Jews Leaving Montreal



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The Exodus of Montreal Jews

Daniel Charness


The Jews of Montreal during the 1960s could, in some ways, be compared to the residents of New Orleans two days before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. A great storm was approaching in the form of the Parti Quebecois, Quebec's increasingly popular separatist party. The Jewish community did not know how destructive the storm would be, nor whether it would pass directly over their heads. All they knew was that, if the Parti Quebecois successfully came to power, their future in Canada's largest metropolis and the center of Jewish culture at the time would be in jeopardy. Therefore, beginning in the early seventies and continuing to this day, the Jews of Montreal began to leave the city, the majority relocating to Toronto, a growing metropolis that was soon to become the new "capital" of Canadian Jewish culture.

In 1971, the American Jewish Yearbook reported that the Jewish population of Montreal stood at roughly 115,000. Ten years later the population had dropped to around 100,000, steadily decreasing over the next thirty years. The most recent estimate of Montreal's Jewish population stands at around 92,000. The reasons for their exodus can be traced to no specific sources or events, and what makes the history of the Jewish departure from Montreal truly fascinating is that their decisions were informed significantly by historical knowledge of previous nationalist movements, instinct, and political forecasting.

While all of these factors played an important role in the migration of Jews out of Montreal, certain sentiments and historical events, both political as well as cultural, were central to the Jews' decision to leave Quebec. These include a heightened fear of anti-Semitism as a response to the ties between the French Quebecers and the historically anti-Semitic Catholic Church of Quebec, a rise in terrorist movements whose violence was aimed specifically towards the Anglophone population of Montreal, and finally, the enormous cultural changes resulting from the various language laws introduced by the newly empowered Parti Quebecois. The combination of these movements, events, and the resulting sentiment of rejection forced many Jewish families to reconsider their future in Montreal.


The first significant Jewish communities settled in Quebec shortly after the British conquered the French in 1759. As in other colonies of the British Empire, Jews enjoyed more political, religious, and social freedom than they did outside the British Empire, and quickly found a niche in British-Canadian society, mainly in the realm of business. Though their population and cultural influence remained minimal until the late 19th century, the influx of Jewish immigrants between 1870 and 1924 helped to develop a unique and colorful Jewish community, bonded together by a devotion to Yiddish culture. In 1871, the Jewish population of Montreal was estimated at around 409; thirty years later the population had increased 20-fold to 8000. By 1921, the Jewish population had grown to 60,000 and constituted the third largest ethnic group in Montreal behind only the French and the English.

As a result of the dichotomy between the French and English cultures of Montreal, all immigrants to the city were forced to decide, consciously or unconsciously, whether to assimilate into one of the two communities. For the Jews, siding with the Anglophones was an obvious choice for a few distinct reasons. First, when Jews began to arrive en masse, they initially inhabited a slummy area in the middle of Montreal that they shared with working-class French-Quebecers, many of whom were resentful of their foreign neighbors' presence. Many Montreal Jews who were children at the time and lived in these slums have distinct memories of being taunted or physically harassed by French-Canadian gangs.

Second, the Jews perceived the dominance of the Catholic Church in Montreal's Francophone culture as a potential threat. This reaction stemmed from the experiences of the Jews in the Catholic parts of Europe, where the Church often served as a catalyst for anti-Semitic movements. At that time in Montreal, the clergy were noticeably prominent in promoting anti-immigration movements. Furthermore, the Protestant schools of the English sectors showed tolerance towards the education of Jews while the Catholic, Francophone schools did not.

The Jews also recognized that the English dominated Montreal's most successful businesses and lived in the more upscale areas of the city, so assimilation with the English seemed like an obvious choice. But while this decision may have appeared wiser from a cultural and logistical standpoint, it created a precarious relationship between the Jews and French-Quebecers. For years, the French-Quebecers had constituted the ethnic majority of Quebec and had expressed hostility towards the English who, even as a minority, had become the more economically successful of the two groups. This cultural dynamic created a fascinating but potentially dangerous situation for the Jews, who were to be an ethnic minority (Jewish) within a linguistic minority (Anglophone) that was detested by the cultural and linguistic majority of the province of Quebec, the French-Quebecers. It is within this context that Jews experienced the rise of the Parti Quebecois.


