An Alberta opposition MP is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to formally apologize on behalf of the government of Canada for turning away Jewish refugees on board the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939.
“This was a blight on Canada… one of the worst incidents in Canadian history,” said Deepak Obhrai, Conservative MP for Calgary Forest Lawn.
The government of Canada has formally apologized for a number of “dark chapters” in Canadian history, including the Chinese head tax, the residential schools scandal, the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and, most recently, for turning away the steamship Komagata Maru, which was carrying 376 migrants seeking refuge in 1914.
“We must not forget another terrible incident, in 1939, when Canada refused to accept 907 Jewish refugees on board the German trans-Atlantic liner St. Louis who sought safe haven in Canada. As a result, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps,” Obhrai said.
“An apology by the government of Canada to the survivors, relatives and the Jewish community would serve as an acknowledgment of Canada’s harsh treatment of these refugees. It would enable us to reflect on, and learn from this past injustice and strengthen our resolve to be an inclusive nation that protects refugees fleeing persecution,” Obhrai added.
Obhrai, who served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs and for international human rights in Stephen Harper’s government, first made his call for an apology during an address to the Canadian Humanitarian Coalition at a World Refugee Day fundraising event on Parliament Hill on June 7.
Obhrai told The CJN that while there is an exhibit in Halifax at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 about the St. Louis, that educational display does not preclude the need for an official government apology.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said that while he hadn’t seen Obhrai’s proposed apology, successive governments “have tried to confront the less than noble past of our country with regard to the St. Louis.
“The whole notion of ‘none is too many’ is a dark chapter in Canadian history,” he said.
“None is too many” refers to the response of a senior Canadian official in 1945 when he was asked how many Jewish refugees should be allowed into the country. It also refers to the 1983 book that used the phrase as its title, co-authored by Canadian historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper.