HISTORY

JEWISH ROOTS IN QUÉBEC

ROLE IN QUEBEC SOCIETY

  • The first Jews arrived in Quebec in the 1760s and settled in such areas as Trois Rivières, Quebec City, the Port of Montreal (now Old Montreal) and other regions of Quebec. The first synagogue, the Spanish & Portuguese, was established in 1768 near the Port of Montreal.
  • Ezekiel Hart was the first Jew in Quebec elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada (Chambre d’assemblée du Bas-Canada) in 1807, and was the first Jew elected to office in the British Empire.
  • On June 5, 1832, the legislature of Lower Canada enacted the Act to Grant Equal Rights and Privileges to Persons of the Jewish Religion, supported by Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Patriotes party in the Assembly, and Speaker of the House. Quebec thus became the first place in the entire British Empire to grant equal rights to Jews.
  • Judge Alan B. Gold was the first Jew to be named Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec in 1970, and the first Jew to be named Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec in 1983.
  • In 1970, Dr. Victor Goldbloom was named Minister of State responsible for Quality of Environment and then in 1973 Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister of Environment, the first Jewish member of Cabinet in Quebec.
  • In 2008, the Quebec National Assembly was the only jurisdiction in Canada to pass a unanimous resolution congratulating Israel on its 60th anniversary, affirming Quebec’s commitment to Israel’s legitimacy and its security needs while calling for a two state solution.
  • In 2008, the Quebec government also ratified the Quebec-Israel Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement, which renewed and expanded previously signed agreements in 2007 and 1997.
  • The Jewish community has established and supports many institutions that benefit all Quebecers, including the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital where over 70% of the patients are, in fact, not Jewish.
  • The Jewish community has also contributed to the economic, cultural and academic success of Montreal, whether with iconic businesses such as Seagram’s, Brown’s and Aldo, with major developers like David Azrieli and Marcel Adams, or by its support for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, McGill University and l’Université de Montréal.

HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION TO THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF QUÉBEC

Professor Ira Robinson, Department of Religion, Concordia University

The Jewish community has been a vital part of Quebec society for well over two centuries.  Jews inaugurated the first synagogue in Montreal, Shearith Israel, in 1768.  In doing so, they constituted the first non-Christian, non-aboriginal community in what would become Canada.  The people who made up this community came here from countries which did not extend most political and civil rights to Jews.  In the developing societies of North America, however, the restrictions which characterized the situation of European Jewish communities had become less relevant.  By the end of the eighteenth century, Lower Canada, as Quebec was then called, faced the then controversial issue of whether Christians alone were to enjoy full political rights or whether these rights could be extended to others, such as Jews, as well.  Ultimately, in 1832, the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada voted to politically enfranchise Jews.  Quebec was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do this, over a quarter century in advance of England in this regard.

 


To explore more of Montreal's Jewish history,
visit the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal.

The Jews who came to Quebec in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries found a generally welcoming environment, and contributed significantly to Quebec’s social and economic advancement.  The community, however, remained fairly small in numbers.  As late as the Canadian Dominion Census of 1871, the Jewish community of the Province of Quebec numbered less than 500 souls.  This situation would change drastically at the very end of the nineteenth century.  At that time a massive wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe, seeking economic betterment and equality of opportunity came to Canada as it came to the United States, England, Argentina, and other countries hospitable to immigration.
 
This new Yiddish-speaking cohort of Jewish immigrants caused the Jewish population of Quebec to increase by more than 800% between 1901 and 1931, from approximately 7,000 to 60,000.  These immigrants, who quickly made Yiddish the third most prevalent language in Montreal, after French and English, were at first poor in material resources, but rich in both cultural heritage and in a desire to put down roots in their new home.

Because governments at that time did not offer a comprehensive system of social welfare, but rather left institutions like hospitals and orphanages to be directed by religious communities, the Jewish community early on developed its own “social safety net” of clinics and mutual aid societies along with an impressive list of religious and cultural institutions such as synagogues, schools, libraries, and newspapers.  These institutions fostered a Jewish religious and cultural creativity which made  Montreal into a Jewish community that contributed significantly to the development of Jewish culture in North America and worldwide.
 
