Canada’s oldest Jewish community welcomes new addition – a history museum

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‘The third most spoken language in the city for 50 years was Yiddish’

Focusing on the Jewish impact on the city’s culture, the Montreal institution covers Leonard Cohen, art, landmarks — and even cuisine

April 16, 2017, 3:59 am 1
Zev Moses, director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

MONTREAL — Canada’s oldest Jewish community is commemorating its heritage with a newly-opened museum just outside Montreal’s historic Jewish Mile End neighborhood.

Housed in a former Jewish garment factory, the small Museum of Jewish Montreal distinguishes itself from other Jewish museums in Canada by not focusing on the Holocaust but on local Jewish history.

“One of my inspirations was looking out of the window,” says Zev Moses, the museum’s director. “I saw a building that looked like a synagogue that was converted into apartments. I googled it and there was no information about it. Eventually, I found out it was a synagogue but no one had put Montreal Jewish landmarks on a map.”

So Moses, who was 26 years old at the time and had a degree in city planning, decided to do just that.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal started out as a digital project, dots on a map representing Montreal’s old Jewish landmarks. For instance, Moses says there were at least 90 synagogues that had been converted to other uses.

‘One of my inspirations was looking out of the window’

Later, the museum began to offer walking tours, and finally last summer — with support from the government of Canada, the city of Montreal, and the Jewish community — established itself in a permanent physical space.

Visitors can find temporary exhibits and a cafe that serves surprising Jewish foods, such as gefilte fish sandwiches on challah bread. There is also a bookstore, with novels by Jewish authors set in Montreal, and works of nonfiction about the city’s oldest Yiddish newspaper or the smoked meat sandwiches from the famous Schwartz’s deli located just down the block. It is the only non-religious Jewish bookstore in Montreal, Moses says.

A view of the street from inside the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

A view of the street from inside the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

One of the recent exhibits featured old photos of Montreal synagogues next to pictures of what these buildings became: apartment blocks, churches and cultural centers. One former synagogue houses the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada; others have been reincarnated as a Greek Orthodox church, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple and a private high school called “College Francais.” The school looks like a modern building, but on closer inspection Hebrew writing can still be seen in a semi-circle above the front entrance.

‘This is the stuff on the tour where people are really shocked’

“People walk by it all the time and don’t notice anything. But when we tell them to look up, they see the writing,” says Magdalene Klassen, a researcher at the museum. “This is the stuff on the tour where people are really shocked.”

The building where the museum is located is itself linked to the city’s Jewish heritage. Originally known as the Vineberg building (it was built by Abraham Vineberg in 1912), it was a garment factory that employed mostly Jewish workers. The owner thought he was a good boss because he let his Jewish workers take Saturdays off instead of Sundays, Klassen says, but the workers still hungered for higher wages.

Montreal’s Jewish history

Moses, who has lived in Montreal since he was a child, knows all about the city’s Jewish history.

Canadian Jewish history began when Montreal’s first Jews arrived in around 1760, after the British conquest. Until that time, French Catholics did not allow Jews to settle in New France, Moses says. These first Jewish settlers were English-speaking Sephardic merchants, who established Montreal’s first synagogue at the end of the 18th century.

Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, September 24, 2009. (Marko / Flash90)

Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, September 24, 2009. (Marko / Flash90)

Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, September 24, 2009. (Marko / Flash90)

But the largest wave of Jewish migration to Canada took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jews began arriving from the Russian empire and Eastern Europe. Famous Montreal citizen Leonard Cohen‘s mother, for example, was a Lithuanian Jew of Russian descent, who immigrated to Canada in 1927.

Most of these new immigrants settled in the working-class Plateau neighborhood of Montreal, renting cold-water apartments along Saint-Lawrence Boulevard, also known as The Main (street), because it divides Montreal into east and west. English-speakers generally lived on the west side and French speakers on the east. Addresses in the city are counted from the Saint-Lawrence Boulevard.

“Because the city was divided between the French Catholics and the English Protestants, and the Jews lived in-between, they were able to maintain their culture and the Yiddish language much longer than other Jewish communities in North America,” Moses says. “The third most spoken language in the city for 50 years was Yiddish.”

