Montreal Jews

Public life


Jews and the Public Square in Quebec

Morton Weinfeld

Morton Weinfeld is a professor of sociology, and the chair of Canadian Ethnic Studies at McGill University

The Jewish community in Quebec has made a remarkable contribution to the public life of the province, as elected officials as well as workers in public service or other NGOs. Why remarkable? Because the community in Quebec has made these contributions while at the same time wrestling with marginality: with a status as political outsiders. Quebec Jews historically have been mainly English- speaking in the midst of a francophone majority, and concentrated within English enclaves of Montreal. Their religion was Judaism, in a province where the majority, by heritage or current practice, was strongly Catholic. They were a community with a large immigrant component, with many international family ties, in a province whose population was deeply multi-generational and more local. They were largely federalist in political orientation, as the francophone majority in the post-war period increasingly embraced French unilingualism and Québécois nationalism, and began to consider sovereignty as a political option.

Yet despite these differences, the community has produced respected political figures whose contributions have enriched the lives of Quebecers. In this case the Montreal Jewish community has followed the model of other diaspora Jewish communities in the liberal democracies of the West.

In some cases, the contributions came from leaders who worked within the Jewish community but who made major contributions to the general welfare. A prime example would be the late Manny Batshaw. Batshaw was a social worker, who served as executive vice-president of the Allied Jewish Community Services (AJCS) from 1968 to 1980. In 1975, he was appointed to head a government inquiry studying the Quebec facilities and services for young people at risk. He produced an 11 volume report, arguing for progressive reforms dealing with these issues. The report helped create the system for enhanced youth protection in the province. In his honour, in 1992, four centres serving Anglophone youth in Quebec were amalgamated, and named the Batshaw Youth and Family Centres. He was named to the Ordre national du Québec, in 1995, and the Order of Canada in 2004.

In other cases the contributions consisted of direct political involvement in Quebec governmental and political life. Herbert Marx is a prominent Jurist and Quebec politician. After teaching constitutional law at the Université de Montréal for ten years, he pursued a career in politics. He served three terms as elected MNA for the Liberal party of Quebec, and from 1985 to 1988 was Minister of justice and Attorney General of Quebec. In 1989 he was appointed a Justice of the Quebec Superior court, until his mandatory retirement in 2007. A similar example is that of the late Dr. Victor Goldbloom. A successful pediatrician in Montreal, Dr. Goldbloom was first elected as MNA for D’Arcy McGee in 1966. He was re-elected several times, and was appointed as First Minister of the Environment, until 1976. Dr. Goldbloom was the first Jewish Cabinet minister in Quebec history. That year, he was appointed to head the Olympic Installations Board, and played a major role in seeing that the 1976 Olympic games began on time. After his political career, he played an important role in the NGO world, working toward the goals of intergroup harmony. From 1980 to 1987 he was the CEO of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. From 1991 to 1999 the fluently bilingual Dr. Goldbloom served as Canada’s Commissioner of Official languages, a federal government position.

Perhaps the major Quebec Jewish politician is Irwin Cotler. Cotler first established a successful career as a professor of law at McGill University, specializing in human rights law. During that period he also continued a longstanding commitment to Canadian Jewish life, serving as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1980 to 1983. He served as counsel and advisor to many heroic figures in the international struggle for human rights, such as Natan Sharansky, Nelson Mandela, and Andrei Sakharov. He entered federal politics in 1999, representing the riding of Mount Royal for the Liberal party, and from 2003 to 2006 he served as Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the government of Paul Martin. He retired as an MP in 2016. Throughout his long career as a Cabinet minister and as a MP, Cotler strove to combine a defense of Jewish interests, including the security of Israel, with the need for Cabinet solidarity, a strong and ongoing commitment to basic principles of equal justice for all, and a concern for the rights of all Canadian minorities.

Activity in the public square will often take place outside of formal government and political structures, and outside what could be considered more established or conventional circles of the general of Jewish community. A prime example is the career of the militant left wing pioneer feminist and labour organizer, Lea Roback. A child of a progressive and secular Jewish immigrant family, Lea began to work in Montreal factories as a teen. She later opened the first Marxist bookshop in Quebec in 1935. She helped elect Fred Rose, the first communist in Canada’s Parliament. Fluent in French, English and Yiddish, Roback became a militant organizer with feminist groups as well as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in the 1930s. She continued her pro-union activism, and also became prominent in the anti-war movements as well as the cause of nuclear disarmament.

Is there a common thread that can link the contributions of these individuals to the political and social life of Quebec and Canada? Most likely. By and large, the activism of these and other Jewish political figures has been focused toward more progressive, liberal, and reformist objectives. This would include opposition to anti-Semitism and all forms of religious, ethnic and racial inequality. It would also be reflected in more liberal attitudes on issues related to broad human rights, to poverty and welfare, to women’ issues, and LGBTQ equality. This is the case for Jews in Quebec, as it has been broadly the case for Jew in the rest of North America, and indeed, in Western Europe. It has also been the case for various communal groups such as the Quebec region of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and B’nai Brith. And indeed, the various agencies that were part of the organized Jewish community, AJCS and later Federation CJA, tended to advocate strongly for progressive legislation and policies in the areas of health and social services. In this effort, of course, they were aided by Quebec Jewish politicians who likewise shared this visceral commitment to Prophetic visions of social justice, and concern for the disadvantaged.

Léa Roback (1903 - 2000)
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Abraham De Sola
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Naomi Bronstein (1945 - 2010)
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Jules Helbronner (1844 - 1921)
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Irwin Cotler (1940)
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Fred Rose (1907 - 1983)
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Manny Batshaw (1915 - 2016)
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Sid Stevens (1941)
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20th and 21st Century Public Figures
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Ezekiel Hart (1767 - 1843)
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The Lewis Family
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Harry J. Stern (1897 - 1984)
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Canadian Jewish Congress
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Kalmen Kaplansky
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Justice Alan B. Gold (1917 - 2005)
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David David (1764 - 1824)
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19th Century Public Figures
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Joseph Schubert (1889 - 1952)
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Claire Culhane
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Henry Morgentaler (1923 - 2013)
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The Group of 35
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Victor Goldbloom (1923 - 2016)
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Jewish Gangsters
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Sydney Simon Shulemson (1915)
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Bernard Shane and Maurice Silcoff
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Nancy Neamtan (1951)
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Sir Mortimer B. Davis (1866 - 1928)
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Sheila Finestone (1927)
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Lyon Cohen (1868 - 1937)
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Justice Morris Fish (1938)
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Peter Bercovitch (1879 - 1942)
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