Trudeau apologizes for Canada's 1939 refusal of ship of Jewish refugees

Blanche Robertson
November 8, 2018

"When I was 15 years old in junior high school, on a cold, crisp February night in Winnipeg, I went with a friend to a hockey rink", Carr recalled during a reception following Trudeau's apology Wednesday for Canada's refusal to give refuge to more than 900 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Hitler "watched on as we refused their visas, ignored their letters and denied them entry", the prime minister said in Parliament.

The apology is months in the making and will focus on the decision by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1939 to reject an asylum request from more than 900 German Jews aboard an ocean liner that was nearing Halifax.

When Cuba, the United States and Canada turned the ship away, it returned to Europe where several countries took the refugees in and, according to historians and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), 255 of them were later killed in World War II, majority in concentration camps. More than 250 of them ultimately died in the Holocaust.

"We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, as well as their families", the Prime Minister told the Commons.

"We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction who we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps", he added. In November 1938, Nazi agitators attacked Jews and vandalized synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, scattering broken glass that glittered in the streets like crystal. About 30,000 people were sent to concentration camps, the first large cohort of the millions who would be murdered. "Discrimination and violence against Jewish people in Canada and around the world continues at an alarming rate".

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"And I pledge to you all now: we will do more", he said, noting that around 17 percent of all Canadian hate crimes target Jewish people.

"Holocaust deniers still exist". Critics say the figures are far too low while debate rages about "irregular" border crossers walking over from the United States. "Jewish institutions and neighbourhoods are still being vandalized with swastikas", he said.

The apology came less than two weeks after a gunman shot dead 11 people, including a Canadian woman, at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Before the apology, Trudeau met with Ana Maria Gordon, a St. Louis passenger who lives in Canada, to talk about how the country could fight antisemitism.

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".

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