Illustrative: a Jewish boy in Montreal. (photo credit: David Ouellette/JTA)

Illustrative: a Jewish boy in Montreal. (photo credit: David Ouellette/JTA)

In fact, Yiddish is still the mother tongue of about 15,000 Montreal Jews — the Hassidim, including the Belz, Satmar, Vizhnitz and Skver dynasties, as well as the Tosh (or Tash), a Hungarian dynasty entirely based in Canada with a village just north of Montreal.

However, after World War II, as the Montreal Jewish community prospered, Jews began moving away from the Plateau neighborhood to other parts of Montreal. And then, with the Quebec independence movement gaining strength, many left the French-speaking province altogether. Some settled in Toronto, which is now home to the largest Jewish community in Canada.

Jewish Montreal today

Nowadays the Jewish community of Montreal is stable, with a population of about 90,000, Moses says. French-speaking Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Montreal in the 1960s number around 25,000, and the rest are Ashkenazi, mostly English-speakers.

In recent decades, Montreal also welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union, France and Argentina, Moses adds.

Book for sale in the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

Book for sale in the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

Meanwhile, the Plateau neighborhood has become one of the hippest areas to live in Montreal, with cafes and restaurants offering varied international cuisine. And while the Jewish community has moved, the neighborhood is still famous for its Jewish food — the Montreal bagels, which are baked in ovens right in front of the customers and sold when they’re still warm; the poppy seed pastries; cheese-filled blintzes; and the smoked meat sandwiches served with a pickle on the side.

Not to be outdone, the Museum’s café, Fletchers, prides itself on using the city’s rich Jewish culinary heritage to create unique dishes. For instance, they sell a cookie based on a recipe from an Iraqi Jewish Montrealer — there are said to be a few thousand Iraqi Jews living in Montreal. The cookie is made with almond flour, cardamom and rosewater and is kosher for Passover, says Kat Romanow, who is in charge of the menu.

The cafe also offers the traditional bagel with a twist — Moroccan-spiced lox.

The menu at Fletcher's, the Jewish fusion cafe inside the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

The menu at Fletcher’s, the Jewish fusion cafe inside the Museum of Jewish Montreal. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

“We’re taking a very Ashkenazi dish — bagels and lox — and putting a Moroccan spice mix on the fish, marrying the two largest Jewish communities in Montreal,” Moses says.

And then there is the gefilte fish sandwich.

The gefilte fish is pan-fried and served warm with a horseradish sauce, accompanied by a carrot and parsley salad on challah. Moses says that the sandwich does not contain any of the either loved or reviled fish jelly.

“I was like, ‘No way it’s going to sell,’ but it’s probably our most popular dish,” admits Moses.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Commemoration, Sunday, April 23, 7:30 PM

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Holocaust survivors invite Montrealers to participate in the Yom Hashoah commemoration to remember the victims of the Shoah, honour the survivors and consider how we can learn from the Holocaust as we look to the future.

The commemoration will include poems and short readings in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as songs performed by a Jewish children’s Choir. This years’ theme is Reflections on the Holocaust – Carrying on the Legacy.

 

He repaired the world: the loss of a medical giant

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To those who knew Dr. Mark A. Wainberg, he was an unassuming and genteel character with a sweet yet dry sense of humour. On the one hand, he would hobnob with royalty and world-renowned business and political leaders. On the other hand, when he spoke with you on the streets of Cote Saint-Luc or in the halls of the Jewish General Hospital, he made you feel that you were just as important as those other machers (big shots). And to him, you were.

Dr. Wainberg was at once a man of the people, a man of great faith, a real mentch. It was almost hard to fathom that this same man was responsible for saving the lives of millions of people. In the field of medical sciences he was the equivalent of a rock star.

His work changed the world for millions in Africa, for gays, for women. His activism moved multinationals, and countries. He was a force to be reckoned with.

 

Presentation of the 2016 D'Arcy McGee Citizenship Medal - David Birnbaum, Dr. Mark Wainberg, Glenn J. Nashen

Presentation of the 2016 D’Arcy McGee Citizenship Medal – David Birnbaum, Dr. Mark Wainberg, Glenn J. Nashen

Dr. Wainberg was born in Park Extension and made Cote Saint-Luc his home for more than 30 years. He was head of AIDS research at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital and director of the McGill University Aids Centre. He served as president of the International AIDS Society and presided over worldwide symposiums.

