Jewish Canadian Organizations, Coalition Politics, and Human Rights

By: Brendan Campisi

Brendan Campisi

Brendan Campisi is a student, researcher, and occasional writer living on Anishinaabe and Lenni Lenape land in London, Ontario. He has a BA in History from the University of Guelph and is currently studying at Huron University College. He is interested in the histories of labour and left-wing politics in Canada and internationally, and in understanding Canadian history as part of the histories of the British Empire and settler colonialism globally.

Among those groups in Canada that took up the ideas of universal human rights in the years after the Second World War, two Jewish organizations–the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC)–played a key role. Despite early ideological and social divides between them, a shared recognition that antisemitism, which was then widespread in Canadian society, could only be successfully combatted as part of a wider struggle against the discrimination that brought them together.  These two organizations engaged in activism on terrains from mass education to the legal system, built coalitions bringing together a range of groups including civil libertarians and organizations representing other marginalized communities, and played a central role in passing some of the first anti-discrimination legislation in Canada.

Canadian Jewish Congress, Montréal, 1919. Image courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Archives & The Canadian Jewish Heritage Network.

Both the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labour Committee were formed during the 1930s. At this time, antisemitism was pervasive in Canada: widespread discrimination limited where Jews could buy or rent housing, where they could vacation, what professions they could practice, and where they could study–it even provoked occasional violence, most notoriously in the 1933 riot at Christie Pits in Toronto. Kalmen Kaplansky, an immigrant from Poland who became one of the Jewish Labour Committee’s leading figures, recalled being told by the registrar at McGill University that their job was “to keep people like you out of this university.”[i] The Canadian Jewish Congress was formed in 1933-34 to unite existing Jewish organizations and represent the community as a whole when fighting discrimination. Much of the Congress’s early energy went into efforts to end the practice of ‘restrictive covenants.’ These were agreements attached to the sale or rental of real estate that prohibited the buyer or tenant from in turn selling or renting to members of designated groups; in Canada during this period they were most commonly used against Jews and people of colour, although some also excluded Italians and other ‘undesirable’ Southern and Eastern Europeans. The covenants were protected by law, and efforts by the Congress to convince the Ontario government to ban them in the late 1930s were unsuccessful, likely because the government of the day saw the proposal as unwarranted interference in private business.[ii]

The Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) was formed in 1936 by socialist activists in the labour movement with close ties to the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, Canada’s emerging social democratic party. The mass membership of the JLC came mostly from unions in the garment industry, where most of the workers were Jewish.[iii] During its first decade, most of the Committee’s work was focused on efforts to assist Jewish refugees from Nazism before and during the Holocaust, and survivors thereafter. The CJC also devoted much of its energy to this work, which ran into entrenched resistance from immigration officials committed to keeping out Jewish migrants, refugees from genocide or not.[iv] This did not, however, exhaust the Congress’s work during the war years. The organization also continued its efforts to secure legislation against discrimination in Ontario, building ties with other minority organizations, including Black groups, as it began to approach discrimination against Jews as one element of a wider social problem which had to be addressed in a universalist way. In this context, the Progressive Conservative minority government of Premier Leslie Frost, under pressure from the CCF and Communists in the legislature, passed Ontario’s first anti-discrimination law, which prohibited posting explicitly discriminatory signs on businesses.[v] This limited victory set the stage for activists to push for more extensive legislation in the years following the end of the war.

