1808 & Ezekiel Hart in Canadian Politics: A Jewish Perspective

etching of ezekiel hart
1808 & Ezekiel Hart in Canadian Politics: A Jewish Perspective
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Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road. He is also the chair of the Interfaith Council of Halton.

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As a history buff, I love looking back at what happened in Canadian Jewish history. January 10, 2016 commemorates a moment in 1808 when a Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was the first Jew elected to Canadian Parliament, in Trois Rivieres, Quebec, but was denied his seat when he swore the oath of inauguration on a Jewish Bible. At the time, British laws prohibited Jews and Roman Catholics from such positions, and Hart was expelled from the assembly. When I read that fact, I was shocked, because

  1. I never knew that story
  2. was amazed that a Jews got elected in 1808
  3. that he stood up for his religion and wanted to use a Jewish bible and then got expelled.

Its fascinating and I wanted to find out the whole story, and what actually happened. So here goes. Most of my research is from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, a very awkward name for a book, which was created at the bequest of James Nicholson, a Toronto businessman, for the purpose of creating a biographical reference work for Canada of truly national importance. The first edition came out in 1966, so they are celebrating 50 years of scholarship this year.

Ezekiel Hart, along with his brothers Moses and Benjamin and Asher – all great biblical names – was brought by his father Aaron in 1792 in the family fur business on Ru du Platon in Trois-Rivieres. He married Frances Lazarus in February of 1794 in New York, where he also went to school. Ezekiel followed in the footsteps of his father, as a shrewd businessman. Ezekiel along with his brothers Moses and Benjamin expanded the business. They built a Brew and Malt house and a factory on the St. Lawrence River. He went into the import and export trade, kept a general store, never let a good business deal pass, and acquired property.

At this period, Hart shared with his family a passion for politics. A document held at the American Jewish Historical Society Archives in Waltham, Mass., contains an address “to the Worthy and Independent Electors of the Town of Three-Rivers,” dated 22 June 1804, bearing Ezekiel Hart’s name. “My interest is connected with yours,” the candidate declared, promising to carry out the duties of the office sought after “to the utmost of my abilities and that of the interest of this my native Place.” He lost that election but tried again three years later and won.

Ezekiel Hart’s victory in the 1807 by-election in Trois-Rivières would probably have simply passed through history unnoticed expect for a controversial act during the inauguration. It precipitated an important political episode that caused much ink to flow and gave rise to many interpretations.

It is clear that Hart won the election, against three other candidates: Mathew BELL, Thomas COFFIN, Pierre Vézina. Historian Benjamin Sulte* relates that “Hart took the lead, with 59 of 116 votes. Coffin, with 41, and Bell, with 16, in turn withdrew before the day was ended”. It was Saturday, 11 April 1807. Hart, the successful candidate, was asked by the returning officer to sign certain documents but in great embarrassment, again according to Sulte, he requested that the signing be delayed until the Sabbath was over. Fascinating that he would participate in the election on Shabbat but would not write on Shabbat. When pressed by the others in the room, he relented and simply signed Ezekiel Hart, 1807, disregarding the formula “in the year of our Lord.”

As the session at Quebec was coming to an end, Hart had to wait until a new one began 9 months later on 29 Jan. 1808 before he could be sworn in. Foucher and Hart, who had been opponents in Trois-Rivières riding, now found themselves together in Quebec for all those months, and both were in serious difficulties. They were regarded as politicians favouring the English Party, and their right to sit in the assembly was contested by the members of the Canadian Party, who were anxious to secure a stable majority for themselves in the house.

Here is where it gets interesting and unclear whether there was a religious or political motive for what happened. The Canadian Party looked to expel vulnerable members who supported the English Party to retain the Canadian majority. They set their sights on the judge, who in their opinion could not both pass laws and see to their enforcement, and the Jew, who had not been able to take the prescribed oath months earlier. Consequently, Hart could not “attend, sit, or vote.” He was excluded from the assembly by a resolution.