The initial Jewish fears of the Quebec separatist movement stemmed from a communal knowledge of the history of nationalism. A third of Montreal's Jews had either strong ancestral roots or first-hand experience in the horrors of Eastern Europe and knew that a rise in nationalism tended to coincide with a rise in anti-Semitism. One has only to examine the political upheavals in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary or Germany to understand why Jews associated nationalist movements with rises in fascism and xenophobia. Furthermore, their suspicions were heightened by the fact that the majority of French Canadians who supported the Parti Québécois were Catholic, and that the historically anti-Semitic Catholic Church would undoubtedly affect the acceptance of Jews by a government controlled by French Canadians.

As Jacques Langlais, a scholar on Canadian Jewish history, points out in Jews and French Quebecers, "It is important to remember that the poisoned relations between Jewish and French Quebecers were not caused by the official policies of the Quebec Government. Rather, Quebec anti-Semitism was above all else a crusade of the clergy."6 However, both the government and the culture of French Canada were, to some degree, influenced by the philosophies of the Catholic Church, and as Langlais describes, "Since the early days, [French Quebecers] had perceived themselves as a monolithic, French speaking and Catholic society in a land where Protestants and Jews had no right to peacefully co-exist with them." As a result of this prejudice, the relationship between French-Quebecers and Jews could never truly be described as harmonious.

During the 1930s and 40s, when anti-Semitism was rising throughout the North American Continent, the Catholic Church became increasingly outspoken about its intolerance towards Jews. According to Mark Charness, a Jew who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, the seeds of anti-Semitism within the general public were originally planted by the clergy. As he describes:

    At that time in their lives, the French Canadians were very influenced by the priests. They would tell their congregations, who were easily swayed by what the priests told them, specifically not to buy from Jewish stores.

Perhaps as a result of this spiritual encouragement, individual acts of anti-Semitism increased in number throughout the mid 20th century. For example, in 1934, four interns at L'Hopital de Notre Dame, a Francophone hospital in Montreal, went on strike when hospital administrators hired a Jew to the staff. In Quebec City, a small Jewish population of 100 families successfully fought politicians for the right to erect a synagogue, only to have it burned down on the eve of its opening. Finally, and on a more practical level, the Catholic Church played an active role in preventing Jewish communities from creating their own education systems.

After World War II, the Quebec government severed many of its ties with the Catholic Church; however, it is undeniable that much of the anti-Semitism that the Church helped to fuel in the 1930s lingered amongst the population of the sixties. After the war, for example, resistance to Jewish immigration was considered much stronger in Quebec than in the other provinces, and anti-Semitic messages could be found in many widely read magazines and journals.

For many Jews, comments such as these were dismissed as radical, unsupported, and unworthy of any attention. However, for those in the Montreal Jewish community who had survived the Holocaust or whose families and friends had been victims of the European persecution of the 1930s and 40s, comments like Ryan's were highly provocative. This population of Jews constituted almost a third of Montreal's Jewish community, and all of them "understood the relation between economic boycotting and anti-Semitism." Professor Morton Weinstein, a professor of sociology at McGill University, has speculated that the experience of the Quiet Revolution might have had a stronger impact on the Montreal Jewish community in particular because of its high concentration of Holocaust survivors:

    One possible effect of such a prior episode might be an oversensitivity to possible victimization, leading to continuing perceptions of prejudice and discrimination after a negative stimulus has been removed.

With such a large number of holocaust survivors—135 out of the 657 Jews in Weinfield's survey said they were in Europe during World War II–condensed into such a compact and vibrant community, it is hard to imagine that their heightened fears of nationalism and anti-Semitism would not have had some effect on the younger generation of Jews growing up in the same area.


Another frightening aspect of the separatist movement that would directly impact Montreal's Jewish community was the rise of the Front de la Liberation de Quebec (FLQ), a radical activist group whose tactics often included public violence. During the early 1960s, the FLQ began a series of public terrorist attacks targeting English buildings and government officials. While most of the attacks targeted property rather than people, some of the incidents resulted in the injuries, and even deaths, of innocent civilians. One of their most infamous attacks was a bomb detonation at the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 that wounded 27 civilians.

For Jews, the most traumatic of the bombings were those that occurred in the quiet, suburban, and predominantly Anglophone areas in which they lived. An account by Michael Charness, a Montreal Jew who experienced a mailbox bombing while attending elementary school, demonstrates the proximity of the FLQ's attacks to civilians.

    One particular day I was playing in the school yard when, all of a sudden, we were evacuated by school officials. Supposedly someone had planted a bomb in a mailbox across the street from the school. As we were moved to the back of the building, we heard the bomb go off, supposedly as someone was attempting to dismantle it. Only later were we informed that the man attempting to diffuse the bomb was severely injured by the explosion.

