I just learned about the ill-fated MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner that set sail from Hamburg on May 13, 1939, with 937 refugees from Nazi Germany. The hope of those on board was to find a refuge from the storm gathering in Europe, and to that end they sailed across the ocean, seeking entrance first in Havana, Cuba, then the U.S. and Canada. Only 7 of the passengers were not Jewish. Most were German citizens.
When they were turned away from Cuba, they sailed next toward Miami. Some of the passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge, but he failed to respond. Continuing the journey, the St. Louis was within two days of Halifax Harbour when William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to grant the Jews the refuge they sought. The director of Canada's immigration program at the time, the anti-Semitic Mr. Frederick Blair did his best to block the immigration of Jews into Canada, and according to official statistics, he was good at what he did since only 5,000 Jewish refugees entered Canada from 1933 to 1948. That number, unfortunately, is the lowest record of any Western country.
In January 2011, a memorial called The Wheel of Conscience was unveiled in Halifax, at Pier 21, Canada's national immigration museum. Dedicated to the memory of the Jews on board the St. Louis, the Wheel stands where those Jews likely would have taken their first steps onto Canadian soil, had Blair not officially epitomized the country's then reluctance to raise a righteous hand in action against wrongdoing.
The Wheel does not stand alone. January 25, 2012 saw the launch of the MS St. Louis Commemorative Project, featuring a new children’s book and a mural that depicts the passengers and their ill-fated ship. This project has been funded by a $100,000 grant from the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The project will see 1,000 copies of the book distributed to schools and libraries across Canada, along with an educational booklet for teachers. Speaking at the project launch on behalf of the federal government, Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, said that “federal officials made a tragic and misguided decision” when they denied the MS St. Louis the right to land in Canada. He vowed that “the outcome of that decision should not and will not be forgotten.”
I sincerely hope that Dykstra is right in his avowal, but I have to say that I came across my knowledge of this historic blow to Canada's national pride quite by accident, when I saw a copy of "The Jewish Tribune" left lying on a table at a local 2nd Cup coffee shop. Earlier this week, I had seen multiple references to the 68th anniversary this week of D-Day. Being a person who goes every year to the City Hall cenotaph to partake in Remembrance Day observances, I was already well aware of the historical significance of June 6th, but not once throughout May or the early part of June have I seen one mention of the MS St. Louis. D-Day, yes, in newspapers, on the TV and on the radio. The St. Louis, no. Not once.
There needs to be more done in terms of public education. The citizens of Canada need to know more of their own history. It is a mistake to allow the general conception that Canada has always been a country for which celestial choirs sang whenever there was a problem to be solved. The people of Canada need to know that systemic discrimination is not a stranger to Canadian shores. Simply look closely at the Indian Act and the government's treatment of the First Nations people. We all need to be aware of such discrimination and be on our guard against it.
A complacent assumption that Canada is perfect just as it stands now is perhaps indulged in most by those for whom there is little in their lives against which they need to struggle, but even such as they should be wary of this complacency. They should understand that there is always more that needs to be done in order to better life for ALL Canadians, and that they should involve themselves in raising a righteous hand.
Martin Niemoller, spoke out against complacency in the face of systemic discrimination with his now famous quote, "First they came" Near the end of the passage, he said, "Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."
Let us all remember those on board the MS St. Louis, for whom no-one spoke.