Michael Levitt

Your member of parliament for

York Centre

Michael Levitt

Your member of parliament for

York Centre


Speech on Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

On June 20, Bill S-232, the Canadian Jewish Heritage Month Act, had its first hour of debate.

The text of my speech is below, and video of it can be found here. Progress on the bill can be followed on the Parliament of Canada website.

Mr. Speaker, it’s a great honour to be here today as we consider Bill S-232, An Act respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, and I am honoured to be the sponsor of this Bill in the House.

I want to acknowledge Senator Linda Frum who has partnered with me in introducing this bill which received unanimous support in the other place. I hope today to convince members of this chamber to give it the same enthusiastic support.

I want to particularly thank the honourable Members for Thornhill, and Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke for their strong multi-partisan support of this bill.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the efforts of my friend and mentor the Honourable Irwin Cotler, whose tireless work as a defender of human rights are a badge of honour for the Canadian Jewish community.

Professor Cotler originally introduced the substance of this Bill as a motion in 2015. As I stand here today, I want to dedicate my efforts in bringing this Bill before the House in Irwin Cotler’s honour.

Aaron Hart, widely regarded as the first Jewish Canadian, settled in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec in 1760. In the more than 250 years since, Jewish Canadians have been deeply involved in building this wonderful country that we are all so privileged to call home.

Whether coming to Canada in search of economic opportunity, freedom from persecution, or in service to the Crown, Jewish Canadians from St. John’s, to Victoria, to Yellowknife have played an active role in the unfolding Canadian story.

The early Jewish immigrants came predominantly from Western and Central Europe, followed in the late 19th century by increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans.

Approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors made it to Canada, followed by Jewish refugees fleeing 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. This group is now a large portion of Montreal’s Jewish population, and a small but vibrant part of Toronto’s Jewish community, including the Communauté Juive Marocaine de Toronto in my own riding.

Beginning in 1990, there was significant Jewish immigration to Canada from the former Soviet Union, including the Russian Jewish Community.

Canada is home to nearly 60,000 Russian-speaking Jews, a thriving community represented by institutions like Toronto’s Jewish Russian Community Centre.

In 1983, my mother Edna and I left our home in Scotland to embark on, as she explained to me at the time, 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.

I am a proud Canadian, and I am honored to represent the people of York Centre in this House.

And I am a proud Scottish Jew, a member of a small but mighty “clan” whose tartan I proudly wear today.

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, and making Canada even better because of it.

Today, I stand in this house, as the Member of Parliament for York Centre, on the shoulders of the dedicated, brave, and committed Jewish men and women who paved the way before me.

It is in their merit, that I encourage all Members of this House to support this bill.

One of the most inspirational Jewish Canadians for me was the Honourable David Croll, who served as Liberal Member of Parliament representing the riding of Toronto-Spadina for a decade following World War II, before being appointed Canada’s first Jewish Senator.

Mr. Croll came to Canada when he was six years old, his family fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Through hard work selling newspapers and polishing shoes, he was able to put himself through law school.

In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, Croll was elected Mayor of Windsor – the first Jewish mayor in Ontario – where he instituted welfare programs for the jobless and the poor.

Croll became a Member of Provincial Parliament in 1934, where he served as Minister of Labour and Public Welfare – the first Jewish Canadian to be a Minister of the Crown.

In the first days of the Second World War, Mr. Croll enlisted with the Essex Scottish – one of more than 17,000 Jewish Canadians who answered the call to serve.

As a federal parliamentarian, Croll championed a range of social issues from healthcare to pensions, from tax credits for the poor to prohibiting discrimination.

One of his greatest achievements, in my view, was in pushing for the opening of Canada’s immigration regime.

Between 1933 and 1948, under Canada’s notorious “none is too many” policy, only 5,000 Holocaust refugees were admitted to Canada, the fewest of any Western country.

The most egregious example of this misguided policy happened in 1939, when Canada turned away the MS Saint Louis. There were more than 900 Jewish refugees on board seeking sanctuary here in Canada, and they were turned away. Forced to return to Europe, 254 died in the Holocaust. We cannot turn away from this uncomfortable truth, and Canada’s part in it.

In 1949, however, Canada admitted 11,000 Jews – more than any country other than Israel.

Nate Leipciger is one of the survivors who came to Canada. Seventy three years after having survived the lowest point of his life, Nate returned to Auschwitz, this time as the highest point in his life. He came back by invitation, to guide and teach his Prime Minister, the head of government of his adopted country about the horrors he endured and the lessons we must never forget.

He described his return to Auschwitz last year with the Prime Minister as “triumphant”. He said, “They gave me a one-way ticket, but I returned with my wife, daughter and granddaughter, and the Prime Minister of Canada.”

He came full circle, from dehumanized to sharing some of the most poignant, human moments, shedding tears with the Prime Minister.