While these attacks were certainly frightening for Jews, they were not the intended targets of these attacks. But as a part of the Anglophone society, the Jews were subject to all of the hostility that extremist French-Quebecers harbored towards Anglophones. Furthermore, Jews in particular had reason to fear the FLQ, as it was well known that the FLQ had a strong, anti-Jewish core that stemmed from its roots in Marxist separatist philosophy. Its Marxist followers, according to Stuart E. Rosenberg, a scholar on Canadian Jewish history, considered Levesque's Parti Québécois to be too tame, and that its innocence and lack of drive would be a threat to the successful separation of Quebec.

The Jews had two reasons to fear the Marxist separatists: first, they were a group that outspokenly supported Palestinian anti-Israel terrorists and even sent troops to Algeria and Jordan to train as guerilla fighters. Secondly, their literature, which was growing in popularity in Quebec, was riddled with anti-Semitic messages. Quebec's number one bestseller in 1971 was Un Petit d'Histoire du Quebec, by Leandre Bergeron, a political commentary that included the following:

    Some say the Jews of Montreal are our worst enemies. By playing the capitalist game, a few of them managed to escape from the exploited class to become the owners of small businesses, factories, shops and grocery stores. They adopted the exploiters language—English, using French only to give orders to their employees in their shops and their maids at home.

The great popularity of this particular commentary must have served as a reminder to Montreal's Jews that many people in Quebec sympathized with its message. Yet scholars insist that the Jews of Montreal did not fear the rise of separatism when the movement was in the hands of peaceful, democratic and diplomatic leaders such as Rene Levesque. Rather, the Jews worried that a weak, separatist government would be vulnerable to a radical revolution and might be taken over by these outspokenly anti-Semitic Marxists.


One of the most disturbing aspects of the Quebec separatist movement, both for Jews as well as for the entire Anglophone community, was the passage of bills by the radically evolving Quebec government concerning the new official language of the province. In 1972, René Levesque declared that "[this year] is the year of the French Language in Quebec." For the predominately French speaking population of Quebec, who for years had been forced into blue-collar jobs serving under the economically successful Anglophones, these words hinted at a dramatic cultural change that would have an immediate, positive impact on their roles in Montreal's society.

At first, minor changes that encouraged the preservation of the French language did not appear to pose an immediate threat for the Jews. For years, Montreal Jews had had an open attitude towards the French language, more so than their Protestant Anglophone neighbors. In 1948, Rabbi Solomon Frank and other leaders in the Jewish community founded Le Cercle Juif de Langue Francaise with the goal of encouraging a healthy working relationship between Jews and French-Quebecers. Moreover, according to a 1961 census figure, 36.5 percent of Quebec's Jewish population spoke both French and English. Jacques Langlais describes how, "In the entire province, Jews ranked highest among its bilingual residents except in Montreal, where Jews were second only to Francophone Canadians." This partially explains why a higher percentage of non-Jewish Anglophones than Jewish Anglophones departed Montreal over the next 30 years. ; second, some French-Quebecers simply did not trust the Jews, regardless of their efforts to adapt to the French language. Claude Ryan wrote that:

    French Canadians have observed that Jews speak French more than the English. In the legal profession, for example, practically all the members of Jewish background speak French. But French Canadians believe that they do this because of self-interest rather than any genuine interest in French Canadians.

In 1977, in an attempt to finally assure equality for Francophones in Montreal's Anglophone-controlled economy, the Quebec government, under its first Parti Québécois regime, passed Bill 101, entitled, The Charter of the French Language. The bill declared French as the sole official language of Quebec, cementing the idea that Quebec was, above anything else, a Francophone culture. The bill's passage was an enormous accomplishment for French-Quebecers, who finally could envision a Quebec where they would no longer be at a disadvantage for speaking the language of the majority.

Although significant parts of the bill were truly devoted to creating equal opportunities for both the English as well as the French, Anglophones initially perceived it as a threat to their culture. Anglophones, including Jews, feared that Bill 101, along with many of the other language reforms, would accelerate the drive towards a unilingual Quebec. As Jacob Ziegel, a professor of law at McGill University (and now the University of Toronto), responded in Montreal's Viewpoint magazine:

    I think we must reject unilinguilism in any form or guise, not only because it would spell the end of our own cultural and linguistic status in this province, but also because unilingualism as a concept seems to me invalid and dangerous.