Contrary to the claim often advanced, the Canadians and the English-speaking members did not vote en bloc on the question. Attorney General Jonathan SEWELL, for example, voted in favour of Hart’s expulsion. Paradoxically, Hart, who had been elected by a riding with largely Canadian and Catholic voters, was expelled by an assembly controlled by a majority that was also Canadian and Catholic. “I rather suspect,” traveller John Lambert*commented, that “they [the Canadians] wished to keep the majority on their side, and if possible, to get a French, instead of an English member in the House.”

The resolution mentioned that Hart was of the Jewish religion and that he had “taken the Oath in the manner customary only for persons of that persuasion.” In other words, Hart wanted to swear his oath on a Jewish Bible (Torah). It appears that Hart put his hand on his head, as a substitute for a kippah, and changed the word Jewish for Christian in the oath.

In the subsequent debate as to whether he should be expelled or not, it was emphasized that a Jew does not believe in the New Testament, which is an integral part of the Bible. In short, Hart had taken an oath that was being disputed as invalid. This reason, which some thought a pretext, was used to justify his expulsion. He protested, in vain, and had to return home.

Was it a Jewish issue or not? From this account it appears that it was mostly a political issue; he was an English sympathizer, even though he was elected in a Canadian riding. However after doing a little more research I came across a Canadian heritage video from Historica Canada, the largest independent organization devoted to enhancing awareness of Canadian history and citizenship. They create short 1-2 minute videos about significant moments in Canadian history, such as the story of Terry Fox. Incredibly they have created a one-minute video about Ezekiel Hart. It focuses on the fact that he was expelled because he wanted to swear on a Jewish Bible. The others revolted because the oath must be sworn as a Christian. Ezekiel ran again in 1808 a year later and won again, and tried to take the oath, this time in the Christian manner, but was still denied and expelled based on the precedent that he has already been expelled as a Jew a year before. On 7 September the colonial secretary, Lord Castlereagh, confirmed that a Jew could not sit in the assembly.

Harts’ religious affiliation was more significant than it is portrayed, and the History dictionary tries to gloss over it.  His attempts and successes to hold office did lead to changes within a few years, and allowed Jews to hold office in Canada.

Exterior grey stone Sculpture of King William IV

HRH King William IV allowed Jews to hold office in 1832. ell brown via Foter.com / CC BY

In 1832, Quebec passed a law granting full voting rights to Jews. It was Ezekiel’s oldest son, Samuel, who helped that legislation get passed. He was offered the position as magistrate and justice of the peace in 1830, but was not allowed to hold that office. Samuel wrote a letter to HRH William IV, King of England petitioning the right for Jews in Canada to be allowed to hold public office. Louis-Joseph Papineau, who in 1809 supported the expulsion of Ezekiel Hart, had become speaker of the Assembly in 1815, and was an intelligent and enlightened man. He clearly had changed his mind about Jews and would not allow prejudice and partisan bickering to interfere with the democratic process. Thus, under his tenure of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, a bill was passed in 1832 that ultimately guaranteed full rights to people practicing the Jewish faith. England and its other colonies would not grant these rights to Jews for another 25 years.

So while we can hold some anger for not allowing Ezekiel to hold the office he was elected to back in 1807, at least he had an opportunity to run and win, quite progressive for 1807 considering what Jews were faced with in most of the world. And we can cheer Canada for coming to its senses in 1832 giving full rights to Jews – and Jews have had much freedom and success in Canada since then.

What ever happened to Ezekiel Hart? He went back to his business and also served as a lieutenant in the 8th Battalion of Trois-Rivières militia. He lived in an enormous, comfortable, and well-furnished house, was quite wealthy and had 10 children. When Hart died in 1843, he was accorded an impressive funeral. The stores in Trois-Rivières closed, and the 81st Foot paid him final honours. He was buried in the second Jewish cemetery in Trois-Rivières, which was on a lot that he himself had given for it.

Ezekiel Hart had undoubtedly been a remarkable person for his time and place and deserves to be given a place of honour in the history of Jewish life in Canada.


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