As an extraordinary individual whose accomplishments encircle the globe, and as someone whom I had befriended for nearly 30 years, I was delighted to be the impetus in nominating Dr. Wainberg for a local award just last year – the D’Arcy McGee citizenship medals from the Quebec National Assembly, presented by MNA David Birnbaum.
“I am very grateful that my research career in the field of HIV/AIDS has helped countless people around the world to live improved lives despite being infected by a dreaded virus,” Dr. Wainberg said at the ceremony in his humble office, where I was honoured to be his sole invitee.
Also last year, I asked my fellow city councillors to award Dr. Wainberg with a special recognition for his humanitarian gesture in donating a Torah scroll in Jerusalem in memory of a young woman, Shira Banki, following her brutal slaying at the 2015 Tel Aviv Pride Parade.

Wainberg 2016 Torah donation

“Your work in the area of AIDS researcher is well-known around the world. Your donation of a restored Torah to the Ethiopian community of Jerusalem is a wonderful act. We are proud of you as a distinguished Côte Saint-Luc resident,” Acting Mayor Dida Berku said at the February 2016 presentation to Dr. Wainberg.

 

Wainberg Council Feb 2016

Cote Saint-Luc Council presents a special recognition award to Dr. Mark Wainberg (Feb. 8, 2016)

When I first ran for city council, I reached out to Dr. Wainberg who was then the president of the TBDJ Congregation on Bailey. His support of my campaign and his warm friendship were unequivocal. He asked for nothing in return, satisfied in helping to build his community, one leader at a time.

Having known Dr. Wainberg for so many years I can attest to his profound sense of healing the world. He was a compassionate and benevolent academic and community leader, well deserving of many honours including the Order of Canada, the National Order of Quebec and France’s Legion d’honneur.

Glenn J. Nashen and Dr. Mark Wainberg (Oct. 2009)

Dr. Wainberg’s contributions began here, at home, and spread around the globe. The biblical responsibility of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, was a calling Dr. Wainberg took to heart and to which he dedicated his life’s work.

His work will go on. His name will be remembered. May his memory be a blessing.

 

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City mourns loss of former Councillor Harold Greenspon

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City mourns loss of former Councillor Harold Greenspon

Councillor Harold Greenspon

The City of Côte Saint-Luc has lowered the flags in front of the city hall in tribute to former Councillor Harold Greenspon, who passed away on Thursday, March 30, 2017.

 

Councillor Greenspon served from 1975 to 2001.

 

“I have sent on behalf of the city, condolences to his wife Malvina, his children Neil and Donna and their families,” said Mayor Mitchell Brownstein. “Harold was the dean of the council. As a young councillor, I could always ask for his advice.”

 

The city has previously honoured Councillor Greenspon through the naming of its auditorium and city park.

 

“Harold was a mentor and a Mentch. He coached us, as young councillors in our early mandates. He gave wise advice on matters of finance, urban planning and governance. Harold always had a good sense of what was good for the community, for our residents,” said Councillor Glenn J. Nashen. “Harold would always call when he wanted support for his district and did a great job of convincing us to see things from his perspective. And he was usually right. His years on council were a great benefit to the city. His departure is surely a loss. He will be missed but his legacy, and his name. carries on.”

The funeral takes place Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 12pm at Paperman & Sons.The Shiva takes place on Sunday, April 2 to Friday, April 7 (from 1pm to 4pm and 7pm to 9pm daily) at 5850 Marc Chagall Ave.

 

More info: http://www.paperman.com/en/funerals/2017-4-2-Harold-Greenspon

 

Former CSL City Councillor Harold Greenspon is honoured for his years of volunteerism.

Décès de l’ancien conseiller Harold Greenspon

 

La Ville de Côte Saint-Luc a mis les drapeaux devant l’hôtel de ville en berne en guise de témoignage à l’ancien conseiller Harold Greenspon, qui est décédé le jeudi 30 mars 2017.

 

Harold Greenspon fut conseiller de 1975 à 2001.

 

« Au nom de la ville, j’ai transmis mes condoléances à sa femme Malvina, et ses enfants Neil et Donna ainsi qu’à leurs familles, a fait savoir le maire Mitchell Brownstein. Harold était l’aîné du conseil. Et, comme jeune conseiller, je lui ai souvent demandé conseil. »

 

Cote Saint-Luc Council is sworn into office in 1998. Harold Greenspon, top row, second from right.

La ville a rendu hommage au conseiller Greenspon en nommant, il y a quelques années, son auditorium et un parc en son honneur.

