Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Anti-Semitism and the MS St. Louis

Canada's Anti-Semitic Policies in the Twentieth Century

by Rona Arato

In 1939, a ship of Jewish refugees, including hundreds of children, was turned away by the Canadian government, fuelled by anti-Semitic sentiments. In 2018, Canada apologized.

Jewish people have been persecuted since Biblical times and have had to continuously seek safer places to live. Canada became one of those places for European Jews beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. Waves of Jewish immigration led to thriving Jewish neighbourhoods in Canadian cities and smaller farming, mining and other settlements across the country. But Canadian society was not always welcoming to Jewish immigrants or their descendants.

During the 1920s and 30s, Canadian society became increasingly hostile towards Jews and other immigrants as competition for jobs increased. Anti-Semitism, prejudice against Jews, rose in Canada and was fueled by the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. By 1939, conditions for Jews in Germany were life-threatening. Over nine hundred Jewish refugees boarded the MS St. Louis, a ship that would take them from Hamburg, Germany, to safety in Cuba. But the Cuban government refused to accept the refugees. After being denied entry into the United States, the ship then appealed to the Canadian government for admittance. Canada refused to accept the refugee ship and it returned to Europe where hundreds of passengers were later killed in the Holocaust.

"The St. Louis Affair" is one incident in a long history of anti-Semitic policies and attitudes in Canada, which also included laws restricting Jewish immigrants, internment camps for Jewish refugees and anti-Semitic riots and demonstrations. Jewish organizations and communities in Canada have fought long and hard for acceptance and justice for those wronged by Canada's anti-Semitic policies. In 2018, the Canadian government apologized to the survivors of the MS St. Louis for its role in the tragedy, as well as to the Canadian Jewish population for the discrimination the community has faced in Canada.

About the Author

Rona Arato

RONA ARATO is a former teacher and an award-winning author who writes about human rights and the Holocaust. From 1994-1998, she interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Her book, The Last Train, won numerous awards, including the Norma Fleck Award for best Canadian children's non-fiction book of 2014. Her book, The Ship to Nowhere, about the refugee ship Exodus 1947, was designated a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Children by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rona is a frequent speaker at schools and community organizations. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.


"A wonderful series [Righting Canada's Wrongs] of beautiful books."

Times Colonist

"This story and the others in the “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series should be essential teaching in Canadian classrooms at all grades."

CM: Canadian Review of Materials

Subjects (BISAC)


Resource Guide

Righting Canada's Wrongs Resource Guide

Righting Canada's Wrongs Resource Guide

A resource guide for the Righting Canada's Wrongs series that provides lessons in historical thinking.

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