J. B. Salsberg
|Joseph Baruch Salsberg|
|Preceded by||John Glass|
|Succeeded by||Allan Grossman|
November 5, 1902|
|Died||February 8, 1998
|Occupation||Labour organizer, insurance agent|
Born in the small town of Lagow (Lagov, in Yiddish pronunciation), in in the Opatow district of Radom in what is now Poland, Salsberg emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1913 at age 11, settling in Toronto. He initially studied to be a rabbi in the Orthodox tradition but, at the age of 13, poverty led him to work in sweatshops for $3 a week. This experience led him to labour activism, particularly in the garment workers union where he fought for improved wages and conditions. At age 16, he informed his traditionalist parents that he was abandoning Talmudic studies in favour of a secular humanist philosophy. He joined a Labour Zionist workers' group, the Young Poale Zion, and quickly rose to leadership going to New York City to serve as general secretary of the North American group from 1922 to 1924, editing its newspaper and going on speaking tours across the continent.
By 1926, Salsberg's trade unionism and socialism led him to become an active member of the Communist Party of Canada. He became well known in the Jewish community, many of whose members were workers in the garment district which was concentrated around Spadina Avenue. He became vice-president of the International Hatters' Union and a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee. He was active in a number of unionization drives across Canada.
In 1932, Salsberg became the Southern Ontario district organizer for the Workers Unity League, a communist-led group which sought to replace Canada's traditional craft unions with industrial unions. He attained further prominence in this role; Canadian historian Irving Abella later wrote that Salsberg was known as the "Commissar" of Southern Ontario's trade union movement.
In 1938, he was elected an alderman on Toronto's city council representing Ward 4 (which included the largely Jewish working class neighbourhoods around Spadina Avenue and Kensington Market). He was known throughout the city for his work on social issues. Heckled by adversaries as a puppet of Joseph Stalin, Salsberg joked that ""You're right. I got a telegram from Joe Stalin this morning ordering me to ask for a park for Ward 4."
In the 1943 Ontario provincial election, he was elected from the downtown Toronto riding of St. Andrew as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (or MPP for Member of Provincial Parliament) representing the Labor-Progressive Party as the Communist Party of Ontario was known. The LPP had been founded as the legal face of the Communist Party which had been banned in 1941. Salsberg was elected alongside fellow LPPer A.A. MacLeod who represented the neighbouring riding of Bellwoods.
Salsberg was a popular MPP inside and outside the house and was respected by members of all parties. He was instrumental in the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act, 1944 which he proposed as a result of posted notices banning Jews and Blacks from various swimming pools in Toronto and as a result of other cases of anti-Semitism and racism in the province. The law was one of the foundations that led to the eventual passage of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Most of his speeches were non-ideological, and he never made reference to the Soviet Union during his time in the legislature. Leslie Frost, the province's Progressive Conservative Premier from 1949 to 1961, respected Salsberg's abilities as a parliamentarian; it has even been reported that Frost was willing to offer Salsberg a cabinet position if he defected to the Progressive Conservative Party. Frost named Salsberg Township near what is now Thunder Bay in his honour.
Salsberg was the sole communist in the Legislature after the 1951 election in which MacLeod lost his seat. Salsberg eulogized Stalin on the house floor when the Soviet leader died in 1953 and this speech was used against him in the 1955 election campaign when he was defeated by Progressive Conservative Allan Grossman.
Break with Communism
Salsberg had for several years been concerned with official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and had confronted Canadian Communist leader Tim Buck on the subject as early as 1939. He remained silent on the matter for several years (in part to maintain party unity during World War II), but became increasingly troubled by ongoing anti-Semitism in the 1950s. He travelled to the USSR in 1955 and 1956, and witnessed first-hand the extent of the anti-Semitic campaign that had persecuted Jews in that country.
Salsberg attempted to personally confront Nikita Khrushchev on the matter during his second visit, but his concerns were dismissed. Also disillusioned by Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev's Secret Speech, he resigned from the Communist Party upon his return to Canada (leading an exodus which included half the national executive). Salsberg reported back to the Labor-Progressive Party and an allied organization, the United Jewish Peoples' Order on his findings. He was suspended for a time from the leadership of the LPP as a result and, after an internal debate, left the LPP along with most of its Jewish cadre. The UJPO supported Salsberg's findings and severed its ties with the party.
The late 1950s were a period of tragedy for Salsberg: in addition to losing his belief in communism (and his seat in the legislature), his wife Dora died in 1959. He withdrew from political activity for a time, and sold insurance to make a living. There are reports that he was eventually able to make a small fortune through this practice.
Salsberg later rejoined the Canadian Jewish Congress (which had previously expelled its Communist members). In 1959 he and about one-third of the membership of UJPO left, feeling that the organization was not critical enough of the Soviet Union, and started a new organization called the New Fraternal Jewish Association. The NFJA was made up primarily of former Jewish Communists still interested in promoting social justice. Salsberg was also involved in a variety of cultural activities, including Yiddish-language programs.
Queen's University professor Gerald Tulchinsky is currently researching a biography of Salsberg.
Salsberg's nephew is former Liberal Party activist Hershell Ezrin.
- Csillag, Ron (March 6, 1998). "Lives lived: Joseph Baruch Salsberg". Toronto Star. p. A14.
- "J.B. Remembered: The Life and Career of J.B. Salsberg". Ontario Jewish Archives. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
- "Appendix". Arise and Build The Story of American Habonim. Habonim Dror North America. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
- "'Godfather of Spadina' Joe Salsberg One-time Communist was compassionate" by Nicolaas van Rijn, Toronto Star, February 9, 1998
- Gasner, Cynthia (August 8, 2002). "Queen's opens J.B. Salsberg papers to the public". Canadian Jewish News. Archived from the original on September 25, 2005.