By: Kim Quinn, FSWC Educator
Social Studies: Strand A - Heritage and Identity: Communities in Canada, Past and Present:
A3.7 - Describe significant events or developments in the history of Jewish communities in Canada, including some of the ways they have contributed to Canada.
Canada’s colonization began with the arrival of French settlers in 1535. This included the imposition of the Catholic church, whose leadership disallowed coexistence with other denominations of Christianity or religions. Subsequently, Jews were barred from entering the newly christened “New France,” with one Frenchman declaring that North America remained the last place on Earth without a Jewish presence. This changed in 1737, with the arrival of Esther Brandeau.
Disguising herself as a man, Esther snuck into New France after spending several years travelling. Her presence in New France caused embarrassment for Catholic officials, who believed allowing the entry of a person of an alternative faith would ruin the order and hierarchy of the new colony. Esther had allegedly promised to convert to Catholicism after her identity had been discovered. However, officials soon became frustrated at her “flighty” disposition, and numerous excuses to avoid conversion. The matter eventually drew the attention of King Francis I, who decreed that Esther must be expelled from the territory and barred from re-entry. She was deported back to France in 1739.
Esther is considered the first official Jewish person in the Americas. Although her time in what would become Canada was short, she would be the first of many Jewish immigrants seeking a new life in the New World.
If you wish to find further information about Esther, as well as resources on Jewish history in Canada, the education team at FSWC is compiling an online database for educators. It will provide source materials and information to support the new Ontario Social Studies curriculum. Watch for FSWC updates for more.
Resources on Esther Brandeau:
Hermant, Heather, “Esther Brandeau/Jacques La Fargue: an eighteenth-century multicrosser in the Canadian cultural archives,” in The Sephardic Atlantic: colonial histories and postcolonial perspectives, ed. Sina Rauschenbach and Jonathan Schorsch (Cham, Switzerland, 2018), 289–331.