Jewish Labour Committee (1936-1980s)
No other organization can equal the impact of the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) for battling discrimination in Canada. It established a network of human rights committees, which were extremely active locally in using the media and various pressure tactics to discourage acts of discrimination. The history of the JLC also offers a useful introduction to the important role played by organized labour in the human rights movement.
Formed in 1936, the JLC and its rival, the Joint Public Relations Committee (formed in 1938) of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), were front-runners in the push for anti-discrimination legislation in Ontario. Kalmen Kaplansky, a Polish-born Jew who belonged to the International Typographical Union, was the JLC executive director for combating racial discrimination in the labour movement. He was instrumental in the formation of the Joint Labour Committees to Combat Racial Discrimination in Toronto, Windsor, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Each joint committee held an annual Race Institute conference, which promoted tolerance among unionized workers, distributed pamphlets, and networked with various bodies such as the Canadian Association for Adult Education. Initially competitors, the Joint Public Relations Committee and the JLC joined forces in 1947 under the Joint Advisory Committee on Labour Relations, with equal funding and executive members from both groups. Kalmen Kaplansky was its leader.
With operations in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto, and Montreal by 1959, the JLC had a large network of rights associations. It enjoyed such success by 1960 that Frank Scott was prompted to remark that he knew “of no single body in the whole of Canada doing as much continuous and consistent work for civil liberties.” [Clément 2008] For most of the 1960s, the JLC-CJC alliance remained a powerful force in the slowly evolving human rights movement and was the closest equivalent to a national rights association at that time.
JLC activists were involved in some of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination campaigns in Canada. In Montreal, the United Council for Human Rights (the local JLC labour committee) continually badgered the provincial government to pass a bill of rights. The JLC’s program of action in the 1960s included “dispatching staff to certain areas to help create an indigenous organization among the impoverished racial minority and to develop with them a program of social action related to the problems as they see them.” Thus, Alan Borovoy, head of JLC operations in Ontario, was sent to Halifax in 1961 where he helped form a new JLC committee to fight for fair compensation for the impoverished black residents of Africville, who were being forcibly relocated by the municipal government. The Africville campaign and the JLC’s work in organizing Aboriginal people (particularly in Ontario) were grounded in its desire to help empower minorities to fight discrimination and defend their interests. During his time with the Ontario committee, Borovoy resolved dozens of discrimination cases across the province and organized many surveys to highlight examples of bigotry.
During the early 1970s, as the rights associations of the 1960s matured and many new groups were created in connection with International Year for Human Rights, the work of organized labour and the JLC were eclipsed. None of its labour committees were active after 1972, and though the JLC national committee was revived in the late 1970s, it was a shadow of its former self. The disintegration of the JLC was paralleled by the decline of the National Committee on Human Rights (NCHR), whose main activities were supporting the JLC and consulting with the executive of the Canadian Labour Congress. By the mid-1970s, the JLC was effectively moribund, and the NCHR followed it into obscurity.
Click here to access primary documents on the Jewish Labour Committee.
Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Frager, Ruth, and Carmela Patrias. “‘This Is Our Country, These Are Our Rights’: Minorities and the Origins of Ontario’s Human Rights Campaigns.” Canadian Historical Review 82, 1 (2001): 1-35.
Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Walker, James. “The ‘Jewish Phase’ in the Movement for Racial Equality in Canada.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 34, 1 (2002): 1-29.
The JLC archives are at Library and Archives Canada. Also at Library and Archives Canada are the Kalmen Kaplansky fonds, various JLC committee fonds, Dan Hill fonds, Canadian Labour Congress fonds, and the David Orlikow fonds.