The Jewish community generally prospered under political conditions in which Jews were guaranteed equality of rights and opportunities.  Their labour and entrepreneurship helped make Montreal a prosperous manufacturing centre, and the most prominent city in Canada.  There existed, nonetheless, elements in the Quebec population that were alarmed by the growth of the Jewish community.  They were concerned that the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Jews detracted from the Christian character they felt befitted the Dominion of Canada and the Province of Quebec.  These elements included Anglophone Protestants, who worried that Jewish children were going to overwhelm the Protestant School System and significantly diminish its Christian character, as well as Francophone Catholics.  From the perspective of the latter, Jews constituted first of all, an element which threatened the Christian character of the community.  Also, because Jews were being educated in the Protestant schools and were therefore acculturating to English Canada, they feared a diminution in the French and Catholic character of Quebec.  It is no wonder, then, that racist and antisemitic attitudes of varying degrees of virulence were widely expressed in Quebec in this era.  These attitudes significantly affected the attitude of the Canadian government toward Jewish immigration from the 1920s to the 1940s.  They also caused the Jews, who in various ways felt less than welcome because of them, to create their own social and cultural spaces.  Thus if the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Quebec were classically referred to as “the two solitudes”, it could be said that the Jews of Montreal in this era formed a “third solitude” of their own.

It was the enormity of the Holocaust, perpetrated by the racist antisemitism of Nazi Germany against the Jews of Europe, that served to alter for the better the attitudes of many in Quebec toward their Jewish neighbours.  The late 1940s saw a significant renewal of Jewish immigration to Quebec by survivors of the Holocaust, who greatly contributed to the growth of the Jewish community demographically, economically and culturally.

In the 1950s, Quebec began to absorb yet another major wave of Jewish immigration, this time not from Europe but primarily from North Africa.  These Jews were bearers of a significantly different Judaic culture, Sephardic, than that of the overwhelmingly European, or Ashkenazic culture of the Quebec Jewish community.  Moreover, these new Sephardic immigrants were speakers of the French language, and their presence required the Jewish community to adjust its language of discourse and its ways of doing things.  It also required the general community of Quebec to change its image of Jews as being solely Anglophone.  Smaller but significant immigrations of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, Israel, Argentina, and other places in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first further increased the diversity of the Jewish community.
 
A final important element in the makeup of the Jewish community of Quebec is the Hasidic community.  Though most synagogues in Quebec were and still are Orthodox, and though even non-Orthodox synagogues in this community tend to be significantly more conservative in their practice and outlook than similar institutions elsewhere in North America, the Hasidic community practices a much stricter interpretation of the Judaic tradition.  This community’s desire above all is to be allowed to live its life and to develop its own schools and other institutions with the least possible interference from others.  Hasidim in Quebec began to develop their communities in a small way in the post World War II period, but have greatly increased in the last several decades due both to immigration and natural increase.  The latest studies indicate that this community now numbers more than 10,000 Jews.

The tremendous changes which have characterized Quebec in the latter part of the twentieth century, including the Quiet Revolution, Bills 22 and 101, and the Referenda of 1980 and 1995, have had a significant effect on the Jewish community.  The Jewish population of Quebec peaked at approximately 120,000 in 1971, and stands presently at about 93,000, nearly all of whom live in the Greater Montreal area.  This demographic diminution has caused some basic changes that have had the effect of reorienting the community.  It is now more Francophone than previously, and its Sephardic Francophone component, now numbering more than 20,000, is being successfully integrated into the community’s leadership that historically had been almost entirely Ashkenazic in composition.  Its younger generation–both Ashkenazic and Sephardic–is more fluently bilingual than in the past.  Its Hasidic community makes up a greater percentage of its demographic base than previously.  It is nonetheless recognizably the same Jewish community whose traditional strength and cultural creativity make it the envy of other similarly-sized North American Jewish communities.