Special: Remembering Cairine Wilson, Canada’s Mother of Refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day


January 27 is designated by the United Nations General Assembly as International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD). Since 2005, the UN and its member states have held commemoration ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and to honour the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. – USHMM.org

TORONTO. Jan 25/22 – The following article by Susan Korah originally appeared in the January 24, 2022 edition of Convivium and is republished here in full.

In time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Susan Korah writes a commemorative piece on Canada’s first female Senator—Cairine Wilson— a “firm but gentle voice” who advocated for refugees entering Canada after WWII.

Susan Korah 002

Susan Korah

As Jews and human rights advocates all over the world mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Canadians have a special reason to honour the memory of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first female Senator, who was appointed to the Red Chamber in 1930.

Wilson’s trailblazing career—marked by outstanding services to Jewish (and other) refugees fleeing the Nazi juggernaut as it steamrollered its way across Europe— earned her the accolade “Mother of Refugees.”

 It also placed her firmly in the ranks of Holocaust heroes of the stature of Raoul Wallenberg, and prepared the ground for a less restrictive and more humane immigration policy that eventually put Canada on the world map as a humanitarian, refugee-welcoming country.

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Senator Cairine Wilson

Daughter of Senator Robert Mackay, and wife of Norman Wilson, a prosperous businessman and one-time MP, she came from an elite Montreal family that travelled in the same social circles as the movers and shakers of Canadian society. She could have easily led a luxurious but unremarkable life of debutante balls, fashionable tea parties, and exclusive receptions reported in minute detail in the social columns of newspapers of the day.

Wilson’s campaign to open Canada’s doors to Jewish and other refugees facing persecution was fought in the face of stubborn opposition from dominant political and bureaucratic figures of the day.

But the values of her faith, her sense of noblesse oblige (privilege entails responsibility) and her dedication to the cause of the vulnerable, particularly women and children, guided her to a very different path.

“She was naturally a very compassionate person and grew up in a family with staunch Presbyterian values,” Valerie Knowles, author of First Person, a biography of Wilson told Convivium. “These included a robust work ethic, a sense of stewardship which translated into the responsibility to use all one’s personal resources to fulfill God’s will and benefit all of humankind.”

“She was also possibly influenced by family stories of their Scottish forebears being evicted from their crofts (small farms) during the highland clearances of 1818-19,” Knowles added.

Wilson’s campaign to open Canada’s doors to Jewish and other refugees facing persecution was fought in the face of stubborn opposition from dominant political and bureaucratic figures of the day.

Exemplifying the typical attitudes of the time (1930s) was an unidentified immigration officer who snapped: “None is too many” when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada would accept.

A contrast to this callous response was the firm but gentle voice of Cairine Wilson, who insisted that nobody could follow the heartrending course of events without wishing to help, and that as a country Canada was obliged morally to protect these people from external aggression.

She encountered powerful opposition, including from her own party leader, Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, and other stalwarts of the anti-refugee camp such as Frederick Blair, a top immigration official, not to mention large segments of the Canadian population who saw increased immigration as a threat to their livelihoods and cultural homogeneity.

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William Lyon Mackenzie King

Wilson’s view of the world, however, transcended their narrow nationalism, and her compassion knew no borders.

Outspoken in her opposition to the Munich Agreement— which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed with Hitler in 1938 in an effort to appease him and prevent further Nazi aggression—Wilson displayed an independence of mind and a firm grasp of international affairs that was exceptional among Canadian and world leaders of the time.

By her own account, this fateful event spurred her to action on behalf of the refugees whose ranks would swell immeasurably in the next few years. She saw the Munich Agreement as nothing less than a trigger for a perilous descent into full-scale war rather than as an instrument of peace.

Having for years, championed the cause of disadvantaged women, and children with disabilities of various kinds, Wilson embarked on a vigorous campaign on behalf of refugees fleeing a bloodthirsty Nazi machine.

Despite the powerful opposition she encountered, her endeavors were not wholly unsupported. Joining their voices to hers were prominent leaders of Canada’s Jewish community, newspaper editors in the English language press, leaders of Protestant churches, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

In 1938, she established a non-sectarian organization the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and Victims of Political Persecution (CNCR) and for the next ten years, led a two-pronged campaign— an educational one to combat antisemitism— and an epic political battle for the liberalization of Canada’s immigration policy.

