Canadian Jewry

Canada's multicultural society has shaped its Jewish community.

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Canada has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, following the United States, Israel, and France. Its population, currently numbering 372,000, is concentrated mostly in Toronto (175,000) and Montreal (80,000), with smaller communities in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and other cities. Canadian Jews are well-educated, relatively affluent, and maintain a vibrant cultural and communal life. 

Establishment and Expansion

The first Jewish arrivals in Canada were members of the British Army, fighting in the Seven Years War (which won Canada for Britain in 1760). Prior to that, King Louis XIV had decreed that only Roman Catholics could enter New France (as Canada was known) leading to an official absence of Jews in the colony. In 1829 the law requiring Canadians to take an oath as Christians was amended to make an exception for Jews, and in 1831 male Jews were given full political and religious rights. In 1850 the Jewish population in Canada was only about 450; in 1871, Canada’s first census recorded 1,115 Jews.

With the onset of the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s, rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the outbreak of World War I, and Canada’s post-confederation development efforts, many European Jews fled to Canada, bringing the Jewish population of Canada to over 155,000 in 1930. Most of the immigrants who settled in Montreal or Toronto started out as peddlers but eventually established businesses, playing a leading role in the development of the textile industry. Jews who settled in the west were storekeepers and tradesmen and developed the fishing industry. Some Jews attempted to establish farms on the prairies, though most of these were unsuccessful due to the farmers’ lack of experience.

canadian flagFollowing World War I, Canada changed its immigration policies, restricting the entrance of people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestant or from the United Kingdom. Following the Great Depression, even more immigration restrictions were imposed, derived, in part, from racial and religious prejudice. Despite attempts by the Canadian Jewish Congress, working alongside the social democratic party (the CCF), to enable the Jews of Europe to find sanctuary in Canada, Canada generally denied entrance to Jews, allowing fewer to enter than did other western countries. Of the tens of thousands of Jews seeking refuge during World War II, only 5,000 were allowed into Canada.

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Sharonne Cohen is an Israeli-Canadian writer, editor, translator, and teacher. She currently lives in Montreal.

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