Mr. Speaker, on May 15, 1939, more than 900 German Jews boarded an ocean liner called the St. Louis. The passengers had been stripped of their possessions, chased out of their homes, forced out of their schools and banned from their professions by their own government. Their synagogues had been burned, their stores raided, their clothing scarred with yellow stars. They had been forced to add “Israel” or “Sarah” to the names they had known their whole lives.
Women and men who had once contributed so much to their country had been labelled aliens, traitors and enemies and were treated as such: persecuted, robbed, jailed and killed because of who they were. Nazi Germany had denied them their citizenship and their fundamental rights, yet when the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg that fateful Monday, the more than 900 stateless passengers on board considered themselves lucky, lucky because they each carried on board an entrance visa to Cuba, a rare chance to escape the tyranny of the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler.
By the time the ship docked in Havana harbour, things would take a turn for the worse. The Cuban government refused to recognize their entrance visas, and only a few passengers were allowed to disembark. Even after men, women and children threatened mass suicide, entry was denied.
So continued their long and tragic quest for safety. They would request asylum from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama. Each said no. On June 2, the MS St. Louis was forced to leave Havana, with no guarantee that they would be welcomed elsewhere.
After the Americans denied their appeals, they sought refuge in Canada, but the Liberal government of Mackenzie King was unmoved by the plight of these refugees. Despite the desperate plea of the Canadian Jewish community, despite the repeated calls by the government's two Jewish caucus members, despite the many letters from concerned Canadians of different faiths, the government chose to turn its back on these innocent victims of Hitler's regime.
At the time, Canada was home to just 11 million people, of whom only 160,000 were Jews.
Yet even that proved to be too many for many Canadians, including Frederick Charles Blair, who then headed the government's immigration branch. In a letter dated September 1938, the minister wrote:
Pressure by Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add that, after 35 years of experience here, it has never been so carefully controlled.
Not a single Jewish refugee was to set foot, let alone settle, on Canadian soil.
The MS St. Louis and its passengers had no choice but to return to Europe, where the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Holland agreed to take in the refugees. When the Nazis conquered Belgium, France and Holland, many of them would be murdered in the gruesome camps and gas chambers of the Third Reich.
The story of the St. Louis and its passengers is no isolated incident. The Government of Canada was indifferent to the suffering of Jews long before the St. Louis ever set sail for Halifax, and sadly, long after it had returned to Europe.
In the wake of the Great Depression, Canadian lawmakers had begun to tighten restrictions on immigration, adopting policies that were both economically and ethnically selective.
To the government of the day, Jews were among the least desirable immigrants; their presence on our soil had to be limited. The government imposed strict quotas and an ever-growing list of requirements designed to deter Jewish immigration.
As the Nazis escalated their attacks on the Jews of Europe, the number of visa applications surged. Canadian relatives, embassy officials, immigration officers, political leaders—all were flooded with calls for help.
Wealthy businessmen promising job creation; aging parents vowing to take up farming; pregnant women begging for clemency; doctors, lawyers, academics, engineers, scientists imploring officials and the government to let them serve our country. They offered everything they owned, promising to comply with Canada's every request.
These refugees would have made this country stronger and its people proud, but the government went to great lengths to ensure that their appeals went nowhere, that their cries for help were left unanswered, for Canada deemed them unworthy of a home and undeserving of our help.
By 1938, the world was wrestling with a growing refugee crisis. When leaders of all nations convened in Evian to discuss the future of Jews in Europe, no country stepped forward to drastically increase its quotas. Jews were viewed as a threat to be avoided rather than as the victims of a humanitarian crisis.
When Canadian lawmakers returned from Evian, they used their powers to further tighten the rules around Jewish immigration, legitimizing the anti-Semitic sentiment taking hold at home and abroad. Bitter resentment toward Jews was enshrined in our policies, the same policies immigration officials would later use to justify their callous response to the St. Louis and its passengers.
Of all the allied countries, Canada would admit the fewest number of Jews between 1933 and 1945, far fewer than the United Kingdom and significantly fewer, per capita, than the United States. Of those it let in, as many as 7,000 were labelled prisoners of war and injustly imprisoned alongside Nazis. As far as Jews were concerned, none was too many.
