Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure and the honour to rise today in the House to speak to Bill S-232. If it passes, as I think it will, it will declare the month of May as Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. This is a very important bill.
New Democrats strongly support multiculturalism and Canada’s unparalleled celebration of heritage, as well as the contributions of all the various ethnic and religious groups. Today, many cities and towns across the country have significant Jewish-Canadian communities that celebrate their culture and history. Consequently, the NDP supports granting this heritage and the events taking place every May all the national recognition they deserve. Canada’s rich cultural mosaic is one of the assets that make Canada what it is today, constituting a great strength that it should be very proud of.
According to the 2011 census, nearly 310,000 Canadians from coast to coast have identified themselves as having full or partial Jewish ancestry. The largest groups live in and around Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. Jewish people have lived in Canada for over 250 years. The first recorded Jewish newcomer settled in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1760. Many Jewish immigrants came to Canada between 1880 and 1920, arriving mostly from eastern European countries such as Romania, Poland, and Lithuania.
Immigration restrictions imposed after 1924 made it difficult for Jewish people to come to Canada, unfortunately. This situation persisted until after the Second World War. Tragically, few Jewish people were admitted to Canada during the Holocaust because of the immigration policies in place at that time. Since then, Jewish immigration to Canada has been largely tied to political conditions in their home countries.
For example, there was the arrival of Hungarian Jews and Jewish refugees from Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s, Romanian Jews in the 1960s, Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and North African Jews in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the Jewish-Canadian community and the culture itself are incredibly diverse across communities.
In 2006, the United States proclaimed the month of May as a designated time to celebrate the contributions of the American Jewish community. In 2012, Ontario declared May as Jewish heritage month. May is also the month that Israel celebrates Israeli Independence Day.
Since we are celebrating Jewish heritage, I would like to mark the occasion by recognizing the contributions of three important Jewish Canadians. Let us begin with the artistic, musical, and poetic spheres. Leonard Cohen was born in Westmount, Quebec, on September 21, 1934, into a family of Russian and Polish heritage that was part of Montreal's Jewish community.
In adolescence, Leonard Cohen developed a keen interest in writing, especially poetry. It was also during this critical time that the young emerging artist first learned the basics of guitar. While he was studying at McGill University, Leonard Cohen met the poet and English professor Louis Dudek, who in 1956 helped him publish his very first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies.
Leonard Cohen found tremendous success in the 1970s. In 1977, he released Death of a Ladies’ Man, an album produced by Phil Spector with contributions from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Musically, his 1984 album Various Positionswas a major turning point in this Montreal icon’s career. It includes several of his best-known songs, such as Hallelujah and Dance Me to the End of Love.
Leonard Cohen received numerous awards and honours throughout his prolific career. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 before being named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003.
Léa Roback is another important figure in Canada’s heritage. She was born in Montreal on November 3, 1903. She grew up in Beauport, near Quebec City, where her parents owned a general store. She spoke Yiddish at home and English and French outside. Being trilingual meant that she could switch freely between languages.
Léa Roback’s family returned to Montreal when she was 14. Two years later, Ms. Roback began working in a factory, where she became aware of the inequality between Montreal’s wealthy anglophone families and the mostly francophone and Jewish working class.
In 1936, Thérèse Casgrain, another great Canadian feminist legendary for her work fighting for women’s suffrage and for founding the Voice of Women movement, asked Léa Roback to join in her fight. At that time, Ms. Roback was active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which led the struggle to improve working conditions in that industry.
Ms. Roback was a social justice and human rights advocate for much of her life. Ahead of her time, she was renowned for her progressive work firmly rooted in solidarity. She was involved in numerous Montreal organizations, including Quebec Aid for the Partially Sighted and other humanitarian and feminist groups.
In 1991, Ms. Roback’s eventful life was featured in a documentary by Sophie Bissonnette entitled Des lumières dans la grande noirceur —A vision in the darkness in English—with Les Productions Contre-Jour. Her interviews with Madeleine Parent were published by Nicole Lacelle with Les Éditions du remue-ménage in 1988.
She is another great Jewish Canadian who has shaped our heritage.
In closing, I would like to mention a major Jewish figure who has made his mark on Canadian economic history. Sam Steinberg was a Hungarian-born Canadian businessman and philanthropist. His determination and vision turned his mother's tiny grocery store into Steinberg's supermarkets, at one time the largest grocery chain in Quebec. Sam Steinberg not only became a giant in his field, he was also the head of Ivanhoe and Pharmaprix. In 1974, the National Film Board even made a documentary about him entitled After Mr. Sam.
At one time, the chain was so popular that when Quebeckers went grocery shopping they would say that they were going to do their “steinberg”. Even though they may not necessarily have been going to a Steinberg store, the expression was rooted into Quebec consciousness.
Sam Steinberg and his wife Helen Roth were great philanthropists. They contributed to a host of charitable causes, including the construction of the Judaism Pavilion at Expo 67, the Helen and Sam Steinberg Foundation's Geriatric Day Hospital, and the Sam Steinberg Award for Young Jewish Entrepreneur of the Year, given by the Jewish Chamber of Commerce of Montreal.
This shows how many great Canadians have made their mark on the history of Jewish heritage. That is why I am happy to support this bill that seeks to have the month of May henceforth known as Jewish Heritage Month across Canada.