By: Matthew Meland, Student Researcher for the National Observatory on Language Rights
Language rights trace their origin to the different linguistic communities in Canada and their histories. This post focuses on the Montreal Jewish community. From the turn of the twentieth century until the mid 1950s, there were two major waves of European Jewish immigration to Canada. Between 1901 and 1921, the Canadian Jewish community grew from 16,401 members to 125,000. A very important percentage of these new immigrants established themselves in Montreal. These individuals came primarily from Eastern Europe and spoke Yiddish, a Jewish version of High Medieval German, as well as the national language or languages of the region from which they emigrated. Speaking neither English nor French, the community could have adopted either language as their own. Moreover, being an immigrant community, these newcomers to Canada often lived in primarily French neighbourhoods in Montreal and were exposed to French from the beginning. So, why did the Montreal Jewish community adopt English as its language? It was a combination of constitutional rights, a position taken by the Catholic Church in Quebec, and a Quebec law passed in 1903 which were responsible for the Jewish community adopting English as its language.
Before we begin, it is important to make the following qualifying statement. There are two major Jewish traditions in the world: the Ashkenazi tradition which has its origin with European Jewry and the Sephardic tradition which has its origin with Middle Eastern and North African Jewry. This post focuses on the Ashkenazi Jewish community since when it came to Canada, it neither spoke English nor French, whereas the Sephardic community often spoke French prior to arriving due to the French colonization of North Africa.
An important stumbling block to the unification of the different British North American colonies during the Confederation debates was religious rights. To appease both Protestant and Catholic religious groups, a central pillar of the Constitution Act, 1867 is its section 93 which guarantees both Protestant and Catholic denominational schools in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. In both provinces, the denominational schools were also primarily characterized by a different language of instruction: the Catholic schools being taught in French and the Protestant schools being taught in English. Thus, when Montreal Jews wanted to send their children to school, they should have had the choice between both denominational school boards. Yet, that was not the case.
Unlike the Irish Catholic immigrants who were welcomed into the French school system in Quebec, the Catholic school boards did not welcome the Jews to their schools. The turn of the twentieth century was characterized by great changes in Quebec and the Catholic Church saw Jews as an important proponent of those changes as well a threat their religious and social teachings. The Church consequently sought to exclude the Jews from their denominational schools out of fear that they would have a negative influence on the Catholic students attending them. The Protestant schools boards were more accommodating, but the Pinsler case from 1903 demonstrates that anti-Jewish sentiment was also very present. This case revolved around a poor Jewish student, who unable to afford high school, partook in a Protestant School Board scholarship competition. Getting very high marks on the examination, he was granted a scholarship to attend Protestant high school. Yet, once it was discovered that the pupil in question was Jewish, the scholarship was denied. Quebec Superior Court concluded that the Protestant School Board acted legally as Jews were only admissible to Protestant schools as of 1900 “by the grace of the [school board’s] commissioners.” This decision demonstrated the need for a far reaching policy on the attendance of Jewish children to public schools.
Attempting to address the issues raised by this case, the Quebec National Assembly passed a law in 1903 titled An Act to amend the law concerning education, with respect to persons professing the Jewish religion. This Act designated Jewish children as Protestants for school purposes. Section 1 reads as follows:
“[…]persons professing the Jewish religion shall, for school purposes, be treated in the same manner as Protestants, and for the said purposes, shall be subject to the same obligations and shall enjoy the same rights and privileges as the latter.”
Jewish children were also granted exemptions from Protestant religious instruction with their “honorary Protestant” classification. This was the true turning point as hereafter Jews fell under the protections of section 93 of the Constitution Act guaranteeing them admission to Protestant schools. With their education being conducted in English combined with the anti-Jewish rhetoric espoused by the Catholic Church at the time, the Jews of Montreal adopted English.
However, it should be noted that the struggle for representation by Jewish parents and teachers on Protestant school boards took many years and gave rise to the so called “Jewish School Question”, revolving around whether a Jewish School Board should be created. This debate raged in Quebec until the replacement of Quebec denominational school boards with secular language delimited ones in 1997.
In conclusion, the guarantee of denominational schools in the Canadian Constitution coupled with the Catholic Church’s aversion to Jewish students attending its schools and a 1903 Quebec law designating Jews as Protestants for educational purposes were all responsible for the ultimate adoption by Montreal Jews of English rather than French as their language.
 Jacques Langlais and David Rome, Jews and French Quebecers: Two Hundred Years of Shared History, translated by Barbara Young, (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991), p.70.
 Pinsler ès qual. v The Protestant Board of School Commissioners (1903), 23 CS 365.
 Ibid, p.368.
 An Act to amend the law concerning education, with respect to persons professing the Jewish religion (1903), 3 Edw VII, c 16.
 Ibid, s.6.
 David Fraser, “Honorary Protestants”: The Jewish School Question in Montreal, 1867-1997, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
*The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Observatory on Language Rights.
This content has been updated on 19 September 2016 at 17 h 35 min.