TORONTO — Lou Ronson, left, an elderly statesman of the community, has dedicated his life to human rights issues and fighting discrimination.
The seeds for his quest to eliminate prejudice and racism were sown
when Ronson, 92, was a schoolboy and he was himself the victim of
Ronson has served on numerous committees and organizations and was
the driving force behind the creation of B’nai Brith Canada’s
Anti-Defamation League, later the League for Human Rights.
The Toronto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born Louis Rosenblatt in 1915. He served as a commissioner on the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1985 and served as vice-chair until 1991. At that time, the commission was located on the exact site where his parents rented a flat when he was a child – on Simcoe Street, midway between Dundas and Queen streets.
When Ronson was 10, his family moved to Port Colborne, Ont., where he was enrolled in the local public school and where he encountered the anti-Semitism that played a major role in his lifelong determination to champion human rights.
“My first day at school, during recess, five kids came charging across the schoolyard, pointing to me and shouting, ‘There’s the new Jew.’ And then I was attacked.”
He was excluded from all social activities at the school, and he had only one friend, the only other Jewish boy at the school. This left an indelible mark on young Louis.
In 1927, the family moved back to Toronto. The 12-year-old entered Jarvis Collegiate, where he was once again shocked when all the Jewish students were in one class, known as “the Jewish class.”
“Soon I was to learn that anti-Semitic taunts and jibes by students, and even some teachers, were not beyond the norm.”
He adds that Jewish students maintained their self-esteem by achieving the highest class averages for each of their five years at the school and receiving a major number of scholarships.
When Ronson applied to chemical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1932 – a time when Jewish students were faced with strict quotas – he was one of six Jewish students accepted into the course from across the country.
After graduation, he was once again faced with blatant anti-Jewish rejection. After searching for a position in his field for a year, the university graduate accepted a menial job at a dry cleaning plant.
In 1943, he enlisted in the army, and when he filled out the required forms, the enrolling officer, who knew him in civilian life, suggested that he change his name from Louis Rosenblatt. He became Lou Ronson.
After the war, Ronson returned to the dry cleaning industry and rose to the position of president and chief executive officer of Sunshine Uniform Supply Co. Ltd. After Sunshine merged with 12 other companies, he assumed the presidency of Work Wear Corporation in 1975. From 1982 until his retirement in 1987, he served as chairman of the board.
Motivated by his early experiences, Ronson says he created the mandate for his life that “regardless of gender, creed, colour, ethnic origin, ancestry, disability or sexual orientation, everyone should be treated with total respect and freedom from discrimination.”
His father, Julius Rosenblatt, was a member of B’nai Brith Canada and from the time he was a child, Ronson says, he read all the B’nai Brith material that came to their house. He followed in his father’s footsteps and jointed B’nai Brith, District 22, Toronto Lodge in 1939.
He served as president of B’nai Brith Canada in 1979-1980 and held several executive positions with B’nai Brith International, including international vice-president from 1988 to 1992.
He served on the national commission of the Anti-Defamation League-League of Human Rights, and in 1994, during the celebration of B’nai Brith’s 150th anniversary, he was selected as one of the 150 outstanding volunteers in B’nai Brith throughout the world.
“I was very proud of the many accomplishments of the league in the past and was proud to have been part of that important work,” says Ronson.
Over the years, he spearheaded numerous causes including combating the anti-Semitic actions of Reverend A. C. Forrest, editor of the Observer, the official periodical of the United Church of Canada, in Forrest’s crusade against the Jewish State.
In 1970, Ronson was one of three representatives of the Jewish community who negotiated an agreement with the Granite Club in Toronto when the Anti-Defamation League mounted an opposition campaign against the club’s discrimination policy.
Ronson has received the league’s rarely bestowed Special Human Rights award and inaugurated the Lou Ronson Human Rights Scholarship Fund, in conjunction with its annual Media Human Rights Award ceremony.
He also took leadership roles in other causes and organizations, including Mount Sinai Hospital, the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Canadian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Community Centre of Toronto, the Canada-Israel Committee, UNESCO and the Israel Chamber of Commerce.
Looking back on his life in a recent interview, he spoke of his children, Jeremy, a professional musician, Rhonda, an entrepreneur, and his devoted wife, Hilda, who recently passed away “after 60 wonderful years of marriage.
“My life has been very rewarding. There were many challenges and we would meet them. It’s helped me to grow and to contribute to the building of a society where there will be no discrimination.
“There have been great improvements,” he added, “but we still have a ways to go.”