Described as the zayde (grandfather) of the Canadian human rights movement, Kalmen Kaplansky (1912-1997) began his human rights and trade union activism in Montreal soon after arriving in Montreal from Poland in 1929. Turned away from McGill University due to the institution’s quotas on Jewish enrolment, Kaplansky got his start as a member of the International Typographical Union. After steady work as a trade union executive, Kaplansky enlisted as a sergeant in the Canadian Army (1943-1946).
Kaplansky’s most significant contributions occurred after the war, during his tenure as national director of the Jewish Labour Committee (1946-1957). In this position, he led the Jewish workers’ movement towards a human rights focus that was committed to fighting racial and ethnic discrimination in addition to antisemitism. As a sort of protégé to labour activist Moishe Lewis, the duo spearheaded the “Tailor’s Project”, which employed Jewish refugees in Canada’s textile industry after World War II. In his later years, Kaplansky was influential in the International Labour Organization, the Canadian Labour Congress, and the 1968 International Year for Human Rights. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1980.
Politically, Kaplansky had close ties to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP’s predecessor. He was a candidate in two elections: provincially in 1944 and federally in 1950.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf
Clément, Dominique. Canada's Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Cohen, Fran. "The Story of Athenia story of my Father, too." The Toronto Star, 16 Sept.1999, Letters: A22.
Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Smith, Cameron. Unfinished Journey : the Lewis family. Toronto; Downsview, Ont.: Summerhill Press; Distributed by University of Toronto Press, 1989.
*Images courtesy of Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives and Jewish Public Library - Archives.