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Bill S-232: Canadian Jewish Heritage Month Act - Second Reading

Honourable senators, it is an honour to rise today to speak in support of Bill S-232, the Canadian Jewish heritage month act.

To begin, I wish to thank Liberal Member of Parliament Michael Levitt, who initiated this bill, along with the support of Conservative MP Peter Kent and NDP MP Randall Garrison.

As a very proud member of Canada's Jewish community, I am delighted to have the privilege of bringing forward an act that will formalize the month of May as a time to celebrate Canadian Jewish culture and to honour the significant contributions that have been made by Canadians of Jewish faith in Canada beginning from the earliest days of colonial settlement.

The story of the Jewish people in Canada has been, by and large, a story of acceptance, tolerance and mutual embrace. While not without blemish, Canada has been a country where Jews have been able to enjoy religious freedom, safety and prosperity.

As early as 1768, the first Jewish settlers to Lower Canada established a synagogue in Montreal. Jews were the first non-Christian, non-Aboriginal community to put down roots in what would eventually become Canada.

In 1832, in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada voted to politically enfranchise Jews, making Quebec the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do this.

However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that Jews began to arrive in Canada in significant numbers. Typically, these most impoverished refugees were fleeing pogroms and murderous anti-Semitism in Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe.

They settled in Canada from coast to coast, from Victoria, B.C., to Sydney, Nova Scotia, in the hope of making better lives for themselves and their families and with the strong desire to contribute energetically to the communities which welcomed them.

In Europe, Jews had been prohibited from owning farmland and thus had little experience or aptitude for farming. Instead, most Jewish immigrants became storekeepers, tradesmen or labourers.

My own family fits this matter exactly. My great-grandfather on my mother's side arrived from Poland with his family at the turn of the 20th century. He settled his family in Niagara Falls, Ontario, drawn there by the opportunity to sell clothing and supplies to the men digging the Welland Canal. After a time, the family opened a small clothing store, which eventually became a department store, anchoring Niagara Falls' downtown boulevard.

My mother's father, who arrived in Canada as a seven-year-old boy in 1911, enjoyed only a rudimentary education. Even so, he managed to build a well-respected business and became a leader in his community.

However, typical of Jewish immigrants of his era, his most cherished aspiration was that his children would become well educated, thoughtful members of Canadian society, giving back the very best of their intellects and talents to the country that had welcomed them so warmly. His own children did, and so did tens of thousands of others like them.

For more than two centuries, Jewish Canadians have had a profound impact on the fields of business, medicine, justice, the military, academia, journalism, politics and the arts. It can even be said in sports, although in that case, admittedly, mostly from the back office.

As tempting as it is for me to try and list here the names of the greatest Jewish Canadians, they are, in fact, too numerous to attempt to detail. That's precisely the value of holding an annual Jewish heritage month, so that the many achievements, accomplishments and discoveries of Jewish Canadians can be properly honoured through events, exhibitions, concerts, readings, festivals and other organized activities.

Canada today is home to the fourth largest Jewish community in the world. Many of those are the descendants of the 35,000 Holocaust survivors whom Canada accepted after World War II.

It is my hope that Canadian Jewish heritage month will give all Canadians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the opportunity to better understand the culture and history of Jewish Canadians, as well as to appreciate the integral role that the Jewish community has played in shaping Canada into one of the very best countries in the world in which to live.

Thank you, honourable senators. I hope you will see fit to give your unanimous support to this worthy initiative.

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