Kalman Kaplansky is known as the zayde (grandfather) of the human rights movement in Canada.
Kaplansky was born in Bialystok, in present-day Poland. In 1929, following his high school graduation, he immigrated to Canada by himself. There, he intended to enroll at McGill University, but his efforts were thwarted by the institution’s rigid anti-Semitic quota system. Instead, Kaplansky became a tradesman, working as a typesetter and linotype operator from 1932-43. During the Great Depression, he quickly rose to prominence in the Labour movement as a trade union executive. He was a delegate of the Montreal Typographical Union 176 to the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, and then to the merged Canadian Labour Congress. To support the war effort, he enlisted as a sergeant in the Canadian Army from 1943-46.
In 1939, Kaplansky helped to form the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) in Canada – which was an offshoot of the American Labour organization, founded six years earlier. He served as the JLC’s secretary from 1936-38, and was its national director from 1946-57. Sitting at the organization’s helm, he steered the JLC movement towards a human rights focus, not just directed at combating anti-Semitism but at discrimination against all racial and ethnic minorities, including Black Canadians, French Canadians and First Nations. His efforts were instrumental in passing the Ontario Fair Employment Practices Act of 1951, which banned racial discrimination in hiring, and had a positive ripple effect all across Canada. He went on to play an important role in the International Labour Organization and the Canadian Labour Congress, as well. He also had close ties to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – the NDP’s predecessor – and was a candidate in two elections: provincially in 1944 and federally in 1950.
In 1947, Kaplansky, along with Moishe Lewis, famously spearheaded the “Tailor’s Project” – a joint effort of the JLC and the Workmen’s Circle to circumvent Canada’s stringent quota system for Jewish immigration and bring in hundreds of refugees from DP camps as garment industry workers after WWII. He was later awarded the Order of Canada.
Special thanks to the Museum of Jewish Montreal.