Having for years, championed the cause of disadvantaged women, and children with disabilities of various kinds, Wilson embarked on a vigorous campaign on behalf of refugees fleeing a bloodthirsty Nazi machine.

For the next ten years, the work of this committee was gruelling. It ranged from meeting cabinet ministers and bureaucrats to speaking engagements across the country to raise awareness, and hosting fundraising events. It demanded countless hours of time and all the organizational skills that she and her colleagues could muster.

Biographer Knowles recalls that the Wilsons’ home, Manor House in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park (which is currently the official residence of the Papal Nuncio) was the scene of countless garden parties and other fundraising events. “It’s a beautiful home and lent itself well to such events,” she says.

Despite repeated setbacks on the political front, the CNCR’s efforts gradually began to pay off. Demands for a more humane immigration policy based on simple human decency became more insistent as an increasing number of Canadians, moved by the desperate circumstances of refugees called on the government to act.

A lapsed Senate committee on immigration and labour was revived in 1946, and Cairine Wilson became a leading member and later its Chair. In a widely circulated report, the Committee recommended a new Act in parliament to meet Canada’s post-war immigration requirements.

Although the liberalization of Canadian immigration policy that Wilson hoped for did not take place until the 1960s, the doors were slowly creaking open. Three orders-in-council in 1947 allowed the admission of 20,000 displaced persons, not including those with close relatives in Canada.

More immediately successful were her lobbying on behalf of individual refugees. Appeals for assistance from friends and family members of asylum seekers poured in from all quarters. The Senator spent countless hours writing letters, making phone calls, meeting with immigration officials and using her personal connections to secure the necessary permission for desperate refugees to enter Canada.

Typical of these cases was that of Dr. Rudolph Gottlieb, a member of the faculty of medicine at Montreal’s McGill University, whose brother and sister-in-law made it to Canada through Wilson’s influence and her ability to pull strings on their behalf.

Cairine Wilson died on March 3, 1962.

Saul Hayes, then Vice President of the Canadian Jewish Congress wrote to Wilson’s daughter: “The Canadian Jewish community has cause to mourn the death of your esteemed mother whose actions on fundamental freedoms and rights has illuminated the pages of recent Canadian history.”

Cairine Wilson followed her own star—the values of her faith and heritage—and the star lit the way to a new life for countless refugees fleeing the darkness of the brutal genocide that the world remembers as the Holocaust.

Photo Credits: Suan Korah by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.com; Cairine Wilson by lop.parl.ca; Mackenzie King by commons.wikimedia.org

Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and a special interest in freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression. She is a Suriani, an Orthodox Christian of the Syriac/Aramaic rite.

Founded in 2011, Convivium is an online space that brings together citizens of differing convictions and religious confessions to contend for the role of faith in our common life.  Over the years Convivium has fostered rigorous conversation, shared profound stories of faith, and explored some of the most difficult questions of our time.  Its mission has always been to foster faith in common life: the place of faith in the common life of Canadians, and the faith that there is a common life in Canada.

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Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians: Jamie Shields. Multi-instrumentalist, Keyboardist, TV & Film Composer

“I come from a line of rabbis. My great grandfather Rabbi Silverstein was known as the Belzechiner Rav.”

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Jamie Shields

Music Online

Welcome to our weekly Sunday music section called

“Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians.”

By David Eisenstadt

TORONTO. Jan 23/22 – Toronto-born multi-instrumentalist Jamie Shields is known for his “Live Electronica” genre compositions and leading his original 3-piece electronic band, The New Deal.  He also is the co-owner StudioCat where he and others compose original music for TV, film and multimedia.

Since 1998, the band’s genre has centred on live performances without computers or loops. “In fact”, he says, “over 85% of each performance is improvised, less in a jazz way and more in creating musical themes on the spot and extending them to the style of Electronic Dance Music – EDM.

The son of Victor and Rhoda (née Fleisher), Shields started piano at five but wanted to quit.  He continued until he turned 20 learning classical piano, theory and harmony. A 1993 McGill University, Montréal history grad, Shields plays a Moog Prodigy synthesizer, guitar, bass and the Hohner Melodica, a harmonica-piano hybrid. 

