Recently a controversy has come up around the naming of the new City of Ottawa Archives Building. In a nutshell, Mayor Jim Watson proposed naming the building after former Mayor Charlotte Whitton. That started a verbal war with the Canadian Jewish Congress. They brought out old arguments saying that Charlotte Whitton was anti-Semitic. In this article I want the other side of the story told.
Before we can defend Whitton, it is important that we understand the situation as it existed in 1939.
The accusations of anti-Semitism are centered, but not exclusively, around her actions with respect to the incident of the SS St. Louis. I write extensively about Canadian history and counsel those who challenge my views to project themselves into the time period and place of the history. Try to understand what was going on around the act. In the case of Charlotte Whitton and the St Louis the facts were:
1. In May 1939, a ship with 930 Jews and 7 non-Jews aboard left Hamburg bound for Havana. The passengers were fleeing persecution by the Nazis. The cost of the voyage was quite steep so those aboard, while in three different classes, were relatively well off. Each refugee held a visa issued by Cuba. When they reached Havana the refugees were told that their visas were not valid. In fact a combination of actions conspired against the refugees. The most important of which was a change of government in Cuba.
2. The ship stayed in Havana harbor for 7 days during which 26 refugees were allowed to land and the captain of the ship tried to negotiate land rights in neighboring countries. No Caribbean country would accept the refugees.
3. The ship sailed to Florida where it was shadowed by the Coast Guard (and allegedly fired upon) and finally refused entry to the US.
4. In Canada a group of academics and clergy were trying to persuade PM Mackenzie King to accept the ship. According to King’s diary, on page 338, he states that the decision to not accept the St Louis was based on his fear that, nothing is to be gained by creating an internal problem in an effort to meet an international one. He went on to state, I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews.
Indeed his comments were applied to all refugees.
It is clear from these points that there was anti-Semitism raging in the world during the time of Charolette Whitton. She was a reflection of her time. As has been pointed out by others she went on to a sterling career in politics and was awarded the CBE by England and had her work recognized by such organizations as the B’nai Brith. She was also the first to sign the nomination papers for Larry Greenburg, Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor.
The National Library and Archives has the minutes of an 1938 conference concerning the rescue of minorities from the growing Nazi threat. This meeting has been used by anti-Whitton groups to charge her with anti-Semitism. The minutes clearly show that Whitton was not opposed to refugee immigration (be they Jewish, Polish or anyone else); she was counselling that the process must go slow.
For anyone in Ottawa born after the war it is hard to understand what Canada was like in the 1930s. It was the time of the depression and of looming war, yet again, in Europe. While I do not condone the attitudes of the time, I do understand them and do not hold it against Whitton anymore that I hold it against my own grandparents who were a product of the same generation.