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.