In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents essays on 10 significant moments in Canadian Jewish history.
Arguably the greatest issue confronting Canada in the past half century has been that of Quebec separatism. For the Canadian Jewish community, there have been few issues of more significance. That period saw the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois on a platform of separating from Canada and referendums on Quebec separation in 1980 and 1995. The events of these decades had an enormous effect on Montreal’s Jewish population and caused significant changes in the makeup and structure of the Canadian Jewish community as a whole, not the least of which was the rise of Toronto as Canada’s preeminent Jewish community.
At the onset of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, Montreal Jews lived with significant social distance between them and the French-Canadians who made up a majority of Quebec’s population. In 1965, journalist and politician Claude Ryan spoke truly when he stated: “I know of very few French-Canadians who maintain friendly private relations with Jews, or who have any serious knowledge of the mentality, the real problems, the frustrations and the aspirations of the average Jew … or who care about such things.”
The Quiet Revolution aimed to change the previous status quo, in which French-Canadians were perceived as disadvantaged, through the political, social and economic empowerment of Quebec’s francophones. The question was how this empowerment would affect the non-French-Canadian minority in the province, including a Jewish community that then numbered 120,000. Would the redress of old injustices come at the expense of Quebec’s minorities? An additional question raised by the Parti Québécois’ 1976 victory was whether the vision of the separatist party would be inclusive of all Quebec residents, or whether inclusion in the new Quebec required minorities to renounce their cultural and linguistic heritage. Initial answers revealed unresolved tensions between French-Canadians and the Jewish population.
There were efforts on the part of some Quebec separatists to reassure the Jewish community. Thus, René Lévesque stated to a Jewish audience in 1971: “I know that history shows that a rise of nationalism means Jews get it in the neck. But what can I do about it? I can’t change your history. But I also know that anti-Semitism is not a significant French-Canadian characteristic. The more serious problem for the Jews is that Jews in Quebec are closely related to the English community. If they choose to put in with them, what can I do?”
And yet, while Lévesque overtly rejected charges of anti-Semitism, within the Quebec nationalist movement, some anti-Semitic myths had clearly been retained. Thus, during the October Crisis of 1970, the radical Front de Libération du Québec published a manifesto, which included an attack on the financial power of the Montreal Jewish community. Other nationalist voices accused Montreal Jews of racist behaviour, hostility toward the French community and failing to assimilate into the Quebec milieu. In 1990, prominent businessman Pierre Péladeau was quoted in an article in l’Actualité, saying, “I have great respect for Jews, but they take up too much room.” A survey taken in the early 1990s similarly indicated that 64 per cent of Quebec francophones were in agreement with the proposition that Jews had too much power over business in the province. Jews in Quebec were further disquieted by former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, who famously attributed the narrow failure of the 1995 referendum to “money and the ethnic vote,” with Jews, among other Quebec ethnics, prominently in mind, as he later revealed.
These apprehensions certainly contributed to a Jewish exodus from Quebec in the decades following the Parti Québécois’ electoral victory. It is estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 Jews left Quebec during these years, leaving a Jewish community much diminished in numbers from its demographic peak of 120,000 in the 1970s. Montreal’s Jewish community was significantly altered demographically by the emigration of so many Jews of Ashkenazi origin, as well as a major influx of francophone Jews of North African origin, the rapid increase of Montreal’s haredi population and the general aging of the Jewish population.
The Quiet Revolution also challenged Montreal’s Jewish communal structure and fundamentally impacted the major institutions of Jewish Montreal, due to increased governmental control over health, social services and education. Most importantly, the empowerment of the French language in Quebec, through Bills 22 and 101, challenged both the community’s educational system, one of its major priorities, and its long-established way of doing business in English. Montreal Federation/CJA’s 1974 Annual Report thus stated that Quebec’s language laws set the Jewish community “back on its linguistic heels,” as it struggled to begin presenting itself publicly in French.
Just as the last half century has seen a significant departure of corporate head offices from Montreal, generally to Toronto, the Montreal Jewish community experienced the decline and ultimate demise of the Montreal-headquartered Canadian Jewish Congress, the “head office” of Canadian Jewry, in favour of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, headquartered in Canada’s now-largest Jewish community – Toronto.
In 1977, Montreal Jewish intellectuals Ruth Wisse and Irwin Cotler published an article entitled, Quebec’s Jews: Caught in the Middle, expressing their uncertainties about the future of the Montreal Jewish community in the aftermath of the 1976 Parti Québécois victory. Seized by a sort of anticipatory nostalgia, they spoke of “the ripe promise” of the Montreal community and of “the virtues of (its) Jewish communal and cultural life.” In the 40 years since they wrote that piece, nostalgia for Jewish Montreal as it was, and might have been, has spread across the globe. In their travels, Montreal Jews often encounter members of a Montreal Jewish diaspora in major cities, from Toronto to Tel Aviv. Stores selling “Montreal bagels” are located in cities from Vancouver to San Antonio, Texas, and from Calgary to Santiago, Chile. Revolutions – even “quiet” ones – have their repercussions.
Ira Robinson is chair of Quebec and Canadian Jewish studies at Concordia University in Montreal.