In the years leading up to the war, Hitler tested the world's resolve. He noted carefully as country after country proved itself indifferent to the plight of Jewish refugees. He watched as we refused them visas, ignored their letters and denied them entry. With every decree, he challenged the political courage of our leaders and the empathy of those who elected them. With every pogrom, he tested the bounds of our humanity and the limits of our solidarity. Adolf Hitler's test is one the Canadian government failed miserably.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a sombre turning point in Hitler's racial policy and the beginning of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht happened on the heels of that Evian Conference, where the world cemented its indifference and antipathy towards Jews. There is little doubt that our silence permitted the Nazis to come up with their own final solution for the so-called Jewish problem.
When Canada joined the war against Germany—when we were fighting for democracy abroad—we were failing Hitler's victims at home. What we were willing to do abroad, we were unwilling to do at home.
The plight of the St. Louis did not lead to a significant change in policy, nor did alarming reports from across Europe or the gruesome details of a coordinated effort to eliminate Jews. When the allies caught wind of the concentration camps, they did not bomb the rail lines that led to Auschwitz, nor did they take concrete action to rescue the remnants of Europe's Jewish community.
When the war ended, Canada and the allied powers discovered the full horrors of the Holocaust. We joined the world in condemning in the strongest terms the death camps of Hitler and the despicable cruelty of his actions. And yet, even the industrial mass murder of more than six million Jews did not force a swift change in our immigration policy.
It would take another three years for Canada to open its doors and take in Jewish refugees at the same rate we took in non-Jewish German nationals at the end of the war. It would take new leadership, a new world order and the creation of the State of Israel, a homeland for the Jewish people, for Canada to amend its laws and begin to dismantle the policies that had legitimized and propagated anti-Semitism.
Adolf Hitler alone did not seal the fate of the St. Louis passengers or the Jews of Europe. To harbour such hatred and indifference towards the refugees was to share in the moral responsibility for their deaths. While decades have passed since we turned our backs on Jewish refugees, time has by no means absolved Canada of its guilt or lessened the weight of our shame.
Today I rise in the House of Commons to issue a long overdue apology to the Jewish refugees Canada turned away. We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, as well as their families. We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction, whom we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps. We used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada's response, and we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.
We apologize to the mothers and fathers whose children we did not save, and to the daughters and sons whose parents we did not help. We apologize to the imprisoned Jewish refugees who were forced to relive their trauma next to their tormentors.
To the scientists, artists, engineers, lawyers, businessmen, nurses, doctors, mathematicians, pharmacists, poets and students, to every Jew who sought safe haven in Canada, who stood in line for hours and wrote countless letters, we refused to help them when we could have. We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. We failed them and for that we are sorry.
Finally, we apologize to the members of Canada's Jewish community whose voices were ignored, whose calls went unanswered. We were quick to forget the ways in which they had helped build this country since its inception, quick to forget that they were our friends and neighbours, that they had educated our youth, cared for our sick and clothed our poor. Instead, we let anti-Semitism take hold in our communities and become our official policy. We did not hesitate to circumvent their participation, limit their opportunities and discredit their talent. They were meant to feel like strangers in their own homes, aliens in their own land. We denied them the respect that every Canadian, every human being, regardless of origin, regardless of faith is owed by their government and by their fellow citizens.
When Canada turned its back on the Jews of Europe, we turned our back on Jewish Canadians as well. It was unacceptable then and it is unacceptable now. The country failed them, and for that we are sorry.
The story of the St. Louis and the ill-treatment of Jews before, during and after the Second World War should fill us with shame. Shame because these actions run counter to the promise of our country. That is not the Canada we know today—a Canada far more generous, accepting and compassionate than it once was. A place where citizenship is first defined by principles and ideals, not by race nor by faith.
This change in attitudes, this shift in policy was no accident. It was the work of Canadian men and women who dedicated their lives to making this country more equal and more just. Men and women who were children of the Holocaust, Jewish refugees or descendants of the oppressed.
