Evidence of meeting #86 for Canadian Heritage in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was community.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Linda Frum  Senator, Ontario, C
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Michael MacPherson
Erin Virgint  Committee Researcher

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Peter Van Loan

I would like to call the meeting to order.

The notice of meeting, as amended, reflects the chair's instructions. The chair, Madam Fry, is not here today, so I will be, as vice-chair, serving as chair today.

The notice of meeting indicates we are to meet for approximately an hour to discuss Bill S-232, an act respecting Canadian Jewish heritage month. We'll hear two witnesses on that particular issue. They are the Hon. Linda Frum, who is the proposer of this bill, and Michael Levitt, who is the sponsor in the House.

As the sponsor, I will ask Ms. Frum to proceed first.

3:35 p.m.

Linda Frum Senator, Ontario, C

Thank you, Chair.

Good afternoon, and thank you for this opportunity to speak to your committee in support of Bill S-232, the Canadian Jewish heritage month act.

I would like to thank Michael Levitt, MP for York Centre, for his role as the driving force behind this bill that has been so warmly received by the Jewish community, and for his efforts moving it forward in the House of Commons. I had the privilege of sponsoring Bill S-232 in the Senate, and was gratified by the unanimous support it received there.

As a proud member of Canada's Jewish community, I enthusiastically support the purpose of Bill S-232, which is to formalize the month of May as a time to celebrate Canadian Jewish culture, and to honour the significant contributions made by Canadians of Jewish faith ever since the earliest days of colonial settlement. The story of the Jewish people in Canada has been, by and large, a story of acceptance, tolerance, and mutual embrace. While not without blemish, Canada has been a country where Jews have been able to enjoy religious freedom, safety, and prosperity.

Today, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish community in the world. Many of those are the descendants of the 35,000 Holocaust survivors whom Canada accepted after World War II.

The month of May was a thoughtful choice as the month to celebrate Jewish heritage. Jewish heritage month is already celebrated at that time in the province of Ontario. Since its adoption, in 2012, Ontario's Jewish heritage month has received widespread support among citizens, community organizations, and local governments across the province.

The month of May has also been proclaimed by the United States as a time to celebrate the contributions of the American Jewish community, and has been ever since 2006, when President George W. Bush and Congress passed a resolution deeming it such. May is also the month that Israel celebrates one of its more joyful holidays, Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day.

One of the key advantages of formally establishing Jewish heritage month into law is that it gives community organizations the inspiration and lead time they need to plan events. For example, in Toronto, the annual Jewish film festival is held during Ontario's Jewish heritage month to celebrate and showcase Jewish film-making from around the world. This is an example of the type of activity that can now become national in dimension.

Across the United States, you will find a wide range of activities during Jewish American Heritage Month, from lectures at the Library of Congress and National Archives, to cooking classes and klezmer music performances in American cities throughout the country.

During the Senate human rights committee hearing on Bill S-232, Senators heard from leaders of the Jewish community about the impact that Jewish heritage month will have on Canada. Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said this about a Canadian Jewish heritage month:

The concept of heritage months offer a proactive approach to peeling back the ignorance that really serves as the engine or driver of the kind of intolerance that all of us would wish to see diminish and eradicated. It is in this context that I think they play an important role in helping other Canadians appreciate the shared values of specific communities...They bring down that sense of suspicion and hostility that is born from a sense of ignorance about other faith communities.

Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B'nai Brith, agreed on the importance of a Canadian Jewish heritage month, saying:

This act is most welcome. It will recognize the many achievements of Canada’s Jewish community, the members of which faced many hurdles from the outset of Canada’s original existence as a colony and yet were able to greatly contribute to the fabric of Canadian society. Despite facing systematic racism, our community has never seen ourselves as victims, viewing roadblocks as opportunities rather than obstacles. It is because of our perseverance and our willingness to stand up to adversity and better ourselves that the Jewish community was able to help build this country up, despite our small numbers.

