Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology in the House of Commons, November 7, for the Canadian government’s decision not to accept a boatload of German Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution a few months before the start of the Second World War.
During his remarks, Trudeau also said the government was committed to fighting contemporary anti-Semitism in all its forms.
In May 1939, the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 European Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, arrived in Cuba. Despite the fact that the refugees faced imminent danger, they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada.
The ship had no choice but to return to Europe where some of the passengers were accepted by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Belgium, with the rest ending up back in Nazi Germany. Of the nearly 500 that returned to Germany, 254 were murdered in death camps during the Holocaust.
Trudeau characterized Canada’s refusal to take in Jewish refugees as a test of its humanity, which the Canadian government “failed miserably.”
“[Hitler] watched on as we refused their 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,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau acknowledged that between 1933 and 1945, Canada admitted the fewest Jews – only about 5,000 – of all the allied countries, because of Canada’s discriminatory ‘none is too many’ immigration policy. Many Jews who were allowed into Canada were labelled as prisoners of war and imprisoned alongside Nazis.
“The government of Canada was indifferent to the suffering of Jews long before the St. Louis ever set sail for Halifax, and long after it had returned to Europe,” Trudeau said.
“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. Finally, we apologize to the members of Canada’s Jewish community whose voices were ignored and whose calls went unanswered,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau said the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis would have made Canada stronger, but the government, “went to great lengths to ensure their appeals went nowhere and their cries for help were left unanswered, for Canada deemed them unworthy of a home and undeserving of our help.”
Trudeau noted that while the country has come a long way in its attitudes towards Jews, anti-Semitism continues to be a problem in Canada.
“According to the most recent figures, 17 per cent of all hate crimes in Canada target Jewish people. Far higher per capita than any other group,” he said.
Noting such manifestations of anti-Semitism as Holocaust denial, graffiti attacks on Jewish institutions, “BDS-related intimidation on college and university campuses,” and attacks on the very legitimacy of the State of Israel, Trudeau said “Discrimination and violence against Jewish people in Canada and around the world continues at an alarming rate.”
Trudeau said Jewish Canadians were “understandably feeling vulnerable” following the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and said the federal government would strengthen the Security Infrastructure Program to better protect synagogues and other places that are at risk of hate-motivated crimes.
“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, for they did not end with the war,” Trudeau said.
Leaders of the other parties represented in the House of Commons gave statements of solidarity with the government’s apology.
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said Canada should have offered sanctuary to the passengers of the MS St. Louis.
“There is no shame as a country in acknowledging shameful acts in our past. The real shame would be in forgetting them,” he said.
Scheer also said it was a sign of a healthy society to be “able to look at history clearly and see both the light and the dark” and to celebrate achievements while also mourning past failures.
Similar statements were made by NDP House Leader Guy Caron, Bloc Québécois Interim Leader Mario Beaulieu and the Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
After delivering the apology in the House of Commons, Trudeau attended a reception at the Sir John A. Macdonald Building, where he thanked Canada’s Jewish community for always being one of the first groups to stand up to injustice.
“You are always there with a loud, clear voice, that if we don’t stand up for each other, then we are not standing up for the values we hold dearest,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau met with Ana Maria Gordon, the only surviving Canadian passenger of the MS St. Louis, in his office.
At the reception, Gordon said she felt “blessed” to be able to call Canada home, adding that history must never be forgotten and should serve as a lesson for future generations.
“We see time and time again how history repeats itself. It may be in different forms or places, but just like in the past, many people are being discriminated against, are starving or are running for their lives,” Gordon said. “As individuals, communities and as a nation, we must help people in every way we can, and strive to make this world a safer and better place for all.”
“For many Holocaust Survivors and their families, [the] apology is a profound statement that Canada acknowledges and regrets a decision that caused so much pain and loss,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), in a statement.
Fogel also praised the prime minister’s commitment to expand the Security Infrastructure Program.
“This program enhances the security infrastructure of communities with a demonstrated history of being victimized by hate-motivated crime. CIJA will continue to work with the government on this important initiative and on other practical policies to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms today, including fighting online hate.”