« Harold était un mentor et un Mentch. Il nous a coaché, les jeunes conseillers, dans nos premiers mandats. Il a donné des conseils judicieux en matière de finances, de la planification urbaine et la gouvernance. Harold avait toujours un bon sens de ce qui était bon pour la communauté, pour nos résidents « , a déclaré le conseiller Glenn J. Nashen. « Harold nous a appelé au téléphone quand il a voulu le soutien pour son district et a fait un excellent travail de nous convaincre de voir les choses de son point de vue. Il était généralement correcte. Ses années au sein du conseil ont été un grand avantage pour la ville. Son départ est sûrement une perte. Il nous manquera, mais son héritage, et son nom. poursuivra « .

Les funérailles auront lieu le dimanche 2 avril 2017 à 12 h à Paperman & Sons. La shiva aura lieu du dimanche 2 avril au vendredi 7 avril 2017 (tous les jours, entre 13 h à 16 h et de 19 h à 21 h) au 5850 av. Marc Chagall.

 

Pour plus d’information : http://www.paperman.com/en/funerals/2017-4-2-Harold-Greenspon

Mike Cohen’s blog 

WWII story of love and loss has roots in CSL

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She gave him hope. He gave her a promise.

When I first read about the film by Naomi Jaye entitled, The Pin, all I knew was that it was a unique cinematic production given that it was recorded in Yiddish. I did not know that it was a Canadian funded film nor that there were any connections to Cote Saint-Luc. But I knew enough that I though a copy ought to be purchased for the Cote Saint-Luc Public Library. All it took was one quick call to Chief Librarian Janine West.

The copy arrived and I was fortunate to be the first to withdraw the DVD from the massive film collection. And last Sunday I popped some popcorn and cranked up the DVD player so that my parents, son and I could sit down to our first inter-generational Yiddish movie, thankfully with English subtitles. I must say, I was impressed how much Yiddish I actually understood, so a big shout out to JPPS and the late principals Yaacov Zipper, Leib Tencer and Nachum Wilchesky, not to forget so many famous teachers like leren (teacher, miss)) Rose, leren Chava, leren Laya, lerer (teacher, Mr.) Shwartzberg and of course the world-famous Yiddishist from 1970s Bialik High School, Aaron Lansky.

The Pin is a wonderful story about two young people who experience love and loss while in hiding in the same barn during the horrible days of WWII. After a life of regret, the young man, now old, is faced with an opportunity for redemption.

This touching romance in Yiddish is a universal story of love and devotion over the years.

The film starts are Grisha Pasternak and Milda Gecaite.

What caught my attention though was something quite obscure. In one of the final scenes, when the main protagonists were running to jump on a passing train I noticed that an old, faded logo of CP Rail was noticeable on the aging boxcar. At that point I realized there was a Canadian connection and the film must have been shot here. As the credits rolled I noticed that funding by the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts supported this film.

Final credits also acknowledged a Montreal Yiddish initiative and thanks were offered to Cote Saint-Luc natives Jack Wolofsky and his daughter Sandy.

In the audio clip below, Naomi Jaye, director of The Pin, shares the story behind this 2013 film. The Pin is the first Yiddish-language film (with English subtitles) to be shot in Canada, and the second in North America in over 70 years.

 

 

The Pin was nominated for Best Foreign Romance Trailer in the Golden Trailer Awards in 2014.

The Pin (85 minutes) is available on loan, free of charge to members of the Cote Saint-Luc Public Library under filing code DVD FOR P645.

Which century is Cuba in?

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LOOKING FOR AN EXPERIENCE
I took my family on a vacation to Cuba two weeks ago. Looking for more than just the pool and beach I wanted the kids to have a higher level experience, something educational and memorable. Experiential. My solution?  A side trip to Havana.
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Classic 1950s American cars are everywhere in Cuba

Barely two hours from the paradise of Varadero, a trip to Havana is a trip back through time. Locked in the 20th century, the capital city of Cuba is a glimpse into the grandeur and opulence of its rich colonial past. The vibrancy of its heyday in the 1920s through the 1950s is everywhere, from the impressive architecture to the grand American classic automobiles. Latin rhythms waft from balconies and at touristy street corner bodegas. You can feel the wealth of culture and society of a bygone era.
Close your eyes and imagine the rich and famous strolling down the narrow streets during the Jazz Age , Ernest Hemingway at his favourite watering hole, the Bodeguita del Medio in the ’30s, Fidel Castro addressing his people in the ’50s, and Russian everywhere in the ’60s.
With the blink of an eye you switch back and forth between the centuries: 2017 Havana is a juxtaposition between dilapidated buildings and broken cobblestone roads mixed with charming cafes and floral displays on decorated balconies. The Old City is slowly being restored with private funding inching its way into the Communist economy and significant UNESCO investment in buildings rich in heritage and history.
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Streets in Old Havana are narrow with very few cars. Life flows out into the street with local smells and sounds – a photographer’s paradise, as it was for me.

