The Lewis Family is made up of four generations – Moishe, David, Stephen and Avi – who have all devoted their lives to labor and social rights issues.
The grandfather of the Lewis family, Moishe Lewis, was a local Bund leader (Jewish socialist party) in the shtetl of Svisloch (present-day Belarus). After immigrating to Montreal in 1921, he worked in his uncle’s clothing factory. He also continued his labour activism, becoming involved with the Workmen’s Circle, and serving as the Secretary of the Canadian Jewish Labour Committee for many decades. By 1947, Prime Minister Mackenzie King permitted a slight loosening of Canada’s stiff immigration policy, paving the way for the Jewish Labour Committee’s Moishe, along with Kalman Kaplansky and Bernard Shane, to spearhead the Tailors Project. This initiative, part of the 1947 federal bulk labour program, was designed to stimulate the Canadian economy by soliciting skilled labour from European displaced persons, successfully employing Jewish refugees in Canada’s textile industry. For his efforts with labor and civil rights, the Jewish Labour Committee honored Moishe by establishing the Moishe Lewis Foundation in 1975.
Moishe’s son, David Lewis, would follow in his father’s footsteps, leaving an indelible mark on Canadian politics as a labour lawyer and the key architect of Canada’s social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP). At McGill University, David was sought after as a skilled debater and writer and was one of the first Jewish students awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. Completing his postsecondary studies at Oxford University, he became inspired by Britain’s Labour Party, returning home to implement a Canadian version of social democracy. His bold vision was evident at a scholarship assessment interview with Sir Edward Beatty, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). When asked what his first action would be if elected Prime Minister, he promptly replied, “I’d nationalize the CPR.”
In 1935, David turned down an offer to work in the British Parliament, instead obtaining a law degree in Ottawa, where he became national secretary of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (1936–1950). His political career attracted attention in 1943 when he lost to his communist competitor, Fred Rose of the Labour Progressive Party, for Montreal’s Cartier riding. David’s work in furthering Canada’s social democratic cause led to correspondence with political leaders and union heads involved in Montreal’s labour struggles. A fierce critic of communism, Lewis relied on his brief experience as a labour lawyer to encourage union members to transfer their support to social democracy. His Make This Your Canada: A Review of C.C.F. History and Policy (1943) was a surprisingly popular history of his party’s policy statements advocating for state control of the economy. Considered more “controversial” than his predecessor, Tommy Douglas, David finally won a seat in Parliament in 1962–1963, and again in 1965–1974, in Toronto’s York South, despite difficulty in convincing the well-off Jews of the district that an atheist who was not a Zionist and had socialist inclinations would represent them well in Parliament.
His commitment to the CCF’s socialist mandate facilitated the emergence of its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, with Lewis at its head a decade later. The only Jew to lead a national party in Canada, David campaigned against “corporate welfare bums” and paved the way for parliamentary acceptance of acts including affordable housing. After losing the 1974 election, he became a travel correspondent and professor in Ottawa, where he died in 1981.
Stephen Lewis is a Montreal-born politician, diplomat and social activist. Like his father and grandfather before him, he has been a long-standing and loud voice of progress on the left, both nationally and internationally, and is especially known for his work on HIV/AIDS prevention. Stephen served as leader of the Ontario NDP party from 1970 to 1978. He also worked with UNICEF and was Canada’s Ambassador to the UN before he was named UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006.
In 2003, he co-founded and chairs the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, designed to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, and holds professorships at McGill and Ryerson Universities. Stephen has been honoured with 40 doctorates and a myriad of awards including the Order of Canada, the highest honour of the African nation of Lesotho, and Canada’s Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, for which he was the first recipient. In 2005, Time Magazine counted him among the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2012, Macleans called him the Canadian of the Year.
Stephen is married to journalist, author, and social activist Michele Landsberg and is the father of Avi Lewis, spouse of Naomi Klein, both prominent leftist broadcasters and NDP leaders. Michele has written three bestselling books, and was one of the first journalists in Canada to address issues like sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2006, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Stephen’s son Avi has served as MuchMusic’s political specialist, has hosted CBC’s Newsworld’s show counterSpin, and has directed a number of documentaries.
Special thanks to the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
King, Joe, and Johanne Schumann. From the Ghetto to the Main: the Story of the Jews of Montreal. Montréal: Montreal Jewish Publication Society, 2000.
King, Joe. Fabled City: the Jews of Montreal . Montreal: Price-Patterson, 2009.
Lewis, David, and F. R. Scott. Make This Your Canada; a Review of C.C.F. “History and Policy,”. Toronto: [Central Canada Pub.], 1943.
Lewis, David. The Good Fight: Political Memoirs 1909-1958 . Toronto, Canada: Macmillan of Canada, 1981.
Smith, Cameron. Unfinished Journey: the Lewis Family . Toronto: Summerhill, 1989.
Tulchinsky, Gerald. Branching Out: the Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1998.