Home Culture Canada 150 The fight for equality under the law in Canada

The fight for equality under the law in Canada

On the anniversary of Confederation, it's important to remember that Jewish emancipation contributed to the extension of rights for all.

In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents essays on 10 significant moments in Canadian Jewish history.

The winds of change blowing in the aftermath of the French Revolution finally reached the shores of the Saint Lawrence River in the early years of the 19th century. Indeed, the storms unleashed by the calls for “liberty, equality, fraternity,” precipitated revolutions in Europe between 1830 and 1848, and eventually paved the way for the passage of the Jewish Emancipation Act of 1832 in French Canada, after many trials and tribulations.

This act of the legislative assembly of Lower Canada was one the most important contributions to pre-Confederation Canadian history. This achievement was due primarily to the relentless quest of prominent Jewish families to secure religious and political rights for their community. My mentor and friend, the late David Rome, who was the historian at the national archives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, underscored that without a relentless, multi-generational effort on the part of the founding Jewish families of what eventually became the province of Quebec, it would have taken longer for Canadian Jews to acquire basic civil rights. He wrote in his monograph, Pathways to the Present, “Certainly the intertwined pioneer families of the Harts-Josephs-Judahs-Hayes constituted a talented group. Their repute and their initiative won them the respect and good-will of their compatriots. It was respect gained not by shrinking into obscurity but by aggressive action in defence of ancient rights and new liberties.”

This epic saga for freedom started in 1807 – the very year of the start of Napoleon’s Peninsular Wars in Portugal, which intensified the clash of the French and British empires. London feared that in the event of the French emperor’s triumph in the Old World, its North American colonies would fall prey to an emboldened French Empire in the New World. The exacerbation of political tensions and economic rivalries between French and English polities in Lower Canada also played into the narrative of a growing animosity between the two communities. As if these conflicts were not enough, war with the United States appeared to be inevitable, as smouldering American bellicosity threatened to erupt, as it did in 1812.


It was in such a world in turmoil that Sir Henry James Craig, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, set sail for the colonies as governor general. Determined to deal with to what he viewed as insurrection and sedition – but oblivious to the fact that French-Canadian sympathies were not with Napoleon – he instigated a series of draconian measures, mistakenly called the “Reign of Terror,” on behalf of the official ruling oligarchy in Quebec. Spies, traitors and scoundrels were “seen” everywhere, as fear and loathing brooded over the land. He arbitrarily and illegally imprisoned Pierre Bédard and others connected with the newly founded French-Canadian newspaper, Le Canadien, and clashed with Louis Joseph Papineau. Into this poisonous brew, London and Quebec City poured the contentious issue of the eligibility of judges and Jews to sit in the legislative assembly, which gave rise to the infamous Hart Affair.

When Ezekiel Hart stood for a byelection in Trois-Rivieres on April 11, 1807, he became “a casualty of this clash,” according Gerald Tulchinsky, in his book, Taking Root: The Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community. During the electoral campaign, Hart faced fierce competition from powerful and influential landlords, manufacturers and lawyers, such as Matthew Bell, Thomas Coffin and Pierre Vezina. His Judaism became an immediate issue, prompting the electoral officer, judge Louis Foucher, to throw impartiality to the winds of bigotry. His verbal onslaughts against Hart were so vicious that one commentator noted that “no Spanish monk, in the height of ascetic zeal, could have poured on this subject, more bitter invective and intolerant warmth.” But the electors rejected the odious anti-Semitic rants of his opponents and elected him anyway.

When Hart refused to take the prescribed Christian oath of office, attorney general Jonathan Sewell and Pierre-Amable de Bonne, a member of the legislative assembly, attempted to prevent him from taking his seat. A committee was formed to hear Hart’s reasons, but it decided nonetheless to ban him on the grounds that “Hart professing the Jewish faith can neither sit nor vote in this chamber.”

Determined to face his adversaries, Hart stood again and was re-elected. This time, he took the required oath on April 10, 1809, but it was to no avail: he was refused entry to the assembly, as he was simply a Jew and a Jew could not take the oath on “Saints Evangiles” in good faith. This decision – which was endorsed by Lord Castlereagh, the colonial secretary in London – meant that this was the end of the road for Hart. But his brother, Moses, took up the baton and pressed, to no avail, for legislation to remove Jewish disabilities.


The struggle continued as Samuel B. Hart, Ezekiel Hart’s eldest son, would come to learn that politics and public service still remained off limits to Jews in the years following 1807. But a new chapter opened in our story in 1830, as dramatized in the Heritage Minutes series, when Lord Matthew Aylmer, the new governor of Lower Canada, offered Samuel Hart the position of magistrate and justice of the peace. Unfortunately, after discussing the matter with his advisors, Aylmer had to withdraw his offer to Hart. Furious, Hart wrote a letter that Aylmer personally agreed to forward to King William. At the same time, other “Jewish subjects” of the King submitted a petition to the legislative assembly of Lower Canada, demanding that Jews be allowed to hold public office.

The year Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo by his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, in 1815, Papineau, who had opposed Hart in 1807 and 1809, became the speaker of the legislative assembly. He was not the same man: as an experienced and enlightened leader of his people, he was no longer willing to allow prejudice, partisan politics and ethnic divisions to prevent citizens of Lower Canada from electing their legitimate Jewish representatives freely and without restrictions. Thus, under the stewardship of Papineau, the legislative assembly of Lower Canada finally passed a bill in 1832 that ultimately guaranteed full rights to people practising the Jewish faith for the first time in the British Empire.

On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is important to remember that the 1832 bill contributed to the extension of the rights of Catholics, Presbyterians, Wesleyans and atheists, thus legislatively empowering the idea that would become central to our constitutional architecture: citizens are equal under the law and are endowed with fundamental rights, irrespective of race, gender, religion or personal orientation.