Liberals plan apology for 1939 decision to turn away ship of Jewish refugees

The federal Liberals are working on an apology for the Canadian government’s 1939 decision to turn away a boat of German Jews seeking asylum in Canada, The Canadian Press has learned.

Some wanted the apology for the MS St. Louis to come in concert with today’s inauguration of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will instead only make reference to the issue in his speech.

The ship bearing 900 Jews was turned away from both Cuba and the United States before a group of Canadians tried to convince then-prime minister Mackenize King’s government to let it dock in Halifax.

Trudeau dedicates National Holocaust Memorial1:20

While history records King trying to convince Frederick Blair — his immigration minister at the time — to consider their plea, the minister ultimately refused.

The ship returned to Europe. While some passengers were taken in by Belgium, France, Holland and the UK, about 500 ended up back in Germany, half of whom did not survive the Holocaust.

The story of the ship gained renewed attention earlier this year when pictures and stories of the victims circulated on social media in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather also referenced it during a debate on Trump’s travel ban, saying Canada must remember it hasn’t been immune to its executives making similar decisions.

“I hope one day a Canadian government will apologize for what happened with the St. Louis,” Housefather said at the time.

Acknowledging unpleasant history

Since then, work on an apology has been underway, with Trudeau sending a strong signal earlier this year that the government was planning to move ahead.

When asked during a New York Times interview in June how Canada avoids anti-immigrant sentiment, Trudeau said Canada must acknowledge times in its history when it wasn’t a welcoming county.

Trudeau, Scheer on the new National Holocaust Monument1:30

He raised the MS St. Louis incident as one example among others, such as Canada’s refusal to accept a shipload of Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914, or the internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War — two cases that have since elicited formal apologies.

Sources say work is ongoing to formalize the MS St. Louis apology and determine when best to deliver it.

A monument to the ship called the Wheel of Conscience currently sits at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax.

It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the same architectural force behind the National Holocaust Monument, which officially opened Wednesday in Ottawa after a decade of sometimes-acrimonious work.


The Wheel of Conscience was created by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind to commemorate the MS St. Louis. ((CBC))

The project was sparked in 2007 by a University of Ottawa student who complained Canada was the only Allied nation without such a monument.

The Conservative government took up the cause — a private member’s bill allowing for the monument was one of the last to get royal assent before the Tory minority was defeated in a no-confidence vote in 2011.

The estimated $8.95-million cost is being split by the government and private donors.

That Canada now has its own monument is significant, but so is the timing of the opening, said Avi Benlolo, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.

Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in Canada; this month alone, pro-Hitler graffiti has been sprayed twice on a Toronto-area highway and the words “white power” and a swastika were painted on a car in Calgary.

“The monument obviously comes at a very critical time, by chance,” Benlolo said. “But it resonates with us even more so now than before.”

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