During the second half of the 1940s, the Canadian Jewish Congress continued its efforts to end discriminatory practices, notably restrictive covenants, through a combination of legal challenges and pressure for more extensive legislation. The 1945 Drummond Wren decision, in which the Ontario High Court declared against restrictive covenants and invoked the new discourse of human rights, was an encouraging signal.[vi] The Congress began campaigning for the adoption of Fair Employment Practices legislation in Ontario modeled on the example of the US, particularly northern states like New York. The CJC needed allies in this campaign, which meant building ties with labour and civil liberties advocates. It also meant surmounting the complex tensions over influence, ideology, and social class that had initially divided the Congress and the Jewish Labour Committee. Eventually the two organizations were able to establish a close working relationship, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with the Toronto Association for Civil Liberties that led the FEP campaign.[vii] These three organizations formed the core of a broad coalition, with a 1949 delegation to Queen’s Park involving civil libertarians and anti-racist activists from the Jewish, Black, Chinese, and Japanese communities. In their brief, the delegation argued that action against discrimination corresponded to the principles of Canadian democracy and the country’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[viii] By the early 1950s, these efforts began to bear fruit. In 1950 Ontario banned new restrictive covenants, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Noble and Wolf v. Alley the following year, while not invalidating all existing covenants, made it increasingly rare for them to be enforced. Ontario also passed the long-sought fair employment legislation that year.[ix]

During the same years, the Jewish Labour Committee fought discrimination on its chosen terrain: organized labour. The Committee’s initial work was mostly educational, dedicating itself to showing unionists that bigotry and discriminated weakened the working class. An early Committee report even declared that “anti-Semitism, anti-Negroism, anti-Catholicism, anti-French or anti-English [sentiments] … and union-smashing are all part of a single reactionary crusade of hatred and destruction.”[x] The JLC worked within the two major labour federations in Canada in this period–the Canadian Congress of Labour and the Trades and Labour Congress –to pass resolutions against discrimination at their national conventions and to build a network of local committees across the country. The local committees initially focused on educational work, distributing a thematic publication–the Canadian Labour Report –and working through the schools run by unions for their members. Eventually, however, Kaplansky and other Committee activists decided that legislation was a more effective way to fight discrimination than education.[xi] The local committees began taking part in local anti-racist struggles in cities across the country. In the early 1950s, the Toronto committee took up the cause of Black residents of the southwestern Ontario town of Dresden, who were fighting the discrimination practiced by the town’s white majority. The committee sent activists to the town to prove businesses were refusing to serve Black people and helped publicize the situation as an example of Jim Crow-style segregation that Canadians usually denied existing in their country. This alliance between Black activists from Dresden and the network anchored by the Jewish Labour Committee helped pressure the Ontario government to pass the Fair Accommodation Practices Act in 1954. This alliance exemplifies the way coalition politics was essential to some of the earliest victories for human rights in Canada. By expanding from their initial concern with the discrimination faced by their own community, overcoming the rivalry between their organizations, and building coalitions with other marginalized groups and those concerned with the rights and freedoms of Canadians, the CJC and JLC were able to make crucial contributions to this profound change in Canadian law, politics, and society.

Jewish Labour Committee, Anti-Discrimination Poster Presentation, c. 1960s. Image courtesy of Canada’s Human Rights History.
“Don’t be a Jerk” anti-discrimination poster produced by the Jewish Labour Committee for production in Canada, c. 1960s. Image courtesy of Canada’s Human Rights History.

Further Reading

Ross Lambertson, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Lambertson, ‘”The Dresden Story”: Racism, Human Rights, and the Jewish Labour Committee of Canada,’ Labour / Le Travail, Vol. 47 (Spring, 2001), pp. 43-82.

Carmela Patrias and Ruth Frager, ‘“This Is Our Country and These Are Our Rights”: Minorities and the Origins of Ontario’s Human Rights Campaigns,” Canadian Historical Review 82, 1, March 2001.

James Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1997).

[i]Ross Lambertson, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 285.

[ii]Ibid., 198-202.

[iii]Ibid., 281-82.

[iv]For this sordid story, see Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012 [1983]).

[v]Lambertson, Repression and Resistance, 204-7.

[vi]Ibid., 209-14.

[vii]Ibid., 216-24.

[viii]Ibid., 226.

[ix]Ibid., 235-40.

[x]Ibid., 282.

[xi]Ibid., 287-97.