MONTREAL — For more than half a century, a busy metro station in Montreal is named after an anti-Semitic admirer of fascism. Now, thousands of Quebecois have signed a petition to rename the station — thanks to the initiative of a Muslim Montrealer and momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Anti-Semitism has no place in our society. There should be no monuments and no landmarks named after people who believe in such despicable ideologies,” said Naveed Hussain, a nurse who started the petition while recovering at home from a case of COVID-19.
Instead, Hussain wants the station to be named after renowned Black jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, who grew up in the neighborhood.
“None of the metro stations [in Montreal] are named after a person of color, none are named after Jewish people,” Hussain said. “I believe we need to treasure these individuals who brought so much fame and renown to our city.”
About a week after Hussain launched the online petition, it had gotten over 16,000 signatures. As of June 29, it has climbed to 18,600 — and counting.
A long history of Canadian anti-Semitism
The Lionel-Groulx metro station is a hub through which thousands of people pass every day, yet it’s unlikely that many of them know who Lionel Groulx was or what he stood for.
A cursory historical search will reveal that Groulx was a Catholic priest who some say was the father of French Canadian nationalism in the 1920s and ’30s.
But historian Esther Delisle, who wrote a book about far-right political movements in Quebec, says that he was also a vocal anti-Semite who opposed the immigration of Jewish refugees to Quebec during the Holocaust and called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Montreal.
“He is a fascist. He said so himself,” Delisle said. “I doubt very much that he changed his ideas afterwards. Maybe he became careful during the war because he couldn’t openly support the Axis powers while Canada was at war with Germany. Lionel Groulx represents French extreme right-wing nationalism.”
The 2002 documentary film “Je Me Souviens” about anti-Semitism and fascism in Quebec opens with this striking quote from Groulx, made in April of 1933: “The Jewish problem could be solved, not only in Montreal, but also from one end of Quebec to the other. There would be no more Jews left here, other than those who could survive by living off of one another. The rest would clear out or would be forced to disperse and seek their livelihood in something other than business.”
Yet the Montreal metro station is not the only landmark named after Groulx. There is also a Lionel Groulx college, as well as numerous streets named in his honor throughout the province.
He was anti-Semitic, but that wasn’t unusual at that time. The prime minister of Canada at the time was also anti-Semitic
Historians don’t debate that Groulx was an anti-Semite. But some apologize for views by explaining that in the 1930s Jew-hatred was widely accepted.
“He was anti-Semitic, but that wasn’t unusual at that time. The prime minister of Canada at the time was also anti-Semitic,” said Pierre L’Heureux, a Montreal city councilman who also teaches history at Dawson College. “But he is important in Quebec because he strengthened the Quebec national identity.”
“He proposed that Quebec could become a nation,” L’Heureux said. “French Canadians had little power, including economic power. He proposed a national wake-up call to take back political and economic control that was in the hands of anglophones. That is why he is important.”
Asked whether Groulx was a fascist, L’Heureux wasn’t quite as unequivocal as Delisle.
He liked the idea of having a dictatorial leader, but I don’t think he necessarily wanted a fascist government here
“What is a true fascist? He didn’t reject fascist ideas. He liked the idea of having a dictatorial leader,” L’Heureux said. “But I don’t think he necessarily wanted a fascist government here.”
Still, L’Heureux said he personally supports changing the name of the station. “Lionel Groulx is not a person I admire very much,” he said.
The Montreal transit authority, the STM, is aware of the petition to change the name of the station, but has had a moratorium on name changes since 2006.
“The STM’s overall position is to keep the names of the current stations, which are part of Montreal’s heritage and are integrated into the habits of our passengers,” wrote STM’s spokeswoman Isabelle-Alice Tremblay, in an email to The Times of Israel. “Back in the day, the name Lionel-Groulx was chosen by the City of Montreal in direct reference to the avenue that bears the same name. Changing the name of the station would require changing the name of the avenue as well.”
The Jewish community of Montreal hasn’t been very vocal about the name change. None of the articles about renaming the metro station in the Canadian press have included comments from the Montreal Jewish community.
Still, Sarah Fogg, spokeswoman of the Holocaust Museum in Montreal, said that she supports the proposal.
“I think what’s most fascinating is that it’s an initiative that came from the public. We are living this incredible social movement. This is one of the examples of how people are coming to terms with systematic racism here at home,” she said.
Even if the Lionel Groulx station is not renamed, a plaque with an explanation should be installed in the metro, Fogg said.
Something clearly has to be done. The public is asking for it
“Something clearly has to be done. The public is asking for it,” she said.
Fogg noted that anti-Semitism was very prevalent in Canada prior to World War II, and because of that, Canada had one of the lowest Jewish immigration rates during the Holocaust.
“Canada demonstrated real anti-Semitism during the Holocaust — and its immigration policies are indicative of that,” Fogg said.
The Lionel Groulx metro station is not the only spot that is named after an anti-Semite, Fogg added. For instance, she said, directly in front of the Holocaust Museum lies Mackenzie King Park.
“He is one of the prime ministers who didn’t let Jews come in during the war,” Fogg said.
But not everyone in the Jewish community supports the name change. Rabbi Michael Whitman of the Adath Congregation in Hampstead, Quebec, said he’s not bothered because Groulx doesn’t have the name recognition of heavy-hitting anti-Semites such as Hitler.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Rabbi Whitman said about Lionel Groulx. “I’m personally not offended by this person.”
Empathy born of similar experience
Thirty-six-year-old Naveed Hussain was born in Montreal to a Pakistani family. When he was 10, someone scrawled “Go back home” on his garage door. He said the incident made him feel “discomfort inside, [realizing] that you are different.”
But he doesn’t want to dwell on the negative.
“It’s a small number of people that feel that way. You just have to silence them with positivity,” Hussain said. “I’d like to focus on how many friends I have from all over the world.”
Hussain contracted COVID-19 while caring for patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and spent nearly two months recovering at home. That’s when he began researching the history of Montreal, and decided to make a petition to name a metro station after Oscar Peterson, he said.
He couldn’t physically take part in Black Lives Matter protests because he was still testing positive for the virus, Hussain added, though he has since recovered and is back at work.
The petition Hussain posted on the website change.org focuses on the incredible contributions of Oscar Peterson to jazz music, and never mentions Groulx’s anti-Semitism. However, numerous comments left by signatories of the petition bring it into focus:
“Lionel Groulx personally helped a Nazi collaborator sneak into the country. F him and his racist legacy,” wrote one commenter. “Lionel Groulx was a vicious anti-Semite and a racist and hated the city of Montreal. This has long been a disgrace,” said another. “I want a positive model for our places, not a racist priest,” wrote yet another.
As for Hussain, he said he would also support having a metro station named after a Jewish Montrealer such as Leonard Cohen.
“The Jewish people have contributed so much to the legacy and allure of Montreal. Even Leonard Cohen — we don’t have any monument to him. We need to, as a city, to recognize the great individuals who contributed to our city,” he said.
This was not the first attempt to rename the Lionel-Groulx metro station after Oscar Peterson. There was also an attempt to rename the station in 2008, shortly after Peterson’s death.