Category Archives: Yesterday

The independence battalion

How a largely forgotten group of men in World War I would shape a century of indigenous relations in Canada

Flag of the 114th

The flag of the 114th Battalion, pictured during World War I with the original flagpole topper. Courtesy Woodland Cultural Centre.

NEWS of Canadian soldiers was almost a daily occurrence in the Scottish newspapers of World War I.

In the midst of that was an account of a tour supporting the 114th Battalion, visiting Edinburgh after a few days in Glasgow.

The Scotsman newspaper on December 11, 1916 reported:

From the highest roof of Edinburgh Castle on Saturday afternoon, four Indian chiefs, head-feathers streaming in the east wind, their bead-covered garments of yellow and red and blue withstanding the rain-laden blast, looked round on the Scottish capital and its environs.

Probably no stranger or more picturesque figures ever stood on the Castle summit. They were members of a company of North American Indians, who visited Edinburgh on Saturday. They and their comrades were cordially hailed by the residents of the Scottish capital, wherever they appeared, as fellow-citizens of the Empire, at whose disposal they have placed their services and their traditional fighting prowess. It was the first occasion on which representatives of the romantic, wandering tribes of the New World have been able in person to associate themselves with the traditions of the Old on the basis of a common militant interest. The presence of the chiefs in their barbaric attire amidst the monuments of ancient feudal life in Scotland presented by the Castle and the Old Town, inevitably stirred the imagination. The contingent numbered over 150. The majority are Iroquois, who are amongst the finest and best-known of the race. They were recruited about a year ago in the Six Nations territory, South Ontario, and in districts near Montreal. The Six Nations forming the Iroquois confederacy are the descendants of the fifty noble families who composed the historic association founded by Hiawatha over four hundred years ago. They are renowned for their astuteness, brain power, and capacity.

The visitors attracted attention as they marched along Princes Street shortly before one o’clock. With the exception of the chiefs, they wore the uniform of the ordinary British soldier. The four chiefs, who carried themselves with all the dignity and distinction of the Red Men of the story books walked abreast at the head of the column. They were Chief Clear Sky, Chief Silversmith, Chief Cook, and Chief Hill. Like their comrades, the chiefs are swarthy skinned and dark-eyeed; and while a native dignity and calmness marked their comportment, they were also full of good-humour, which was manifested in a variety of incidents during their tour of the city.

Clear Sky, their leader, was resplendent in a spreading head-dress of black feathers, white-tipped, leather suit with fringes, an apron of black ornamented with animal figures, with a shawl in rich Indian design and colouring for a shoulder wrap.

His costume was richly ornamented with bead-work, and strings of beads depended [sic] from his neck and head-dress. His conspicuously tall and muscled companion wore a plain suit of brown with very little ornamentation, his head-feathers rising straight up from their circulet foundation. The others were similarly attired. One of them carried a tomahawk, a heavy-headed weapon, which had been used in a battle at Queenston in 1812, the name and date of which being inscribed on the shaft. The projection at the reverse side of the blade had been hollowed out, and formed a pipe, the smoke passage being carried along the centre of the shaft.”1

But Clear Sky wasn’t a hereditary chief – none of the men was. In fact, Clear Sky was a vaudeville performer and researchers have suggested he was presumed to be the main chief as he took the largest head dress with him overseas.2

The story of the 114th is not just about the war that was meant to “end all wars”, but about image and perception, manipulation, and Canada’s historic and ongoing clash between attempted assimilation and asserted independence by indigenous peoples.


A lost history

Many facts remain elusive about the 114th, especially who signed up and where they served once overseas.

But when the centenary of the start of World War I is marked in 2014, it will be a complicated memorial for indigenous communities, not just Six Nations of the Grand River.

Officially prevented from enlisting, then forced to register under conscription, volunteers eventually abandoned upon their return from the front, and ultimately manipulated by the government to suit their own assimilation goals, indigenous peoples still made important contributions to the World War I effort, in money and blood.

Evan Habkirk has become an enthusiastic researcher of the 114th and the complex and largely untold history of Six Nations participation in World War I.

Mr Habkirk admitted he initially had passing knowledge of the Six Nations participation in the war of 1812 beyond a bare minimum on indigenous peoples in Canadian text books on the fur trade and treaty-making in the 1870s.

“I am your average white kid from southwestern Ontario,” said the 30-year-old who wrote his masters dissertation on the 114th3 and is helping search for more information on the men and a lost battalion flagpole topper. “I come from a very small town and knew nothing until my undergrad.”

Mr Habkirk, who is currently working on a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, again on the 114th, said it is difficult to determine specific numbers of Six Nations members who joined the 114th or other groups. Attestation papers in Canada only gave two options: British subject or not. Most would check the British subject box, even if they knew they weren’t, being unable to go and fight otherwise.