Ziegel's makes his most astute observation when he predicts "the end of [Anglophone's] cultural and linguistic status." As a result of these bills, daily life became increasingly difficult for Anglophones in Montreal: public signs had to appear in both English and French, major corporations were forced to adopt equal opportunity laws for Francophone employees, and access to English language schools was inhibited for children whose parents were not originally from the province of Quebec. According to Mark Charness, Anglophones, including Jews, began to feel unwelcome in Montreal society.

    Everything had to be in French. If you received any notification from the government, it was in French. If you went to court, your lawyer had to speak French. You couldn't get a job in government, or any other French Canadian corporation if you were English. Any opportunity would go to a French speaking person, and only a "true" Frenchmen. We weren't going to pay taxes when we felt like second-class citizens…I saw no future for my children in Montreal.

For many Jews in Montreal, these new language laws were the final straw. After decades of living in cultural isolation and facing new forms of anti-Semitism in a climate of uncertain political turmoil, many Jews finally concluded that their existence in Montreal had no foreseeable future. The following three decades would see a great decline of Judaism in Montreal as many packed their bags and "took the 401 [highway] to Toronto and all points left."


The exodus of Montreal's Jews, which is estimated at around 15,000 between 1971 and 1981, began with the departure of the younger, baby boomer generation, many of whom decided to spend their college years outside the province. Many went to the nearby city of Toronto, which, over the previous ten years, had transformed itself into the new "unofficial" Jewish capital of Canada. According to Rose Jick, a professor at Northeastern University who was studying at the University of Toronto at the time, at least one out of every ten students she met were Jews who originally hailed from Montreal.

The older generations followed shortly after, typically waiting until their children had left and when their respective businesses had either been sold or had moved to Toronto. By 1991, Montreal's Jewish population had fallen from 115,000 in 1971 to 100,000, while Toronto's had skyrocketed from 88,000 to 162,000. Until this day, Montreal's Jewish population has continued to decline, as increasing numbers of Jews find fewer reasons to stay in or migrate to Montreal, especially since Canada's Jewish culture has shifted to Toronto. Between the years 1996 and 2001, 2,300 Jews relocated to Toronto, 96% of whom were originally from Montreal.


The exodus of Jews from Montreal was not triggered by one specific political movement, event, or law. Rather, a combination of factors, including the rise of the separatist Parti Quebecois, an increase in violence and anti-Semitism, and new language laws pushing towards a more Francophone Quebec, made the Jewish community of Montreal feel increasingly uncomfortable about its future in the city. Furthermore, the fact that the multicultural and predominantly Anglophone city of Toronto had become the home of Canada's largest Jewish community made the decision to leave even easier for Montreal's Jews, many of whose businesses and children had already relocated to Toronto.

Some historians have suggested that anti-Semitism did not play a role in the Jews' decision to leave Montréal, and that the language legislation was the only catalyst for their departure. They note that a higher percentage of non-Jewish Anglophones than Jewish Anglophones left the city. However, the high rate of bilingualism amongst the Jewish population makes it unlikely that they were as affected by the language laws as the non-Jewish Anglophones. Therefore, other factors must have been at work in provoking such a large number of Jews to abandon the city they had called home for nearly 200 years.


Charness, Daniel. Interview with Mark Charness. Middletown, CT, 2007

. Interview with Michael Charness. Middletown, CT, 2007

Keys, Lisa. Jews Thrive in La Belle Province Despite Seperatist Movement 2002

Langlais, Jacques. Rome, David. Jews and French Quebecers. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred

Laurier Press, 1991.

Levy-Ajzenkopf, Andy. Toronto a magnet for Jews, migration study 2007:

Morton Weinfeld, John J. Sigal, William W. Eaton. "Long-Term Effects of the Holocaust on Selected Social Attitudes and Behaviors of Survivors: A Cautionary Note." Social Forces 60, no. 1 (1981): 1-19.

Reisler, Susan. "Five Years after Bill 101." In The National. Canada: CBS, March 2, 1982.

Robinson, Ira, Mervin Butovsky. Renewing Our Days: Montreal Jews in the Twentieth Century. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1995.

Rosenberg, Stuart E. French Separatism: Its Implications for Canadian Jewry. Edited by Milton

Himmelfarb Morris Fine. Vol. 73, American Jewish Yearbook. New York: The American Jewish Commitee, 1972.

Ryan, Claude. "A French Canadian Looks at the Jews." Viewpoints, October, 1969, 5-9.

Torrance, Judy M. Public Violence in Canada. Montreal: McGill Press, 1986.

Weinfield, Morton. "Canada." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Fred Skolnik, 393-421. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

Ziegal, Jacob. "The Place of Minorities in a Developing Quebec." Viewpoints 1969, 22.


from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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