst who overthrew the city of Montreal in 1760. This, at a time when the forces of Upper and Lower Canada, colonial territories belonging to the British and French empires respectively, continued to clash in an attempt to claim control of Canada as a whole.

Early census numbers indicate only around 200 Jewish people living in Canada around 1831, and about 1000 Jewish people before Confederation in 1867. Throughout the 20th century, however, Jewish immigrants continued to arrive in larger Canada along with numerous other cultural and ethnic groups. After thousands sought refuge in Canada from violent pogroms in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century, immigrant families became more established, and synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish cultural facilities began to appear in nearly every city in Canada.

David Oppenheimer, Jewish-Canadian mayor of Vancouver from 1888 to 1891. | Photo courtesy of the British Columbia Archives

But as the 20th century rolled on, antisemitic rhetoric grew more prominent, and despite the well-known increasing plight of Jews in Europe, Canadian politicians enforced increasingly strict immigration policies in the 1920’s onward. Arguably one of the most noteworthy, tragic events in Canada’s history pertaining to this growing antisemitic trend was the case of SS St. Louis in June of 1939. Carrying 937 Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany, just months before the start of World War II, the St. Louis was denied entry into port in Canada, and forced to return, where many from that voyage would ultimately perish in the Holocaust.

After 1947, Canada did once again open its doors to Jewish immigrants, including more than 40,000 Holocaust survivors in the years that followed. And in the decades since then, as Jews have continued to face varying levels of persecution in different places around the world, Canada has continued to serve as a popular place to emigrate.

In that time, many Jewish Canadians have contributed numerous cultural and political impacts on the country, particularly in British Columbia.

Vancouver-born, Jewish-Canadian actor and producer Seth Rogen. | Photo by Stephen McCarthy (CC BY 2.0)

Lasting legacies

David Oppenheimer was arguably one of the most influential Vancouverites in the city’s history. Born in Germany, then moving to Canada via the United States, Oppenheimer arrived in 1858 to cash in on the gold rush taking place at the time in British Columbia. An entrepreneur and a businessman, he was elected as the second mayor of Vancouver in 1888, and during his tenure established the fire department, a ferry across the Burrard Inlet, the streetcar system, Stanley Park and more.

In more recent history, Vancouver-born Seth Rogen is one of the more well-known faces in television and comedy in the Western world. The emmy-nominated actor served producing and acting roles in many of the most popular and critically well-received R-rated comedies of the 2000s and 2010s, including The 40-Year-Old VirginSuperbad and Pineapple Express. He’s also known for his numerous voice acting roles in family-friendly animated movies including Shrek the Third, the Kung Fu Panda series, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

Beyond B.C., numerous other Jewish Canadians have left lasting legacies on Canada’s political, social and cultural landscape. These include the critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, pop rap all-star Aubrey Drake Graham – better known by his stage name middle name – acclaimed radio and television host Barbara Frum, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein, and many more.

With Jewish Heritage Month well on its way, this May marks an opportunity to celebrate and remember the history and legacy of these Jewish Canadians, as well as the many more that call this country home.

Source – Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs 2024.

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