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Ezekiel Hart and the emancipation of Canada’s Jews

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Ezekiel Hart SHALOM QUEBEC PHOTO

In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.

In 1858, the United Kingdom passed legislation granting substantial civil rights to its Jewish citizens for the first time. It was preceded by Canada, however, who passed a similar act 27 years earlier. A significant cause of this legislative progress towards the Canada we know today was the courage and activism of Jewish businessman and politician Ezekiel Hart (1767-1843).

On June 5, 1832, the legislature of Lower Canada enacted the Emancipation Act, which extended full and equal civil rights to the province’s Jews (Lower Canada constituted the southern third of the modern province of Quebec, which in 1841 was joined with Upper Canada in modern Ontario to create the Province of Canada). Passage of the Emancipation Act was in large part a reaction to the earlier refusal of the legislature to allow Ezekiel Hart to take his seat in the house due to his being a Jew, even though he had been elected by the people to Parliament.

Ezekiel was the son of Aaron Hart, a man sometimes called “the father of modern Jewry.” Aaron was one of the first Jews to settle in Lower Canada. He was a businessman whose family was from Furth (now Bavaria) and one of the founders of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal (Shearith Israel) although he himself was an Ashkenazi Jew.

Ezekiel Hart and his brothers, Moses and Benjamin, got their start in the public life of the colony establishing a brewery in Trois-Rivières in 1796. He remained a partner for a few years before going into the import and export trade and acquiring a general store and property. Ezekiel Hart inherited land in Bécancour and bought land at Trois-Rivières and Cap-de-la-Madeleine.

Hart was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1807, making him the first Jew elected to office in the British Empire. Election day, however, was on Shabbat. Hart chose to delay taking his oath of office until the opening of the legislature the following January. That day Hart pronounced his oath over a Hebrew Bible and replaced the last word in the phrase declaring that he was swearing “on the faith of a Christian” with “of a Jew.”

Although this was the manner in which Jews were generally sworn in to give testimony in court, numerous people objected to Hart’s actions, including the colony’s attorney general and several voices in the press. On April 18, Le Canadien, the mouthpiece of the Canadian Party, published a poem decrying the choice of a Jew for a seat as more foolish than Caligula’s appointment of his horse as a Roman consul and priest. Later after Hart expressed his readiness to swear the standard oath, the legislature rejected his offer and passed a resolution stating that, “Ezekiel Hart, Esquire, professing the Jewish religion, cannot take a seat, nor sit, nor vote, in this House.”

READ: THE CJN’S SPECIAL COVERAGE OF CANADA’S SESQUICENTENNIAL

When new elections were held, in 1808, Hart was again elected by the people of his town, Trois-Rivieres. This time, he uttered the standard oath of office but the legislature again voted to expel him after tolerating his presence for only a few days. Hart did not run a third time for the assembly, although he continued to agitate for the rights of Jews. He continued to live and work as a businessman in Trois-Rivieres, and served as an officer in the War of 1812 against the United States.

On June 5, 1832, mainly as a result of Hart’s activism, the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, under the influence and authority of Louis-Joseph Papineau, passed a bill (the 1832 Emancipation Act) that guaranteed full rights to those practicing the Jewish faith. Papineau himself had voted for Hart’s expulsion in 1809.

In 1830, Quebec’s Legislative Council had adopted a law that granted Jews the same religious rights as members of the province’s two officially recognized religions, Catholicism and Anglicanism. The bill included the right to register births, marriages and deaths, a privilege that had previously been denied to Jews. This was followed a year later by the bill guaranteeing the civil and political rights of Jews. The 1832 Act to Grant Equal Rights and Privileges to Persons of the Jewish Religion, the full name of the Emancipation Act, was the culmination of a profound shift in law.

Ezekiel Hart died on Sept. 16, 1843, at Trois-Rivières, at the age of 76. A prominent member of the community, he was accorded an impressive funeral in which all the stores in Trois-Rivières closed and the British army paid him final honours. He was buried in the second Jewish cemetery in Trois-Rivières.

At the time of Hart’s death he lived in an enormous well-furnished house with 16 rooms. He was survived by his 10 children: Samuel Becancour, Harriet, Aaron Ezekiel, Esther Elizabeth, Miriam, Carolina Athalia, Henry, Julia, Abraham Kitzinger, and Adolphus Mordecai.

In October 1909, the remains of Ezekiel Hart and others buried in the Jewish cemetery on Prison Street in Trois-Rivières were moved to Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery of the Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

A one-act play about Hart’s life, The Member from Trois-Rivières, was written in 1959 by Maxwell Charles Cohen for the National Bicentenary of Canadian Jewry (1759-1959). In 2002, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a commemorative plaque to Ezekiel Hart. A plaque was commemorated to him at the Patrimoine de Trois-Rivières.