Canada has recognized the Holocaust as a “unique and unprecedented tragedy in human history” and has affirmed its commitment to acknowledge, remember, and learn from the atrocity. According to the Canadian government, Canada is home to the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world and one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors. After World War II, nearly 40,000 Holocaust survivors resettled in Canada. A number of private and nongovernmental organizations across Canada provide assistance specifically tailored to the needs of Holocaust survivors, including financial aid, counseling, restitution and compensation assistance, social activities, support groups, and social work services.
Canada played an important role in World War II. More than one million Canadians served in the Canadian Armed Forces during the war, and more than 43,000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives. During the period leading up to, during, and shortly after World War II, however, Canada refused entry to some European Jewish refugees, allowed immigration policies that discriminated against Jews, and engaged in the internment of German and Austrian Jewish refugees and Japanese Canadians. In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for the country’s anti-Semitic immigration policy and to all who “paid the price of Canada’s inaction” during the Holocaust.
Politicians across the political spectrum have expressed public support for restitution and compensation to Holocaust survivors and their heirs for property seized during the Holocaust. Canada helped draft the Terezin Declaration and endorsed it in 2009. It also endorsed the Terezin Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
Experts state that Canada has not enacted immovable property restitution laws because no such property was seized in Canada during the Holocaust.
In the decades after the Holocaust, Canada entered into lump-sum settlement agreements with Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia pertaining to property claims of Canadian nationals. The agreements with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Poland required the property in question to have been continuously held by a person who was a Canadian citizen from the time the property was seized until the date of the agreement, which made it difficult for most Holocaust victims to make successful restitution claims on the basis of those specific agreements.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
According to the Canadian government, “the issue of displaced cultural property primarily affects those art museums and private collectors that acquired European fine and decorative art of unknown provenance from the period of 1933-1945.” The government’s Canadian Heritage Information Network hosts an online database known as Artefacts Canada, which contains five million object records and one million images from Canadian museums. Both museum professionals and the general public can access the database, which may assist museum professionals and Holocaust survivors and their heirs in identifying confiscated or looted movable property.
In 2014, the government provided 190,000 Canadian dollars (approximately USD $174,000) to the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization to develop materials for use by small- and medium-sized museums regarding their holdings, and in 2017, they produced the “Canadian Holocaust-Era Provenance Research and Best Practice Guidelines Project,” which can be accessed online.
The country’s National Gallery of Art, a Crown corporation of the Government of Canada, also maintains a list on its website of works created before 1946 and acquired after 1933, which “have been identified as having incomplete or potentially problematic ownership histories.” The museum continues to research the provenance of its collection and to add works to the list as appropriate. The museum also maintains a Disposition Policy, under which it commits to make restitution pursuant to its ethical obligations, as set out in the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, and pursuant to its legal and ethical obligations, as set out in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Canada is also home to the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal, which is dedicated to recovering the works lost by gallery owner Max Stern during the Holocaust.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
Experts believe at least some Judaica or Jewish cultural property looted by Nazis or otherwise seized during the Holocaust is located in Canada. According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Canada received 2,031 books and 151 museum and synagogue pieces from the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) after World War II; the majority of these items are believed to have been looted during the Holocaust. Many of these items went to the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Manitoba and to the Dominican Institute of Medieval Studies in Montreal. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto also received one book. There appear to be no surviving inventories of what was actually distributed or the ultimate location of the items, and the current whereabouts of many of the items is unknown. The Canadian Jewish Congress was involved in distributing the items and is believed to maintain approximately 400 books in its collection, along with approximately 45 ceremonial objects. The Aron Museum in Montreal also holds an extensive Judaica collection, which includes items that were in antiques markets after World War II, as well as some items from JCR. Additionally, the Artefacts Canada database is partially devoted to cultural and religious objects in Canada’s cultural institutions. The database currently permits users to input certain data about item origin; enhancements are reportedly coming which will allow for input of additional data regarding an item’s provenance.
Access to Archival Documents
Canada has provided funding for the publication of a publicly accessible thematic guide that provides a list of Holocaust-related material in its holdings, titled “Research Guide to Holocaust‑related Holdings at Library and Archives Canada.” It includes both archival and published sources and covers both governmental and personal documents. The government has noted, however, that “obstacles still exist for accessing other public and private archived materials,” either because some collections have not been digitized or because those holding the collections have not produced online search catalogues. In 2016, the government launched the Library and Archives Canada Documentary Communities Heritage Program to support archival research. This program has provided funding to organizations such as the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre to help develop a digital preservation plan, as well as a plan for processing and accessing archival documents.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
In recent decades, Canada has taken substantial steps to support Holocaust education and research and enhance remembrance. For example, in 1979, the Montreal Holocaust Museum was established to educate people about the Holocaust and to collect, preserve, and share artifacts relating to the Holocaust. The museum also runs Holocaust education programs across Canada and has produced hundreds of educational video clips that are available online. In 1994, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre was established to further education to combat racism. In 2013, Canada launched a five-year initiative under the Community Historical Recognition Program to acknowledge and educate all Canadians about the experiences of populations impacted by discriminatory wartime measures and immigration restrictions. As part of the program, the government made 2.5 million Canadian dollars (approximately 2.4 million U.S. dollars) available to Jewish organizations for projects related to Canada’s internment camps and refusal to accept some Jewish refugees.
Canada is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In 2013, Canada chaired the IHRA and provided 800,000 Canadian dollars (approximately 767,000 U.S. dollars) for the preservation of Holocaust survivor testimony and educational projects. The project resulted in the digitization of thousands of oral histories of Holocaust survivors.
Canadian primary and secondary students learn about the Holocaust within the historical context of World War II, as well as through curricula focused on social justice, world religions, and language arts. A number of nonprofit organizations are active in Holocaust education and remembrance, including the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, the Azrieli Foundation, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Canada is also home to a wide range of Holocaust studies academic programs and Jewish academic centers.