Canada is apologizing for turning away Jewish refugees in 1939 — why that matters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will apologize Wednesday on behalf of Canada for turning away Jewish refugees who were fleeing persecution in Europe.

In 1939, the MS St. Louis was carrying 907 German Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi violence. Its captain tried in vain to find homes for his passengers, looking for refuge in Cuba and the United States. But they were turned away.

The ship then tried to dock in Halifax, but then-prime minister Mackenzie King didn’t allow it.

In the years leading up to and including the Second World War, the Canadian government heeded anti-Semitic sentiment by severely restricting Jewish immigration. From 1933 to 1945, only about 5,000 Jewish refugees were accepted due to what Trudeau called “our discriminatory ‘none is too many’ immigration policy” in place at the time.

The Jewish refugees on the ship were forced to return to Europe, where 254 of those aboard eventually died in the slaughter that became the Holocaust.

Now, about 79 years later, Trudeau will stand in the House of Commons and apologize to those refugees.

Politics professor Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University and tracks political apologies, told Global News that this apology will largely be symbolic.

But she explained that not all official apologies are equal — some include compensation to those affected, while others further political agendas.

“In the case of the apology to the Jewish people, it could be that Prime Minister Trudeau honestly feels that this is a travesty,” she said, noting it’s tough to know exactly what the intentions are.

“It’s also kind of a stand-in for all of the other anti-Semitic things that happened in Canada.”

Howard-Hassmann explained these weren’t the only Jewish refugees Canada turned away, and those in the country already faced all sorts of hardships and discrimination.

Is there a point in apologizing?

That depends on the apology — and whether real change has occurred, the professor said.

It also varies among individuals, Howard-Hassmann explained, noting some may feel closure while others may be more cynical.

“For some people … it tells them that the government now acknowledges that what happened was wrong, that what happened to them should not have happened,” she said.

But she noted that some apologies, like ones offered to Indigenous Peoples for past injustices, are often not received well.

“We didn’t apologize for things that are ongoing, the government has not apologized for extremely high rates of incarceration of Indigenous people. It hasn’t apologized for lousy schools on reserves, because they’re underfunded compared to provincial schools. It hasn’t apologized for water supplies that are contaminated.”

Apology comes after U.S. synagogue shooting

While Trudeau’s apology has been months in the making and was scheduled before a gunman killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue, it now carries new meaning.

Canadian Jewish leaders say that means the prime minister must acknowledge modern-day problems the community faces.

Steve McDonald, the director of policy with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his group hopes the apology will spur wider talk about how to address anti-Semitism “regardless of our background.”

“It is not enough to apologize for the past. There must be a pathway forward to deal with these incidents of anti-Semitism,” said Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada.

Trudeau mentioned that idea in a letter to Jewish leaders following the shooting. He wrote about speaking out against anti-Semitism and said he would “call on Canadians to do the same.”

Hate crimes against Jewish Canadians

The latest figures on hate crimes from Statistics Canada show the Jewish population was the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016.

Anti-Semitic incidents increased 24 per cent that year. B’nai Brith Canada said 2017 saw another increase.

A handful of the incidents were violent, with harassment and vandalism accounting for the bulk.

— With files from Global News reporters Katie Dangerfield, Stewart Bell, and The Canadian Press

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