“I come from a line of rabbis. My great grandfather Rabbi Silverstein was known as the Belzechiner Rav.  There were a few backstage fan encounters where some observant Jewish fans were more impressed with my lineage than my musical capabilities,” he said with a smile. 

While there weren’t any direct Jewish musical influences in his work, he said that maturing as a musician and as a person, “my ears opened to George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein and specifically related to my work, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who are very influential electronica and dance music composers.”

With bass guitarist Dan Kurtz and drummer Davide Direnzo, Shields as the keyboardist co-founded The New Deal in 1998, and until the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic performed at over 1,100 concerts across North America and Asia. They’ve played alongside Herbie Hancock and The Roots.

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The New Deal – Live at The Wonder Bar Set II

>>> Click HERE to watch this video <<<

It all began as an impromptu jam session when the trio listened to the show’s recording and were amazed at how much their music sounded like a DJ mix.  That recording became the first of their 15 albums with the two most recent – Phoenix in 2019 and Age of Discovery in 2020.

Shields described three major international hallmark performances.  In 2001, during the early days of the Coachella Music Festival, “They were open to including acts like our on the big stages, something they’ve shied away from in recent years.”  The trio toured Japan in 2009 playing seven shows  “proving to us that our appeal was not limited to North America. The Japanese audiences were (and still are) familiar with our work and their responses verged on rapturous.   The Sundance Festival is one of the most memorable because composer Danny Ellman, one of my musical heroes was grooving with the rest of the crowd.”

They were initially billed as an acid jazz group but turned toward a new musical genre called livtronica.  It was reported that their early performances were widely bootlegged and with a growing profile, they signed a major-label contract with Jive Electro, which produced disappointing results for all.  They continued touring while growing their fan base and creating their own label, Sound+Light Records, cutting two studio releases in 2002/2003, Gone Gone Gone and Please Be Seated.  Their final show was in January 2012.

Flashback to 2005 when Shields started StudioCat.  “That happened long before our touring hiatus, keeping me busy in-studio for the past 15+ years, with rarely a shortage of projects to take on,” he added.  Nominated for two Gemini Awards, his talented compositions are heard on CSI, Village on a Diet, The Nature of Things, Cupcake Girls, Opening Soon and The Fix.

So what happened to the band?  “It was less that our drummer left the group and more that we three decided to get off the touring treadmill. Starting a family and being away a lot took its emotional toll and collectively we needed to take an indefinite break”, he explained.

“But the demand to see us perform wasn’t slowing down and I asked myself  – why after working so hard for so many years were we turning down gigs that many fans were clamouring to attend.  In 2015, the band included Shields, Kurtz and Joel Stouffer (the drummer from Dragonette). In 2017 it became Kurtz, Direnzo and me. We peaked at about 180 annual concerts which kept us travelling for about eight months.  We changed that and capped our concerts at between 50-60 per year.

Jamie Shields (musician) - Alch_ - https___alchetron.com_Jamie-Shields-(musician) 005

>>> Click HERE to watch this video <<<

“Our industry has taken a real hit because of the pandemic. As Canadian musicians working in the USA, the border closures have limited us to one performance – that was in Mexico.  So I keep busy writing music, preparing for the eventual return of live performances.  We’re not sure when this will be and if in-demand Davide Direnzo will be our drummer, but time will tell.”

Shields is married to the writer Shawna Cohen. They have two children.

Music notesCredits: alchetron.com; ElmThree/YouTube; 

A complete list of David Eisenstadt’s articles can be viewed under Music Online in the Category section. Do you have comments or questions about this article? Contact David Eisenstadt at cjnonline@protonmail.com

David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Reader’s Comments

-Looks great, thanks a lot! – JS, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

-Its your best article yet, though, full disclosure, I am slightly biased about the performer you chose to write about. Thanks for such a great job. – JC, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

-I do remember Jamie Shields and the New Deal. I like it the article although I seem to remember a different drummer. – HE, Brooklyn, NY, USA

-Just read your article on Jamie Shields. Well done! – HC, Bal Harbour, Florida, USA

-Having  heard Jamie Shields and his band’s music, I find it intriguing to see how little instrumentation is needed to produce that quality of sound.  Kudos David, for writing about another talented Canadian Jewish musician.   – MB, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

-Great article, David! Really enjoyed reading it and so well written. – SC, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 


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