Manitoba History: Review: Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948
by Michael R. Angel
Recently there has been a flood of books on the Holocaust, but remarkably little has been written on the vigorous efforts of most Allied countries to prevent the victims of Nazi persecution from seeking refuge in their countries. Similarly, much has been made of Canada’s enviable record in aiding the refugees of the world, but until recently commentators have tended to gloss over several major instances in our past which tarnish this supposedly praise-worthy record. Abella and Troper’s book is of particular significance for it is the first in-depth study of an especially shameful incident in Canada’s past—the systematic exclusion of Jews as immigrants or refugees during the years 1933-1948. While there have been previous attempts by members of the Jewish community to document the events and personalities involved, and while the Canadian political scientist, Gerald Dirks has treated the subject in his broader study Canada’s Refugee Policy; Indifference or Optimism?, Abella and Troper’s work is the first to make extensive use of the Canadian public archives, Jewish archives, and personal narratives.
Although Troper is well known as an historian of Canadian urban immigrants, Abella is better known as the author of several somewhat contentious books on Canadian labour history. Together they have produced a work of solid scholarship which is at the same time very readable. This is due in part to the interspersing of personal accounts of individual victims among the facts of the official story. Considering the subject, a polemical account might have been expected, but the authors are remarkably dispassionate, preferring to let the facts and the people speak for themselves.
Canada’s immigration policy during the period discussed is summed up in the words of an anonymous immigration agent, who, when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada, replied “None is too many.” The authors use statistics to argue that Canada’s record of 5,000 Jewish refugees is worse than any other Western country. While their figures are somewhat at variance with other sources such as the new Atlas of the Holocaust, the point remains valid. What accounts for this disgraceful record? Although the depression was obviously a factor, the authors rightly refuse to accept this as an all-encompassing excuse. Certainly no country is eager to accept immigrants at a time when its own citizens have difficulty finding work, but the authors feel there was a deeper reason behind Canada’s especially stubborn refusal to provide assistance to Jewish refugees in particular. Canada’s immigration policy had always been selective, favouring those who would most easily fit into the “Canadian way of life.” While there had been some previous Jewish immigration, the authors feel that there was a subtle, yet all-pervading feeling that these people with their alien customs, language, and religion would not fit into the Canadian mosaic. There was even a feeling that they were responsible to a large extent for their problems in Europe, and would cause problems in Canada if allowed in.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King himself had an ambivalent attitude to the plight of the Jews. On the one hand he recorded his genuine concern in his diary for the plight of the refugees, and valued his friendship with several Jewish colleagues such as A. A. Heaps, the CCF M.P. On the other hand he declared that he was determined to keep Canada united at all costs, and feared that the admission of Jews would jeopardize this goal. He recognized a strong current of anti-Semitism in both French and English-speaking Canada—and recorded his own distaste for certain unsavoury “Jewish” characteristics. For his decision to keep Jews out he had the full support of his Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe, while the rest of the cabinet went along with the decision. It is on these men that the authors lay the main blame for Canada’s policy. However, they point out that the External Affairs mandarins such as Norman Robertson and Vincent Massey readily helped draft and carry out this policy. Perhaps no man was personally more responsible, nor more active in his opposition to Jewish immigration than Frederick Blair, Director of the Immigration Branch. While in theory it was the Minister who was responsible for policy, Blair both made and implemented Canada’s immigration policy during most of the years discussed. An inflexible, narrow-minded man who felt it was his moral duty to prevent the entry of Jews and thus keep Canada pure, Blair was undeniably an anti-Semite. Nevertheless, to the Liberal government he seemed the perfect man for his job, and was in fact given an award for meritorious service when he retired. It would be easy to make a scapegoat of such a man, but Abella and Troper rightly prefer to apportion the blame to a wider group. They graphically illustrate how most of Canada’s politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, businessmen, newspapermen, soldiers, workers, and even Churchmen either actively rejected proposals to help Jewish refugees or at best remained silent.
Not all Canadians agreed with the government’s policy. Georges Vanier, then Ambassador to France, made both official and personal pleas to the government for direct action. In Copenhagen, the CPR Immigration officer Mark Sorenson became increasingly aghast at what he saw as a lost opportunity for Canada to secure highly-skilled immigrants who had both money and talent to offer. In Canada the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and Political Persecution (CNCR) campaigned vigorously across the country for a more liberal, humane response to the victims of Nazi persecution. Nevertheless, they made little headway in convincing a public which at best was apathetic and at worst anti-Semitic. Canadian Jews thus were forced to rely to a large extent on their own resources. The authors point out that they soon found that neither the three Jewish Members of Parliament nor the Canadian Jewish Congress were able to gain any support in government circles. Saul Hayes, to whom this book is dedicated, became the executive director of a special Jewish refugee organization. Although his efforts were successful in a few instances, the authors chronicle numerous other times when his activities were blocked by immigration officials. The most dramatic instance was the refusal in 1939 of Canadian officials to allow any of the 900 Jewish passengers of the S.S. St. Louis to land, forcing it to return to Europe. Schemes to save orphaned refugee children and a community of rabbis were hardly more successful. International conferences to discuss the refugee situation at Evian and Bermuda were programmed for failure since the participants used them as smokescreens for inaction. Pious declarations were issued, but there were no concrete proposals, despite mounting evidence of the systematic destruction of European Jewry.
Even when the war ended and the full evidence of the death camps became clear to all Canadians, there was no immediate lifting of the immigration barriers for the survivors. Canada now was looking for new immigrants, but a 1946 opinion poll showed that only the Japanese were more unpopular as immigrants than Jews—even Germans fared better, presumably because of their Teutonic background. In a similar poll in the United States, Jews fared slightly better, being more acceptable than both former enemies.
None is too Many is the latest in a growing number of books which challenge popular mythologies and explore previously neglected topics. The story is a damning one, and the temptation will be to look for rationalizations as to why it happened. Instead we should ensure that it does not happen again. Recent anti-Semitic teachings and statements in Alberta make it clear that it could. For this reason alone this book deserves to be read widely by Gentiles as well as by Jews. There is no excuse for Canadians not knowing the full story.
Page revised: 17 February 2018Back to top of page