Canada, antisemitism and the Holocaust

Antisemitism closed Canada’s borders to Jews attempting to flee Nazi persecution

By Jeremy Maron

Tags for Canada, antisemitism and the Holocaust

Black and white photo of three signs on a post, reading “Christians only,” “Jews not allowed” and “Danger.”

Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, file no. PC 01-03-074A

Story text

Anti‐Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and beyond intensified during the 1930s under Adolf Hitler’s regime. Many Jews were desperate to escape. Yet even as the Nazis’ ambitions to eradicate the Jewish people were becoming clear, very few countries would open their borders to them. Canada was one of many nations that refused to admit Jews trying to flee the antisemitic oppression that would culminate in the Holocaust.

In 1930s Canada, the social and economic hardship of the Great Depression caused some Canadians to look for scapegoats to blame. This led to increased intolerance and suspicion towards minority groups, including Jews. Despite the worsening conditions for Jewish people in Nazi Europe, antisemitic sentiments – and even support for the Nazis – were widely and openly promoted in Canada. Given the breadth of these sentiments, Canadian Jews faced discrimination and exclusion from parts of Canadian society.

A man wearing a uniform bearing a swastika speaks into a microphone while a group of similarly uniformed men look on.

In 1934, Adrien Arcand founded the fascist Parti national social chrétien (Christian National Social Party) in Quebec. Arcand wrote and spread antisemitic materials as part of his political strategy to establish a fascist state in Canada, based on his admiration of Adolf Hitler. In this image, Arcand – wearing a uniform bearing a swastika – speaks to supporters.

Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, file no. PC1-3-77M-1
Two people play hockey in front of a synagogue with several swastikas painted on it.

Two people play hockey in front of a synagogue with swastikas painted on it, in Sainte‐Marguerite, Quebec, 1938.

Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, file no. PC 01-03-074F

Unsurprisingly, anti‐Jewish sentiment was also commonly found among Canada’s political leaders. Antisemitic perspectives and stereotypes led Canada to severely restrict the number of Jewish refugees let into the country. This restriction would have lethal consequences for Jews living in Nazi Europe who were hoping to flee increasingly violent persecution.

Formal portrait of a white-haired man wearing glasses and a three-piece suit.

Frederick Charles Blair, pictured here in 1932, was Canada’s Director of Immigration before and during the Holocaust, under William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government. Blair developed and enforced restrictive antisemitic immigration policies designed to keep Jewish refugees from coming to Canada.

Library and Archives of Canada, PA-801968, photograph by J.J. Hisgrove

Despite the frantic efforts of advocates both within and beyond the Canadian Jewish community, Canada would admit only a small number of Jews attempting to escape Nazi oppression. Between 1933 and 1948, less than 5,000 Jewish refugees were allowed into Canada – the smallest number of any Allied nation.

A man in a suit poses with two children against the railing of a ship.

Canada was one of the nations that refused to allow entry to passengers on the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis. Over a quarter of those on board would eventually die in the Holocaust. In this image, Siegfried Chraplewski poses with his two sons on the deck of the St. Louis in May 1939.

USHMM photo 59952, courtesy of Peter Chraplewski

In the years and decades after the war, many Holocaust survivors did eventually come to Canada and make it their home. However, the nation’s refusal to admit Jews threatened by the Nazi regime contributed to the deaths of many who were unable to find a route to escape.

This film explores the antisemitism that pervaded Canada during the time of the Holocaust and encourages us to think about our collective responsibility when people face human rights violations around the world.

Ask yourself:

  • How can we recognize and resist bigotry and intolerance caused by difficult economic times?

  • In what ways does antisemitism continue to appear in Canadian society?

  • How are various groups of people stereotyped, insulted, or unfairly blamed for things in my community?