Mr. Mostyn added that in order for Jewish Canadian heritage month to be successful, it cannot be an insular celebration, a Jewish community celebration only for the Jewish community. He said:

...there is no point in any community holding a celebration for itself. We are all part of Canada and the essence of any heritage day has to be how we communicate the contributions of our particular community to other communities....

Speaking for myself, it is my hope that with the establishment of the Canadian Jewish heritage month, all Canadians will have the opportunity to learn about the culture and history of Jewish Canadians, and appreciate the integral role that the Jewish community has played in shaping Canada, be it in the fields of education, medicine, the arts, politics, journalism, business, and many more.

I am proud that Canadian Jewish heritage month has received unanimous support so far. It is exciting to think that Canada will have a national Jewish heritage month starting as early as May 2018.

I look forward to any questions you may have.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Peter Van Loan

Thank you, Senator.

Now we will move to Mr. Levitt, the sponsor in the House.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and colleagues from all parties for this opportunity to testify before you on Bill S-232, the Canadian Jewish heritage month act.

It's a different experience sitting on this side of the table, but it is a privilege to bring this bill before you along with its Senate sponsor, Senator Frum, who has worked closely with me to make the Canadian Jewish heritage month a reality.

The substance and intent behind this bill began as a motion in the previous Parliament presented by the Honourable Irwin Cotler, the former member for Mount Royal. While it unfortunately did not pass at the time, the overwhelming and multi-party support shown so far for Bill S-232 has been an uplifting experience. As I have stated previously, I have dedicated my efforts on this bill to Irwin Cotler.

To this end, in addition to Senator Frum, I want to particularly thank members of Parliament Peter Kent and Randall Garrison for their strong support of this initiative to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Jewish Canadians across Canada.

I believe this bill has come to the committee at an important time. I understand that you just concluded a study on systemic racism and religious discrimination. I had the opportunity to sit in on some of those meetings, in particular to hear from representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B'nai Brith Canada on the anti-Semitism Jewish Canadians face, and have long faced. As we know, Jewish Canadians are the most targeted group for hate crimes in Canada.

What we're seeking to achieve with this bill is to recognize and share the history and experiences of Jewish Canadians across the country. A Canadian Jewish heritage month would present the opportunity to educate and celebrate Canadian Jewish heritage with Canadians of all backgrounds and would further strengthen and preserve the diversity we pride ourselves on as Canadians.

Canada is home to approximately 400,000 Jews, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, and the history of Jewish Canadians is long and storied. The early Jewish immigrants to Canada came mostly from western and central Europe, followed by eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Following the Second World War and the shame of the MS St. Louis, approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors made it to Canada, followed by refugees from the Middle East and north Africa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish immigration from north Africa, particularly Morocco, brought many francophone Sephardic Jews to Quebec. Beginning in 1990, there was a significant Jewish immigration to Canada from the former Soviet Union, including a large Russian Jewish community.

This very brief history hides the incredible diversity of cultures and experiences that Jewish Canadians have brought with them. I have met Jewish Canadians from all corners of the world: South Africa, Russia, France, Israel, Morocco, India, Iran, Argentina. I'm proud that my own riding is a microcosm of this incredible diversity. In many ways, the diversity of Jewish Canadians mirrors the mosaic of our broader Canadian society, each of us bringing with us our own customs and traditions, making Canada stronger because of them.

I want to share with you my own Canadian Jewish experience. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where there is a very small and very Scottish Jewish community. Many of you may have seen me in my kilt, proudly sporting the Jewish tartan.

In 1983, my mother, Edna, and I left Scotland to embark on what she called a “great adventure”. She brought me to Canada to build a better life and future for us both. Knowing barely a soul, we settled in Toronto because she knew there was a thriving Jewish community that would welcome us and provide us the support we needed. As part of that, we brought and integrated our own traditions to the local Jewish community and Canadian society as a whole. This is an experience I share with a great many Canadians who have found refuge or opportunity in this country.

