Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

My partner Peter and I are headed to Québec this summer to visit a close friend of his and also to just explore the region. I’m also excited to practice the French I’ve been learning in my lessons here in D.C.! I had the privilege recently to connect with Prof. Pierre Anctil of the University of Ottowa who specializes in the history of the Jews of Quebec. A lot of my questions were based off my reading of his article “A Community in Transition: the Jews of Montréal“. I am grateful for his time and thoughts, which you can find below:

1) A high percentage of Quebecois Jews go to Jewish Day Schools. What is the language policy of these schools and has this changed over the years?

In Québec access to school is regulated by the language in which the parents were educated – in Canada. So the following rule does not apply to Jews educated outside of Canada.

If educated in English in Canada – which is the case of most Ashkenazi Jews in Montréal, parents may send their children to English language schools in Québec. Jews who arrived in Montréal in 1978 – rarely Anglophones – must send their kids to French language schools. So each Jewish private school in Montréal has a French sector independent from its English sector.

All immigrants since 1978 must send their kids to French language schools.

2) This is a creative question, so feel free to speculate. How might history have been different if Jews had been placed in Francophone schools instead of Anglophone ones when they immigrated to Quebec?

History would have been indeed quite different. In such a situation I do not think that the like of a Mordecai Richler would have existed. Richler felt threatened by the rise of Francophone nationalism because he had been educated entirely in English in the Protestant school system of Montréal and could not communicate in French to his own Francophone compatriots. Today, the gap between French Canadians and Anglophone Jews has been bridged. But this would have taken place much earlier otherwise, say before WWII as opposed to during the eighties.

3) How has Sephardic immigration to Quebec changed the Jewish community (internally) and its relationship with the rest of Quebec (externally)?

A great deal. Sephardim were not perceived as Jews initially by French Canadians because they spoke their language. Sephardim also pushed the otherwise Ashkenazi Montréal Jewish community to open itself to the French presence, if only for their own sake. They also served as médiators between Anglo Jews and Francophones, and often found integration into Francophone Québec quite simple and easy.

4) Now that the Quebecois Jews are more likely to be bilingual (or even Francophone), do you see relationships building between the community and other Francophone Jews around the world (e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco, etc.)? If they haven’t done this yet, is this an opportunity they should take advantage of?

Yes, there is this tendency, definetly. There is also to be expected, because of the recent events, the likelyhood of a French Jewish immigration to Québec, a place where it is possible to be Jewish in French and have a career in that language.

5) I imagine there must be some smaller Jewish communities outside of Montreal in Quebec City or small towns. How are these communities different from the one in Montreal?

97% of Québec Jews live in the Montréal region. I will soon publish a book on Québec City Jews, celebrating 400 years of Québec City Jewish history, but their numbers was always very small – never more than 500 individuals.

6) Over the past 10 years there has been an increase in antisemitism in France leading to Jewish emigration. How has this impacted the Quebecois Jewish community?

See my answer on point 4. I am convinced that this will lead to an increased immigration in the long term, not to mention more interest for Québec on the part of French Jews.

7) What do you see in the future of the Quebecois Jewish community? Are you optimistic?

I am quite optimistic. There will always be a Jewish community here in the foreseeable future, but it will be quite different from the one that existed say 25 or 50 years ago.

Jews will be more integrated into the fabric of Québec francophone society. As I said in my article, Montréal is the only city in North America where organized Jews negotiated with the outside world in a language other than English. Perhaps in contradiction with other parts of North America, it is also my impression that Jews will be more religious here – although not visibly so to the outside – than elsewhere.

8) I’m visiting Quebec this summer with my partner for the first time- what are some “must-see” Jewish sites, experiences, or people?

Yes, you should visit the Jewish “campus” on Côte-Sainte-Catherine, where many Jewish cultural institutions are housed. I will be glad to be your guide. A tour of historic Jewish Montréal on Plateau Mont-Royal would also be worthwhile.


Pierre Anctil is a full professor at the department of history of the University of Ottawa, where he teaches contemporary Canadian history and Canadian Jewish history. He was the director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa from July 2004 until July 2008. Before that date, he was president of the Conseil des relations interculturelles of the Government of Québec, 2002-2003, and has held different positions in the Québec civil service in the domain of immigration (1991-2004). He was a guest researcher in 1999-2000 at Musée Pointe-à-Callière, for the conception of an exhibit on boulevard Saint-Laurent (2002) and for an international exhibition on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2003). He was also director of the French Canadian Studies Program at McGill University (1988-1991) and researcher at the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture (1980-1988).

He has written at length on the history of the Jewish community of Montréal and on the current debates on cultural pluralism in Montreal. Among his contributions are translations from Yiddish to French of memoirs written by Jewish immigrants to Montréal in the first half of the twentieth century. For the period of 2008-2010, he was awarded a Killam fellowship by the Canada Council of Arts for a research entitled: “Parcours migrant, parcours littéraire canadien, le poète yiddish Jacob-Isaac Segal”. He has published Trajectoires juives au Québec (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010) and, in collaboration with Ira Robinson, Les communautés juives de Montréal, histoire et enjeux contemporains (Septentrion, 2010). In 2011 he co-directed with Howard Adelman a book entitled : Religion, Culture and the State, Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report (University of Toronto Press). He has also authored a book entitled: Fais ce que dois. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Henri Bourassa, 1910-1932 (Septentrion, 2010), plus two others on the same topic. In the Fall of 2013: Soyons nos maîtres. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Georges Pelletier, 1932-1947 and in the fall of 2014 : À chacun ses Juifs. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre la position du Devoir à l’égard des Juifs 1910-1947. He is also the author of a literary biography, that of Montreal Yiddish poet Jacob-Isaac Segal, entitled Jacob-Isaac Segal (1896-1954), un poète yiddish de Montréal et son milieu (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2012).


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