WHERE ARE THE AMERICANS?
Tourists abound from Europe, South America, Russia and mostly Canada. Nary an American is to be found with the 55 year old US embargo still in place restricting US travel (save for those who qualify for a visa based upon family reunification, non-governmental work or religious travel).
Surprisingly, tourism is only the second largest source of revenue for the tiny island nation. The first industry is actually exportation of trained workers. Doctors, engineers and a host of professionals are permitted to leave for up to 8 years and to earn real world wages while sending back sizable amounts as tax to the government.
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Old Havana’s public spaces are wide open and generally car free. Many surrounding buildings offer impressive architectural facades, extraordinary balconies and beautiful colours.

Until recently doctors earned a paltry $30 per month, but with changes in the economic grip of Castro’s regime this amount has gone up tenfold now enabling the professionals to bring in an incredible $300 each month. Of course, those working abroad can earn many times more, and they do.
EQUAL AND RESPECTFUL
While 10% of Cubans are black, owing to the slave labour imported centuries earlier from Africa, 65% are white descendants of Europeans who arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1492. What’s more 1% are Chinese and the remaining 24% are mixed. Amazingly, there is no racial divide on the island. All Cubans are considered equal and respect one other. Perhaps this stems from the symbols emblematic in their flag, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, a civic philosophy borrowed from the French.
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I love to capture the expressions of the locals when I travel. Some will extend an arm and ask for a handout. Kids are inquisitive and engaging and generally will smile as did this beautiful little Havana resident.

TRYING TO GET AHEAD
Our guide Luis, 50 years old, was a teacher and voracious learner. While guiding several days each week in impeccable English and German, he supplements his earnings by privately teaching the English language to locals. He describes his fourth language, Italian, as a little rusty. Not being connected to the Internet his studying comes from books that he is able to come by locally. Luis has never driven a car and has no permit to do so, similar to most Cubans. Owning a car is cost prohibitive for most here.
Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

The whole system works very slowly. No one goes hungry (anymore). Luis recounted how he and his wife would share a hard-boiled egg for lunch every day in the mid 90s when lengthy power outages were the norm. But, everyone has a home (even the homeless are housed in yesteryear’s mansions) and the government provides monthly rations of sugar, flour, soap, tooth paste, chicken and so on but North American standards are light years away despite its distance of barely 90 miles to the Florida keys.

LOOK AT THOSE CARS
Speaking of cars, the island is known worldwide for its pristine typical 1950s American classics. Anywhere you turn you’re guaranteed to see a brightly painted, shiny chrome vehicle with whitewall tires reminiscent of the Hollywood set of Happy Days. These beauties have been maintained for more than half a century and now sport modern horn sounds, LED lights and are used as taxis, rental cars or private vehicles.
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The yellow iconic Coco taxis, essentially motorbike with a rickshaw seat for two, are everywhere, however the US State department warns these are dangerous vehicles, prone to accident.
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Coco taxis are popular with the tourists but may not be as safe as you think

Smoking was everywhere! Yuck. There are no smoke-free zones. I thought we left these behind in the 20th century, but not in Cuba. There is smoking in restaurants, in stores, in the airport, in and around hotels. Everywhere. Between the cigarettes and famous Cuban cigars it’s no wonder that lung cancer is prevalent among Cubans.
LOOKING AHEAD
It was fascinating to learn how locals live and go about their lives through the eyes of Luis and his hopes and aspirations for his 19 year old  daughter now studying tourism at Matanzas University. He expressed concern about the work ethic of the next generation entering the labour market. He was hopeful that his daughter would have a better life and have more opportunity and experiences.  Seems like Cuban parents have very similar concerns to Canadian parents.
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Old Havana is a mix of bright colours of renovated buildings next to dilapidated ones. Amazingly this old cars has stood the test of time (and dodged a few falling bricks).