We as Canadians must remember the lessons taught by history from this awful period. Monuments like the National Holocaust Memorial soon to be opened in Ottawa, to local ones like the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial at Earl Bales Park in Toronto, form part of the legacy of survivors and their families. They came to Canada and became Canadians in their own right. Their stories are our stories as Canadians.

I am proud that my riding became home to so many Holocaust Survivors, emerging from the ashes of Europe to begin building new, vibrant lives here in Canada.

Pola and Zalman Pila were two of them.

They both survived the death camps and death marches, and were reunited after liberation, the sole survivors of their families.

They arrived in Toronto soon after, penniless, not speaking English, a married couple with an infant son.

With little formal education, they worked day and night to make a life for their children and, later, their grandchildren. They took the shattered remnants of their lives, and with faith, love and determination built an inspiring future.

Pola delivered food right to the doorsteps of those in need, visited the sick and provided financial assistance to all who asked.

Her contributions, and the contributions of Jewish women to Canada have been tremendous.

Consider Bobbie Rosenfeld. She was known throughout the 1920’s as the Superwoman of ladies’ hockey. In 1924 she helped form the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association, serving as its president until 1939.

Rosenfeld won Gold and Silver medals at the 1928 Summer Olympics after setting multiple Canadian track and field records.

She was also a trailblazer off the field– a strong advocate for women in sport.

In 1950, Rosenfeld was voted Canada’s female athlete of the half-century by the Canadian Press, which awards Canada’s top female athlete every year with the “Bobbie Rosenfeld Trophy.”

Mr. Speaker, I could go on, listing the myriad contributions of Jewish Canadian women like Tillie Taylor, the first woman to be appointed as a provincial magistrate in Saskatchewan, or Constance Glube, appointed the first female Chief Justice in Canada on the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1980, or Justice Rosalie Abella, who was born in a German IDP camp and became the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.

But it is not just the individual achievements that should be celebrated. Indeed, the Jewish contribution to Canada has often been greatest when it has come as the product of communal action in furtherance of a shared purpose.

In 1868, just one year after Confederation, the Toronto Hebrew Ladies Sick and Benevolent Society was established.

With no paid staff and a budget of only a few hundred dollars, these visionary women built the foundation of what would become one of the leading family service agencies in North America – Jewish Family & Child.

Based in York Centre, I’ve had the privilege of seeing first hand how JF&C continues to have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of vulnerable Canadians from every background. JF&C upholds the Jewish value of tikkun olam, the idea that individuals are responsible not only for their own welfare, but for the welfare of society at large.

It is one of several inspiring Jewish organizations in my riding that champion this ideal including:

  • B’nai Brith Canada, which can trace its roots to 1875;
  • the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, the first Jewish Women’s organization in Canada founded in 1897;
  • and Canadian Hadassah-WIZO and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which are both celebrating 100 years of life-changing charitable contributions to Canadian society.

These stories have played out in communities big and small across Canada. I am certain that every Member of this House from every province and territory can point to the role that Jewish Canadians play in their communities.

As celebrated as these stories are, a darker undercurrent of Canadian Jewish heritage must also be acknowledged. Canada has sadly not been immune to anti-Semitism, a scourge that remains stubbornly in our midst.

On June 13th, Statistics Canada released hate crimes data for 2015. Jewish Canadians were once again the most targeted religious minority in the country.

As a Jewish Canadian, I find this data to be doubly concerning. Throughout history, the level of anti-Semitism has been a fairly accurate barometer of the overall condition and health of a society.

An attack against Jews or any minority is an attack on everyone.

In the face of this persistent problem, we must join together and state unequivocally that when it comes to incidents of hate and discrimination in Canada, we cannot abide hate and prejudice being targeted against any group.

Jewish Canadians have always been at the forefront of standing up and fighting against hate and discrimination.

Consider Canada’s first Jewish parliamentarian, Ezekiel Hart, who in 1832 was instrumental in Quebec becoming the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to accord full political rights to Jews, twenty-six years before Great Britain.

This commitment to universal equality and the fight against hate and discrimination remains a core priority for Jewish Canadians, and for me personally, standing here today as a result of Ezekiel Hart’s activism.

It being Pride Month, I also want to recognise the efforts of Kulanu Toronto, the voice of the Jewish LGBTQ community in Toronto. I had the honour of attending their Pride Shabbat dinner last week, a celebration of the Jewish LGBTQ community.

This Pride month, we can also celebrate Bill C-16 yesterday receiving Royal Assent– affirming and protecting gender identity and expression under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and under hate crime sections of the Criminal Code.

I am proud of the active role the Jewish community played in advancing this important legislation. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs served on the steering committee of Trans Equality Canada – a coalition that has worked tirelessly to see this initiative succeed.

The stories I have shared here today are Canadian stories. The values they reflect are Canadian values.

The enactment of Canadian Jewish Heritage Month will ensure that the historic and ongoing contributions of Jewish Canadians are recognised, shared and celebrated across this great country, cementing their legacy and inspiring future generations to build a better Canada.

I encourage my honourable colleagues in this House to support this Bill.