OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will issue an official government apology today for what he will call the country’s moral failure when Canada closed its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
The apology is months in the making and will focus on the decision by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1939 to reject an asylum request from more than 900 German Jews aboard an ocean liner that was nearing Halifax.
Instead, the MS St. Louis returned to Germany and the passengers scattered in Europe.
More than 250 of them died in the Holocaust.
A handful of surviving passengers from the St. Louis are to be in the House of Commons when Trudeau rises to issue the apology later this afternoon.
But the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue almost two weeks ago have reframed the prime minister’s plan for the apology and Jewish leaders expect Trudeau to say something more than that the Canadian government is sorry for a decision made decades ago.
What they hope instead is that the prime minister makes a bold statement about anti-Semitism and commits to fight it, such as with a plan to tackle hate speech online.
“We certainly hope it is a catalyst for a greater discussion about contemporary anti-Semitism and what can be done by all of us — regardless of our background — and particularly what can be done on the part of government and elected officials to fight anti-Semitism,” Steve McDonald, the director of policy with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said last week.
“Anti-Semitism directly affects Jews, but it doesn’t only affect Jews and it’s not a Jewish problem.”
The most recent figures on hate crime from Statistics Canada show the Jewish population was the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016.
When the Liberals first hinted at making the apology, it was seen through the lens of anti-immigrant sentiment and debate about how Canada handles refugees.
Pictures and stories of the victims from the St. Louis circulated on social media last year in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.
The question of immigration and refugees today is not likely to be lost in the apology.
“A call to action is what I imagine the prime minister wants to convey,” said Robert Krakow, an American filmmaker who made a documentary about the St. Louis and its survivors.