I want to highlight an example. On July 1, 1946, Holocaust survivors Jacob and Fanny Silberman gave birth to a daughter in an IDP camp in Stuttgart in occupied Germany. Jacob Silberman held a law degree from a renowned Polish university. When he started, he faced a Jewish quota and was one of just a lucky handful of Jews accepted to the school. The classrooms even had segregated seating, known as the bench ghetto.

After surviving the Holocaust, Mr. Silberman applied to emigrate to Canada, but as a lawyer he was rejected by Canadian authorities.

To our shame, Canada had largely closed its borders to Jews since 1933, and they remained closed until 1948, when a small number of tailors were allowed entry to the country. Jacob Silberman was finally given permission to emigrate as a tailoring cutter in 1950, but after arriving, despite his credentials, he was barred from practising law because he was not a citizen. The moment his then four-year-old daughter heard that, she made up her mind she would be a lawyer. In her own words she says:

When people said, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”, I said, “A lawyer.” I knew no women who were lawyers. All I knew was he couldn’t be it, and he wanted to be it, and I would be it.

That daughter is Justice Rosalie Abella. She was appointed to Ontario's Family Court when she was 29. She was then the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 and is now the second longest serving justice on the court.

As she tells it, she was:

...female, Jewish, and an immigrant, in a male profession… It can be a great advantage to understand that you’re different, you’re never going to be like everybody else, and that’s good. Enjoy the fact that you’re different.

Her story, struggles, hard work, and success are emblematic of the history of Jewish Canadians.

My own riding of York Centre became home to a large number of Holocaust survivors like Justice Abella's parents who built new lives here in Canada.

In September I joined Holocaust survivors and the Prime Minister to inaugurate the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, joining local memorials like the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in my riding in Toronto and the Wheel of Conscience at the Canadian Museum of Immigration on Pier 21 in Halifax, which form part of the legacy of survivors and their families.

Their stories are our stories as Canadians and have played out in communities big and small across our country. I am certain every member of this committee can find a history of Jewish Canadians in their communities.

While the largest Canadian Jewish communities are in Montreal and Toronto, part of this bill's purpose is to recognize the role and tell the stories of Jewish Canadians in cities and towns from sea to sea to sea, whether Shefford, Longueuil, Winnipeg, Estevan, Chestermere, or Vancouver.

Each community has a rich history and a story to share, like Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria—Canada's oldest synagogue has been in continuous operation since 1863—or the Jewish community of St. John's, which is one of the oldest in Canada, having arrived in Newfoundland in the 1770s. Even the very small Jewish community in Iqaluit, numbering just 20 people according to the latest census, adds to the fabric of the Canadian Jewish experience.

The enactment of the Canadian Jewish heritage month would ensure that the rich history of Jewish Canadians is recognized, shared, and celebrated across this great country, inspiring all Canadians to build a better, more diverse, and more tolerant Canada for generations to come.

I want to thank you for your consideration of this bill, and I look forward to your questions.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Peter Van Loan

Thank you very much.

We will now go to seven-minute rounds of questions.

We will start with Ms. Dabrusin for the Liberals.

November 22nd, 2017 / 3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

Thank you, Senator Frum and Michael Levitt. I really appreciate that you brought forward this bill and that you took the time to come to talk to us about it today.

I'm Jewish, so I take a particular pride in seeing this bill passing and, as you mentioned, unanimously.

I was thinking back. I'm in the middle of reading a book called Clutch, written by one of my constituents. In fact, she just published it, and it's about the experience of a young Jewish boy growing up on rue de Bullion in Montreal. There are so many different stories like that and great culture and arts that come from distinctively Jewish stories, which I think are quite universal as well.

Thinking about the book I'm reading right now and those different types of stories, if you had your dream scenario of what we could do to promote our great Jewish arts and culture in Canada, what would you like see? How would you map that out?

I'll start with you, Senator Frum.

3:50 p.m.

Senator, Ontario, C

Linda Frum

I know you're from Toronto, as am I, and as is Michael. I think we—

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

I'm from Montreal originally, but I do live in Toronto.

3:50 p.m.

Senator, Ontario, C

Linda Frum

We are the beneficiaries of very rich Jewish culture in the two cities of Montreal and Toronto, so I think the value of something like this in the dream scenario is the broader range of what is possible.

