1832: Canada's Jews Get Civil Rights

The Emancipation Act was, in part, a response to Ezekiel Hart, a Jewish politician elected to the government - who was twice denied the right to serve.

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Ezekiel Hart, a Canadian Jew who helped pave the way for Jewish civil rights in the country.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On June 5, 1832, the legislature of Lower Canada enacted the Emancipation Act, which extended full and equal civil rights to the province’s Jews. (Lower Canada refers to the British colony that constituted the southern third of the modern province of Quebec, which in 1841 was joined with Upper Canada – parts of Ontario -- to create the Province of Canada.)

Passage of the Emancipation Act was in large part precipitated by the refusal of the legislature to allow a Jew, Ezekiel Hart, to take his seat in the house, even though he had been popularly elected to the parliament.

Hart (1767-1843), the son of Aaron Hart, the man widely remembered as the “first Jewish settler” in Canada, was a businessman who was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1807, making him the first Jew elected to office in the British Empire. Because election day, April 11, was a Saturday, Hart deferred taking his oath of office until the opening of the legislature, the following January. That day, Hart, his head covered, pronounced his oath over a Hebrew Bible, replacing the last word in the phrase declaring that he was swearing “on the faith of a Christian” with “Jew.”

Although this was the manner in which Jews generally were sworn in to give testimony in court, numerous objections were heard to Hart’s action, including from the colony’s attorney general, as well as in the press. Later, after Hart expressed his readiness to swear the standard oath, the legislature rejected his offer, passing a resolution stating that, “Ezekiel Hart, Esquire, professing the Jewish religion, cannot take a seat, nor sit, nor vote, in this House."

When new elections were held, in 1808, Hart was again elected by the people of his town, Trois-Rivieres. This time, he uttered the standard oath of office. But after he had sat in the legislature for only several days, his colleagues again voted to expel Hart.

Hart did not run a third time for the assembly. He continued to live and work as a businessman in Trois-Rivieres, and served as an officer in the War of 1812 against the United States.

In 1830, Quebec’s Legislative Council adopted a law that granted Jews the same religious rights as members of the province’s two officially recognized religions, Catholicism and Anglicanism. The bill included the right to register births, marriages and deaths, a privilege that had previously been denied to Jews. This was followed a year later by the bill guaranteeing the civil and political rights of Jews. The Act to Grant Equal Rights and Privileges to Persons of the Jewish Religion, the full name of the Emancipation Act, was supported by Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the reformist Patriotes party in the Assembly, and Speaker of the House. Papineau had voted for Hart’s expulsion in 1809.

Only 27 years later, in 1858, did the United Kingdom pass similar legislation.

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