First Jew elected to public office in Canada
Ezekiel Hart’s important contribution to Canadian history pre-dates Confederation. In 1807, Hart, who was from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, was elected to represent the area in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, the first Jew elected to public office in Canada.
Hart was born May 15, 1767 in Trois-Rivières, the second son of Aaron Hart and Dorothea Judah Hart. Aaron Hart, an officer in the British army during the Seven Years’ War with France, is widely believed to be Canada’s first Jewish settler.
Ezekiel Hart’s early business career, circa 1792, was with his father in the fur trade. During this period he married Frances Lazarus, who was from the United States.
In 1796, Hart and two of his brothers founded the M. and E. Hart Company, a brewery in Trois-Rivières. Later, Hart operated an import-export business, owned a general store and became a significant landowner after inheriting the seigneury of Bécancour, one of seven seigneuries owned by his father.
Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly on April 11, 1807, defeating three other candidates. However, because the election was held on Shabbat, Hart refused to be sworn in that day opting to wait for the opening of the legislature the following January to swear his oath.
Hart was sworn in on January 29, 1808 using a Hebrew Bible and with his head covered. The next day, the attorney general of Lower Canada, Jonathan Sewell, objected to seating Hart in the legislature as his oath was not taken in the prescribed manner. Hart, he said, would have to be sworn “on the true faith of a Christian.”
On February 20, 1808, the legislature by a vote of 35-5 decided that “Ezekiel Hart, Esquire, professing the Jewish religion cannot take a seat, nor sit, nor vote, in this House.”
In an election later in 1808, Hart was again elected to represent Trois-Rivières. This time, though, he took the oath on a Christian Bible and assumed his seat when the legislature reconvened in 1809. However, after several days, he was again expelled because he was Jewish.
Hart continued his successful business career in Trois-Rivières but did not run for office again. He also served as an officer in the British militia during the War of 1812.
These events of 1807-1809 became known as the Hart Affair and the reverberations continued to be felt over the following decades. In 1832, the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada passed the 1832 Emancipation Act, which gave full political rights to Jews, setting a precedent for the British Empire.
Hart died September 16, 1843 in Trois-Rivières and was buried in the Jewish cemetery there. His wife had died in 1821, but he was survived by their 10 children. In 1909, Hart’s remains, and those of others in the cemetery, were transferred to the cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. This profile of Ezikiel Hart, the first in the series, was published in the January 23, 2017 issue of the Bulletin.