I mentioned the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. I suppose it's not so much that events like that can grow, because they are already very successful where they are, but that they can move and that maybe more communities would take the initiative—because it's May and it's Jewish heritage month—and do something within their communities across Canada where there might be a smaller local Jewish population. This would be a way of opening doors of friendship and understanding in smaller communities.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

I agree with Senator Frum. One of the real values of having a national Canadian Jewish heritage month is that it will give the smaller communities, the ones that we don't hear from.... It's been amazing. I've had people writing in, emailing me, letting me know about communities in their small town in Canada that I'd never heard of before, and probably many people don't know these stories.

Arts and culture are a concern in particular. I was lucky enough to sit on the board of the Koffler Centre of the Arts prior to entering politics. Seeing the vibrancy of the Jewish arts scene and seeing again the depth, whether it's in visual arts or theatre or music, there was so much that can be shared.

I agree with the senator. This is going to be a platform, a podium, that people can rally around and use as an opportunity to be in the spotlight to share the stories. I think there's an incredible potential for the Canadian Jewish heritage month to act as a means to get those stories out from coast to coast to coast.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

Thank you.

You mentioned klezmer music. In Montreal, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band was really popular, and I think it's popular in Toronto as well. We have the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, which is another great festival that gets to bring people out and celebrate and dance. That's an amazing thing.

I really like that you talked about the diversity of the Jewish community and the fact that we do come from so many different places and have different traditions. What opportunities do you see in having a Jewish heritage month, even within the Jewish community, to learn amongst ourselves about the diversity within our own community?

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

Being a member of Parliament gives you such an opportunity to engage with and learn more about your own community. I'll use the Moroccan Jewish community of Toronto—the Sephardic community in Toronto—as an example. I had never engaged nor had an opportunity to learn their celebrations, to attend and to hear about their culture. There are so many unique stories that exist in each of those.

There is the Russian Jewish community. Even in my riding alone, there are four or five different groups that each bring their own flavour to the way they experience the Jewish identity. Again, I think this is an opportunity to be able to focus on that.

I can picture in York Centre, but of course across all the rest of the country, that this will be an opportunity for people to learn and share their experiences outwardly. I think that will be a real advantage and will give us a lot better understanding of how other Jews celebrate, how other Jews live, and what their traditions are.

3:55 p.m.

Senator, Ontario, C

Linda Frum

I agree. The Jewish community is very diverse. Of course, the Ashkenazi community has dominated the culture in most places. Yes, this is an opportunity to broaden that understanding within the Jewish community itself, of itself, and how diverse it is within itself.

Again, as I said, and I was quoting Michael Mostyn, this would be successful if it wasn't just Jews talking to each other, but if it was a way to really share with other communities and to connect with other communities, and part of that would be to show how diverse and broad we are as well.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

I have 40 seconds and I will pass that over to Mr. Graham.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Thank you.

Mr. Levitt, I'm a Scottish Jew with an Irish passport and a Turkish grandfather and a Polish grandmother, all of Jewish descent. I look at Jewish heritage in an alternative way.

I want to quickly recognize the presence of the Honourable Irwin Cotler in the room today. I think it's very important to recognize that he's here for this. That is all the time I have.

Thank you.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

Thank you.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Peter Van Loan

We will now move to the Conservatives.

Mr. Kitchen.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you both for coming today. I appreciate the opportunity.

I come from southeastern Saskatchewan. We do not have a big Jewish community, but I am very proud of the small community of Hirsch, where one of the first Jewish communities in Saskatchewan was founded. The reality that shows this is the Hirsch Community Jewish Cemetery. I bring that up because it was restored in 2000, thanks not only to the Saskatchewan Jewish Council but also the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. To me, that's a great thing to see communities helping communities. I think that's wonderful.

You mentioned heritage education. I support education. I think it's important. We cannot rewrite history. History is history and we need to educate people on that history. Would you expand on how you see this being of value to advance that?

3:55 p.m.

