OTTAWA – At least a dozen Canadians who’ve been formally recognized for their historic significance – including a past prime minister – harboured racial attitudes that would be deemed unacceptable today.
A review of Parks Canada’s roster of 648 persons of national historic significance turned up several outspoken anti-Semites, others who championed a type of scientific racism known as eugenics and a politician despised in Quebec for his anti-Catholic bigotry.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Jewish Congress declared it will oppose official recognition of former Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton because of her role in keeping Jewish children out of Canada during the Second World War.
Whitton, the first woman to serve as mayor of a Canadian city, was nominated last year for her pioneering work as a politician, feminist and social worker.
In July, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada made a confidential recommendation, which has been forwarded to Jim Prentice, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, for a decision.
The CJC has submitted an information package to Prentice arguing that Whitton’s anti-Semitic views and actions should disqualify her from official recognition as a person of historic significance.
However, the Ottawa Citizen review suggests that espousing and acting upon racial or religious intolerance has not been a barrier to recognition in the past.
One honouree, Goldwin Smith, a journalist and historian who died in 1910, was a virulent anti-Semite who helped shape Canada’s intellectual life at the turn of the century.
His anti-Semitic writings strongly influenced two key political figures who have also been declared historically significant by Parks Canada – William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, and Henri Bourassa, a Quebec politician and founder of the newspaper Le Devoir.
King’s role in keeping Jewish refugees out of Canada is documented in None is Too Many, a 1982 book by Irving Abella and Harold Troper – the same book that described Whitton’s successful efforts to deny admission to Jewish orphans.
Bourassa, who died in 1952, shared the anti-Semitism that was rife in French Canada in the early 20th century.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Bourassa delivered “the most vituperative anti-Jewish speech in the history of the House of Commons” in 1905.
None is Too Many also reports that Vincent Massey, Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain during the war years, “worked through External Affairs to keep Jews out of Canada.”
Massey later became Canada’s first native-born governor general and was recognized in 1974 for his historic significance.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Harold Troper said Whitton and Massey shared the same “mindset.”
Both were part of a community of interest, he said, “that just saw a kind of impossibility for Jews to be, in any meaningful way, citizens and participants in the Canadian society as they hoped to build it.”
Another notable anti-Semite who has been recognized as historically significant is Lionel Groulx, a Catholic priest, historian and Quebec nationalist who died in 1967.
Historian Esther Delisle documented Groulx’s bigotry in her 1993 book, The Traitor and the Jew.
Another honouree, Sam Hughes, Canada’s colourful and controversial minister of militia and defence during the First World War, was an Orangeman who was stridently anti-Catholic and anti-French.
Advocates of eugenics are also well-represented on the roster of historically significant Canadians.
Eugenicists advocated selective breeding of human beings to improve the species. Eugenics was popular in the early part of the 20th century, but was discredited after it was associated with Nazi Germany.
In Canada, the “Famous Five” – the early feminists now lionized for their role in having women legally recognized as persons – were all champions of eugenics and advocated the forced sterilization of those deemed unsuitable.
The five – Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney – are among the 648 Canadians honoured for their historical significance.
So, too, is Helen MacMurchy, a leading advocate of public health reform in the early 20th century.
As Ontario’s first “inspector of the feeble-minded,” MacMurchy “did more than anyone to persuade Canadians of the need for eugenics,” according to Canadian Encyclopedia editor-in-chief James H. Marsh.
All these figures, including Whitton, were “very prominent and important in their day,” said Robert Bothwell, an eminent Canadian historian at the University of Toronto.
If their recognition is meant to represent what Canada was, Bothwell said in an email to the Ottawa Citizen, “then all these people should be commemorated.”
“As the war museum controversy some years back should have demonstrated, history is not a series of pleasant bedtime stories, pre-sanitized so that only the worthy appear in order to make our hearts thump with a patriotic pit-a-pat.”
Bothwell, who formerly served on the historic sites and monuments board, pointed out that Oliver Cromwell once said he should be painted “warts and all.”
“That applies to history,” Bothwell observed. “The good, the bad and the ugly should all be present and should allow the reader to make up his or her own mind.”
Bernie Farber, national director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said there’s little that can be done about bigots who’ve already been recognized as historically significant.
On the other hand, he said, “we can do something about Charlotte Whitton. And we ought to.”
Whitton, he said, wasn’t just an anti-Semite and a racist, she also acted on those feelings. “She literally poisoned the well.”
“She travelled from the East Coast to the West Coast, ensuring that not one Jewish child would come into this country,” he said. “She did this out of absolute dedication to her racism.”
He said Whitton’s case should be used as a “learning opportunity” going forward.
“We have to show due diligence when deciding when to bestow such honours on Canadians. I honestly don’t believe that Canadians, for the most part, want to honour racists and bigots.”