The Controversial Legacy of Charlotte Whitton
Jewish groups say Ottawa's first female mayor shouldn't be honoured due to her anti-Semitism.
Before Charlotte Whitton became the first female mayor of Ottawa in 1951, she served as the director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare (CCCW) for over two decades early on in her career. As director, her job was to help improve the lives of countless needy and immigrant children. However, many argue that Whitton did the exact opposite by denying European Jewish refugee orphans into Canada during the Holocaust era, based solely on the fact that they were Jewish. This ultimately led to many children succumbing to Hitler’s wrath.
“Here’s a woman who really poisoned the well because after she did this, no Jewish orphans came into Canada and I believe it is a direct result of her anti-Semitism,” Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) told Shalom Life. “We are absolutely convinced of two things: Firstly, that she not be honoured in any way, given the fact that she was clearly an anti-Semite. She did poison the well and Jewish children were killed as a result of her lobbying against them finding shelter in this country. Secondly, I think it’s opened a wider question how do we in fact best commemorate national historic figures, when nobody’s really perfect in this world? How do we find the balance between the good and the bad? I think that’s a national discussion that has to be held.”
Due to Whitton’s actions, the CJC labeled her “an enemy of Jewish immigration”. Oscar Cohen of the CJC once said that she “almost broke up the inaugural meeting of the Canadian National Committee for Refugees (CNCR) by her insistent opposition and very apparent anti-Semitism.”
In addition to Jews, Whitton also reportedly viewed Armenians as “undesirable” immigrants. While serving as Ottawa’s mayor in 1964, she refused a half-million-dollar donation to the Civic Hospital from Ottawa philanthropist Bertram Loeb. “Critics suggested that Ms. Whitton, a product of a generation that opposed the immigration of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, simply didn’t want the name of a Jewish family on an Ottawa hospital building,” the Ottawa Citizen wrote in Loeb’s obituary.
Despite her racism, Whitton is still celebrated as the first female mayor of a major Canadian city. In 1967, she received an Order of Canada, before being elevated to Commander of the British Empire (CBE). There also exists a plaque in her honour in Ottawa, on Green Island, erected by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. Recently, a recommendation has been made by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to Parks Canada to recognize Whitton as a person of “national historical significance.”
Ruth Klein, National Director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, offered Shalom Life a statement about the praise that Whitton has received. “The Charlotte Whitton controversy forces us to re-evaluate the standards we use to choose our national heroes and heroines. Ms. Whitton has already received many honours, including the Order of Canada, but she was not alone in her efforts to close the doors to Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe at a time when their need for sanctuary was the greatest. We should remember it was Mackenzie King’s Liberal Government that refused pleas to let the St. Louis land in Canada in 1939. People’s prejudices and the actions they take should be taken into account when we assess their enduring legacy. The negatives cannot just be overlooked.”
Whitton’s newest honour “is long past due,” says Patricia Rooke, who co-authored a 1987 biography of Whitton, called No Bleeding Heart. To Rooke, this honour should have been given long ago to Whitton, who Rooke has also described as “a racist.” Rooke revealed another nationality, of which Whitton did not favour. “Her anti-Semitism, I think, was the least of it. She was quite racist about the Ukrainians, for example. She really didn’t like the changing character of Canadian society.”
Whitton, like many people during her time, was an anti-Semite, and for this reason there are those who feel she should not be judged based on today’s standards of society. However to Farber, the issue of her racism goes far beyond her mere views. “There were many people back then who were anti-Semitic, and held anti-Semitic views. If that was just the case [with Whitton], one could possibly overlook it,” said Farber.
“The difference with Charlotte Whitton is she acted on her anti-Semitic views. By acting on it, she damned Jewish children, and as a result those Jewish children were not able to seek shelter here. It’s her acting on her anti-Semitic views that is the issue, not that she held anti-Semitic views.”