Senator, Ontario, C

Linda Frum

I can respond to that, because you make me think of my own family on my mother's side, which settled in Niagara Falls, Ontario, when they first came to Canada as Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. My great-grandparents and grandparents were part of the group that founded the Niagara Falls synagogue, but there is no longer a Jewish community in Niagara Falls, or rather, there's not enough people to sponsor a synagogue. The synagogue was shut down long ago. There is still a Jewish cemetery. There are still remnants of Jewish life there.

I think you make a good point. That's just one of many such communities across Canada. Cape Breton is famously also one of them. Preservation of Canadian Jewish history is also a potential focus of this, as is a remembrance of where people settled and the contributions they made, even if they are no longer there in significant numbers. This can also be a rich element of what can be done if prompted by a Jewish heritage month.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

I think education is a key component of what a Canadian Jewish heritage month can help bring about. Education on issues like anti-Semitism and tolerance and diversity, and the value of those things in Canadian society, is increasingly necessary as we see the problematic behaviours that this committee has recently examined. I think there are a lot of things to celebrate during a Canadian Jewish heritage month, but there are also a lot of difficult things to reflect on, whether it's the treatment of Jews back in the thirties and forties or the rise in sustained anti-Semitism that exists across the country.

The Toronto board of education recently had an exhibit on the Holocaust, and it was quite a remarkable exhibit. It was staged at a school that has no Jewish presence. They had Holocaust survivors and Holocaust educators go in, train a number of students at the school who were not Jewish, and then they brought students in from across the city to experience it. Some of the facilitators had more of a formal background in Holocaust education, but the students also spoke to them about what they had learned and how it had opened their eyes. I sat in on one of these sessions. As I said, it was a group of kids from a school with no Jewish presence, and I don't think many of them had heard of or understood the impact of the Holocaust and what it was all about, what the lessons are, and the depths of the depravity that took place. Watching them get these lessons from other students and watching them relate to one another, many of them in tears, was quite a remarkable moment.

I think Canadian Jewish heritage month should be a celebration, but it should also be a time to reflect on the difficult lessons that Jewish Canadians have faced across the country. I think this is going to be a poignant element that will be reflected, whether in your community or in the larger communities of Montreal and Toronto.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

In Saskatchewan we talk about being advanced through immigration and through our Ukrainian background. We're quite proud of that in Saskatchewan. It's great to see we have all these communities and new immigrants coming to the region. It's wonderful.

Back in 2002, I believe, the Government of Canada declared May to be Asian Heritage Month, and now we're asking to do the same. Do you see an issue with having two months?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Levitt Liberal York Centre, ON

No, I don't. There are 12 months in the year and there are very many more heritages and peoples to celebrate, so no, I don't see an issue. As Senator Frum commented, the reason we've selected May is that it will coordinate with the Ontario and the U.S, and also some significant dates.

As an anecdote on the Ukrainian connection to this Jewish heritage month, I had the pleasure of meeting the Ukrainian Prime Minister about a month ago. He was in Ottawa, and I went to a reception and was introduced to him, and the person who introduced me said something in Ukrainian, and all of a sudden he turned to me and said, “Shalom”, and put out his hand and embraced me. I didn't know the Ukrainian Prime Minister was Jewish. I went back and did a little bit of research and learned that he comes from a small town where he'd been active in re-establishing the synagogue. He's been active within the Jewish community in Ukraine.

This was new to me, but it just shows you that there are these stories that exist, and maybe there's some connection to that in your Ukrainian community as well. Who knows?

4 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Go ahead, Senator Frum.

4 p.m.

Senator, Ontario, C

Linda Frum

Just from a logistical and practical point of view, it's true. There's probably a lot of other days and heritage months in May as well, not just the Asian and Jewish. I had a list at one point. I've now forgotten it. We'll be sharing this with other groups. That's fine. Frankly, that has potential to do things together because, as I keep trying to say, this is not just about doing things in silos. It really is about communities understanding each other and trying to break down barriers. Maybe it can be seen as a positive and not a negative.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Thank you very much.