A SYSTEM WE’RE NOT USED TO
Everything, almost, is government-owned and controlled. While Luis carefully describes this setup as socialism rather than communism the omnipotence of the Castro regime is everywhere. And Soviet influences are fading very slowly, even 27 years after the fall of USSR.
Nonetheless, Luis is a very happy person and he describes Cubans, in general, as having a high degree of happiness. It would also seem that most Cubans have never left their country, internet is not widely available and news outlets and television programming are state controlled. Censorship is the norm.
Hotels chains are owned 51% by the government and the buildings will revert to full government ownership after a number of years. Hotel staff are employed by the state. It would seem that there is no incentive for improvement or quality. This helped us to understand why we had to call and visit the front desk multiple times to resolve basic requests such as to receive extra towels or to fix an air conditioning problem.
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Beautiful balconies on every street. Imagine how many different people opened these shutters through the centuries to look out upon those scurrying about below?

To be sure, hotel staff are very obliging and friendly. Many were outgoing and remembered our names and our nationality. However, lagging basic renovations, be it for plumbing, electrical or other issues, would wait for another day. Sadly, this malaise would turn an otherwise 5-star modern and luxurious Iberostar resort into a 3.5 star under-achiever. Don’t get me wrong, I’d stay here again and again. And I’ll definitely be back for a visit. The people are friendly, happy and engaging.
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Content, proud and secure, at home, in Old Havana

TWO HOURS IN A ’53 CHEVY
For 50 Cuban tourist dollars (CUC) our driver, Unido, was happy to tour us around Varadero city in a ’53 Chevy, taking us to see the two “shopping malls”, the Dupont mansion overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and the biggest of several flea markets, on 15th street at the corner of Main Street. There are 64 streets intersecting Main Street in the town centre which only runs two or three blocks wide on the 22 kilometre peninsula beach resort.
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My next post on Cuba will feature our visit to the Jewish community.

Ernest Hemingway’s regular hangout

I spotted this photo of our PM, Jean Chretien, with Fidel Castro, hanging in the bar at the Hotel Nacional in Havana

 

Music everywhere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Housefather asks for apology re SS St. Louis’ denial of entry in 1939

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By Isaac Olson

Free Press, Feb. 14, 2017

 

In a speech delivered during an emergency immigration debate on January 30, MP Anthony Housefather, representing the Mount Royal riding, called on the federal government to issue an apology for refusing the entry of over 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis in 1939.

Rising to his feet in the house of commons as he has done several times since taking office, Housefather was taking part in a discussion centred around the controversial travel and immigration restrictions in the United States.

During the speech, Housefather reminded Canadians that there have been times in this country’s history where the United States has been more welcoming.

“I’ve heard a lot of congratulatory comments tonight about how in Canada we’re different – how in Canada we have had this incredible tradition of bringing in immigrants and refugees and we’ve always done it,” said Housefather, who acknowledged that this has been true for the last few decades. However, he added, “that has not always been true.”

Housefather said he was inspired to make the leap from municipal to federal politics after Quebec’s “separatist government” proposed its “charter of values,” which would have required him to “fire people because they were going to wear a kippah, or a hijab, or a turban to work.” He cited the religious freedom rally that was held in Côte St. Luc in 2013 when that debate was taking place. As mayor, he led a charge against the charter and now, looking back on that time, he said it shows that Canadian politicians “are no different here than they are elsewhere” because people can always capitalize on xenophobia and spark fear in the population.

Citing President Donald Trump’s executive order as an American issue, he said there is still a lot to learn from this debate such as the importance of not putting forward policies without public consultation or ensuring that an order is legal under a country’s constitution. He encouraged Canada to continue such practices of vetting policies thoroughly before pushing them forward. He said orders should not be made retroactively so as to affect people with valid visas in transit and it is important not to enact laws that discriminate against people of certain countries or religions.

This, he said, is where it is important to remember Canada’s history, citing the many ethnic and religious groups that have been excluded from the country. The SS St. Louis, he said, was among those rejected. The Jewish refugees had Cuban visas but the Caribbean country changed its rules last minute and turned them away. The ship was then denied entry into the United States and Canada.

“I hope one day Canada will apologize for what happened with the St. Louis,” said Housefather. “We should always remember that this could happen here. We have to be vigilant.”

The full video is available on Housefather’s YouTube page.

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