Politics

Survivors watch as Trudeau apologizes for Canada’s 1939 refusal of ship of Jewish refugees

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed Wednesday that his
government will do more to protect synagogues and other places
of worship from violence as part of an apology for anti-Semitic
policies that denied refuge in Canada to Jews fleeing the
Holocaust.

It was 79 years ago that the government of William Lyon
Mackenzie King rejected an asylum request from an ocean liner
carrying more than 900 German Jews as it neared Halifax,
forcing it back to Europe.

Most of the passengers scattered across the continent and more
than 250 of them died in the Holocaust.

A handful of surviving passengers from the ship were on hand in
the House of Commons to hear the apology and opposition
parties’ responses.

Between 1933 and 1945, Canada admitted the fewest Jews of any
Allied country, Trudeau said. Of those Canada did let in, some
7,000 Jews were held as prisoners of war and jailed alongside
Germans captured on battlefields, he said.

Opposition party leaders also called Canada’s policies at the
time unacceptable in speeches on the week marking the 80th
anniversary of what is known as “Kristallnacht. In November
1938, Nazi agitators attacked Jews and vandalized synagogues
and Jewish-owned businesses, scattering broken glass that
glittered in the streets like crystal.

The rejection of the St. Louis the next year helped Hitler sell
his “final solution” that ended with the murders of six million
Jews: Jews couldn’t be expelled from German territory because
nobody would accept them.

“The whole premise of the St. Louis was the culmination of
bigotry and hatred that is rearing its ugly head again and I
think this is a very poignant part of this,” said Eva Wiener,
who was a child aboard the St. Louis.

Trudeau said Holocaust deniers still exist and anti-Semitism
remains a live problem in Canada, noting the latest numbers
from Statistics Canada show Jews are the most frequent targets
of religiously motivated hate crimes.

The whole premise of the St. Louis was the culmination of
bigotry and hatred that is rearing its ugly head again

The prevalence of anti-Semitism showed itself almost two weeks
ago when a gunman killed 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh
synagogue simply because they were Jewish, Trudeau said.

The ensuing days have seen countrywide vigils and calls for the
government do to more through a federal program that funds
security improvements at places at risk of hate-motivated
crimes, such as synagogues.

“I pledge to you all now we will do more,” Trudeau said,
without providing more details.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish
Affairs, said in a statement that his organization would work
with the government on the details of the pledge “and on other
practical policies to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms
today.”

The head of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Avi Benlolo,
said it is up to governments to “take serious measures that
help counter hate crimes against minority groups.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the apology for past
wrongs should be a reminder that anti-Semitism “is not a relic
of the 1930s.

“This apology should not make us comfortable. On the contrary,
it should grab us and shake us. It should be an alarm that
jolts us out of our daily routines and demands that we look at
our world today through the lens of that experience.”

Guy Caron, who leads the NDP in the House of Commons, said
hints of the racist policies that helped Hitler rise to power
can be seen around the world. He called for a focus on tackling
anti-immigrant and hate speech, particularly online.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who first called for an apology
for the St. Louis incident, said politicians needed to call out
any racist talk even if it comes from their own supporters.

“There is speech out there that we tolerate — that we sometimes
nod-nod, wink-wink to … and we shouldn’t be tolerating that
speech,” he said outside the House of Commons.

The story of the St. Louis gained renewed attention last year
when picture and stories of the victims circulated on social
media in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to
ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.

The Liberals’ new immigration plan calls for up accepting to
16,500 protected persons in 2019, a category that includes
refugees, growing to 20,000 in 2021. Critics say the figures
are far too low while debate rages about “irregular” border
crossers walking over from the United States.

The Canadian Council for Refugees said many refugees trying to
get into Canada are often fleeing persecution just like the St.
Louis passengers.

“History will judge us by whether we respond in ways that
respect the rights and dignity of refugee claimants, just as we
today judge those who turned away the St. Louis and other
Jewish refugees,” the council said.

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