These Jewish women and men took part in social struggles for fairness, justice and human rights. At home, they furthered the great Canadian causes that shaped this country, causes that benefited all Canadians. Abroad, they fought for democracy and the rule of law, for equality and liberty. The scope of their impact should not only be recognized, but celebrated. They were scientists and activists, ministers and singers, physicists and philanthropists. They were and continue to be proudly Jewish and proudly Canadian. They helped open up Canada's eyes and ears to the plight of the most vulnerable. They taught us tikkun olam, which is our responsibility to heal the world.
When Canada chose to turn its back on refugees more than 70 years ago, not only did the government fail to help the most vulnerable, it harmed all of us. Jewish Canadians have made immense contributions to our country, as do all the immigrants who have chosen and continue to choose Canada.
As we stand here today, we are reminded of not only how far we have come, but also of how far we still have to go. During this Holocaust Education Week, it is all the more impossible to ignore the challenges and injustices still facing Jews in this country.
According to the most recent figures, 17% of all hate crimes in Canada target Jewish people, a far higher figure per capita than for any other group. Holocaust deniers still exist. Anti-Semitism is still far too present. Jewish institutions and neighbourhoods are still being vandalized with swastikas. Jewish students still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation. Out of the entire community of nations, it is Israel whose right to exist is most widely and wrongly questioned.
Discrimination and violence against Jewish people in Canada and around the world continues at an alarming rate. Less than two weeks ago, not too far from here, a gunman opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six others. Among those wounded were four police officers who had arrived at the scene to defend the congregants. These worshippers were gathered in peace to practise their faith. They were murdered in their sanctuary on Shabbat because they were Jews.
This was a heinous anti-Semitic act of violence motivated by hate, designed to inflict pain and stoke fear in the Jewish community. Canadians were horrified by this vicious attack on the Jewish community and its values. Across Canada, people organized vigils in honour of the victims. They stood in solidarity with their Jewish brothers and sisters and echoed a sentiment shared from coast to coast to coast, that anti-Semitism and all forms of xenophobia have no place in this country or anywhere in this world. Canada and Canadians will continue to stand with the Jewish community and call out the hatred that incited such despicable acts.
These tragic events ultimately attest to the work we still have to do together, work that begins with education, our most powerful tool against the ignorance and cruelty that fuelled the Holocaust, because, sadly, these evils did not end with the Second World War. Canada and all Canadians must stand up against xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes that still exist in our communities, in our schools, and in our places of work. We must guard our communities and institutions against the kinds of evils that took hold in the hearts of so many, more than 70 years ago, evils that did not end with the war.
Following the recent horrific attack in Pittsburgh, Jewish Canadians are understandably feeling vulnerable. We know that here in Canada we are not immune to hate and hate crimes grounded in anti-Semitism. Our government and members of Parliament are working with the Jewish community to better protect their communities against the threat of anti-Semitism. Places of worship are sacred and should be sanctuaries for all faith communities. There have been clear calls to do more through the security infrastructure program to protect synagogues and other places that are at risk of hate-motivated crimes, and I pledge to all now that we will do more.
As we stand here today, we must commit ourselves not just to remember, but to act on this tragic history so our children and grandchildren flourish in a world in which they are never questioned or attacked because of their identity. Sadly, this is not yet that world.
Too many people of all faiths from all countries face persecution. Their lives are threatened simply because of how they pray, what they wear or what last name they bear. They are forced to flee their homes and embark upon perilous journeys in search of safety and a future. This is the world we all live in and this is therefore our collective responsibility.
It is my sincere hope that by issuing this long overdue apology, we can shine a light on this painful chapter of our history and ensure that its lessons are never forgotten. What we can hardly imagine, the passengers of the MS St. Louis, the victims of the Holocaust, and their descendants will never forget.
While no words will ever erase their pain, it is our sincere hope that this apology will help them heal, that it will bring them some peace, that it will cement Canada's unwavering commitment to stand with the Jewish community here and around the world in the fight against anti-Semitism, as the Jewish community in Canada and around the world is always among the first to stand against intolerance and hate in any form.
More than 70 years ago, Canada turned its back on them. But, today, Canadians pledged, now and forever, never again.