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Montreal — Late last month, kippah-clad Jews joined thousands of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in a protest march against the measure, which will be introduced to the Quebec legislature later this fall. As Parti Quebecois is a minority party, the measure will need support from opposition parties to become law.
Regardless of its legislative fate, the charter is emblematic of a movement that has led Montreal Jews to quit the province in droves.
In 1971, Montreal’s Jewish community, the oldest in Canada, peaked at 120,000. By 2001, it had fallen to 93,000 – a 23 percent decline, with much of it occurring after 1991.
Some 30,000 to 40,000 Jews are believed to have left Quebec in the years following the Parti Quebecois’ rise to power in 1976. Many were well-educated young people fed up with political uncertainty, French-only language laws and public discourse often viewed as intolerant, if not outright anti-Semitic.
Immigration from French-speaking lands and high birth rates among the province’s hasidic community helped keep the numbers from slipping more precipitously, but it also has infused the community with a more Middle Eastern flavor.
In the 20 years following the 1967 Six-Day War, at least 15,000 Sephardim arrived, mostly French-speaking North Africans who integrated more smoothly into Quebec’s milieu than their English-speaking Ashkenazi cousins.
Shahar estimates that Montreal’s Sephardic community stands at 21,000, or nearly a quarter of the total – numbers that remain largely unchanged since 2001.
“We don’t really connect,” Claude Lautman, 66, a psychologist who has lived in Montreal since 1961, said of the Sephardim. “We have different synagogues, different schools. There’s a lack of outreach between the two communities.”
One sector whose ranks are growing are the haredi Orthodox, who currently number 15,ooo to 16,000, or about 17 percent of the total Jewish population. Shahar said he expects their numbers to double every 15 to 20 years.
There has also been an influx of Jews escaping anti-Semitism in France, but their numbers are hard to quantify. As of 2008, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services had open files on 200 French Jews, though there are likely many more who did not need the agency’s services.
Some Jewish figures, like Canadian lawmaker Irwin Cotler, believe it’s unlikely the charter will be enacted in its current form. Even so, Weinfeld feels the proposal represents “extreme nationalism” that will hasten the “ethnic cleansing” of non-Francophones.
Shahar said he would not know whether the Jewish exodus from Quebec has stopped until figures showing mobility over the last five years are released.