On December 28, 1800, Aaron Philip Hart, remembered by some as the “father of Canadian Jewry,” died in Trois Rivieres, Quebec at age 76.
As one of the first – if not the first -- traditional Jews to settle in what became Canada, Hart arrived in Trois Rivieres, then the site of a British fort along the St. Lawrence River midway between Montreal and Quebec City, in 1761. There he built a small business empire and a family.
Hart was born in London, England, on August 16, 1724 to parents who had immigrated from Bavaria. He arrived in Canada by way of Jamaica and then New York City, where he landed in 1756. (A Masonic certificate from June 10, 1760, is the first document mentioning him by name, and attests to the fact that he was one of the first Jews in North America to join the Order of Freemasons.) In 1760, he became a purveyor (possibly a commissary officer) to the forces of Jeffrey Amherst, who led the British down the St. Lawrence and conquered Montreal.
In 1761, Hart settled in Trois Rivieres, where he provided the British forces with supplies (as an English-speaker, he was at an advantage in the province that had until recently been under French control), entered the fur trade, and began buying up large tracts of land. He was generous in making loans, and when debtors were unable to pay off their obligations, he often took his repayment in land. He also owned a retail and wholesale emporium in town. An early biographical account of the Jewish merchant referred to his “devouring ambition.”
Although he was of Ashkenazi descent, Hart was one of the founders of the first Sephardi synagogue in Montreal in 1768. That same year, he returned to England to marry his cousin Dorothea Caroline Judah, after which many of his cousins and in-laws followed him back to Trois-Rivieres. His hope was to establish a family dynasty in the New World and he enjoined his sons to become involved in business by giving them pieces of property to manage. He also opened a brewery with his sons. Yet, seven of his eight sons would eventually leave Trois Rivieres. One son, Ezekiel, was elected by the citizens of Trois Rivieres to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada – twice, in 1807 and 1808 -- and twice was not permitted, on procedural grounds related to being a Jew, not to take his seat.
Nonetheless, the Harts were generally accepted in Quebec, so much so that within several generations, despite their Jewish upbringing, most had assimilated into Catholic society. Despite Aaron’s moniker as the “father of Canadian Jewry,” the Hart dynasty did not remain a significant one in the history of the country’s Jewish community.
At the time of his death, Aaron Philip Hart was though to be the wealthiest man in British Canada.