175th Anniversary of Death of Ezekiel Hart
Hon. Linda Frum: Honourable senators, the year 2018 marks the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of Ezekiel Hart, the first person of Jewish faith ever to be elected to political office in the British Empire.
After losing as a candidate in 1804, he won a by-election in 1807 in his home riding of Trois-Rivières, a largely Catholic district. His election created a crisis with repercussions felt for years.
In those days, elections were held in public, by a show of hands. On the third voting turn, Hart was declared the winner. It was Saturday, April 11, 1807. He was asked by the returning officer to sign certain documents. Since it was the Sabbath, he requested a delay, which was denied. He then reluctantly agreed.
When the session began in January 1808, a resolution was introduced to expel Hart from the assembly based on the fact that he was of the Jewish religion and because, when he was being sworn in with the phrase “on the true faith of a Christian” he substituted the word “Christian” for “Jew.”
During the debate it was emphasized that Jews do not believe in the New Testament and therefore, his oath was invalid. Hart was expelled. He soon had another chance since the general election was called for April 1808. He was re-elected and this time, Hart took the oath in the Christian manner. However, another resolution against him was tabled when the legislature opened. After a lengthy debate, Ezekiel Hart was again denied the right to sit and to vote because of his religion, a decision later confirmed by the British colonial secretary. Ezekiel had enough and returned home to his business.
In 1830, his son Samuel ran in Trois-Rivières. Like his father, he was met with strong opposition.
Fortunately, the Speaker of the House, Louis-Joseph Papineau, who had voted for Ezekiel’s expulsion in 1809, had a change of heart and moved to enact, a 1832, the Act to Grant Equal Rights and Privileges to Persons of the Jewish Religion. This law granted the equal right to vote to Jews, a quarter century before these rights were granted elsewhere in the British empire.
When Ezekiel died in 1843, he was accorded an impressive funeral. The stores in Trois-Rivières were closed and the local militia regiment paid him final honours.
The story of Ezekiel Hart reminds us how much Jews had to fight for recognition, even here in Canada. Although historians agree that the question of his oath was used to discard a political opponent, as much as it was pure prejudice, this episode of Canadian history reminds us that anti-Semitism has always been with us and must always be resisted.
The story of Ezekiel Hart is also a tribute to the people of Trois-Rivières, a Catholic district that elected him twice and then his son a few years later, forcing the adoption of a law that was revolutionary for its time. They voted for the man they knew and respected, not for a person of a particular religion.
Colleagues, I invite you to reflect on the road travelled in the last 175 years and to celebrate the memory of Ezekiel Hart, the first Jew to be elected to public office in the British Empire.