The challenge in defining “indigenous” in that period was the exact conflict presented by government upon the return of veterans: each had to choose his identity.

As well as individual choices for enlisting, there were complex political attitudes from the Six Nations Council, the oldest form of government in North America,4 as it tried to stay independent of Canada. That brought them into repeated conflict with the Department of Indian Affairs and others in the Canadian government who were determined to assimilate them.


Six Nations were willing to go to war, to support Britain, but only if Britain asked. Canada could not volunteer or conscript Six Nations and Six Nations could not volunteer to Canada. Just as the Two Row Wampum5 affirmed the relationship of two boats sailing side by side, so the Six Nations continued to assert they were independent and allied to the British crown. They had served alongside the British in the American war of independence, and in the war of 1812, and that was how the alliance was, the council insisted, to continue.

Canada, having bought into concepts of the “glory” of war and local militias, particularly after the Boer War, influenced indigenous communities, and in 1893, the Haldimand Rifles had two companies of Six Nations men, increasing to four by 1904. The 37th had an all Six-Nations brass band. But despite that military tradition, the Six Nations Council and Canadian military both rejected the idea of a Royal Six Nations Regiment in 1896.

It is estimated that at least 10 Six Nations and New Credit men had enlisted by the end of August 1914, including Alfred Styres, a farmer who signed to the 4th Battalion as soon as he heard war had broken out and that nearby Hagersville was recruiting, just as 140 Brantford men offered themselves at the Brantford Armouries in two hours on August 6, 1914. Cameron D Brant, another early volunteer who served with the 37th Haldimand Rifles, was also Brant County’s first war casualty.

But again, in November 1914, a proposal to raise and equip two Six Nations battalions, was rejected because Britain hadn’t asked. If the Six Nations had been asked, chiefs from the council and clan mothers would have appointed “war chiefs” while “peace chiefs” would tend the community at home.

The council did support individuals who went overseas with donations to the Six Nations Patriotic League and even offered $1500 and warriors to Britain, which the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs then rejected. The government said it would have to go to the Canadian Patriotic Fund, which Six Nations in turn rejected because it was “unacceptable to the Six Nations as they did not believe themselves to be part of Canada and therefore wanted the money to be given directly to Britain”.6

In 1917, the council sent a lawyer to buy $150,000 in war bonds – equal to more than $3 million today – but it is unclear what happened to the offer. They did tell the Department of Indian Affairs that they could invest “any and all of Six Nations money into Canada’s Victory War Loan for a period of five years”.7 Again, there is no proof that the department used the money.


The 114th

As more troops were needed, the 114th Battalion, known as the Brock’s Rangers after Sir Isaac Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812, recruited about 300 indigenous men and a 30-piece Six Nations brass band. Many of the 300 were from Six Nations of the Grand River, St Regis, Caughnawaga (Kahnawake) and Muncey, and New Credit, Manitoulin Island, Gibson and as far as Manitoba. D Company of the 114th was all Six Nations and the headquarters was based on the Ohsweken Fairgrounds. The Six Nations Patriotic League presented the regimental flag with symbols of Six Nations parallel to those of British crown.

114th Battalion

Flag of the 114th Battalion, of the Six Nations, made in 1915 and now kept in the Woodlands Cultural Centre.

In July 1916, the 114th was sent to Camp Borden for more training and shortly after was sent overseas. Disbanding once it reached England, most of its members went to the 36th Battalion or various forestry, construction or railway battalions.

Six Nations support for the war made the relationship with the neighbouring city of Brantford and Brant Council grow steadily stronger through World War I, often at the expense of race relations with Eastern Europeans, explained Mr Habkirk.

But the contributions from Six Nations, in money and men, did not make relations with the government any better once the Military Service Act brought in conscription in May 1917. In January 1918, there was confusion when the Governor General exempted indigenous peoples because they couldn’t vote and were wards of the state. Yet Six Nations men were still told they had to register. All the while the Six Nations Council argued they could not be conscripted and must not register because they were an independent nation and not Canadian citizens.

Even though the Canadian state would not extend Canadian rights such as voting, they insisted on trying to assimilate indigenous peoples as Canadians. And when veterans were later given land under the Soldier Settlement programme, the parcels would be handed out directly from reservation land, supposedly under the control of indigenous councils.

Six Nations might have tried to address concerns to the royal family or Governor General, but their ally Britain largely ignored and eventually pushed them away, with Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill deferring petitions and other appeals from the community after 1921 to the Canadian government.8

Legislation and political manoeuvring put indigenous people into conflict with the government and themselves. The Indian Act’s marriage clause said Six Nations members were men, while the liquor clause said they were minors. Canada’s first prime minister, John A Macdonald have given indigenous men the vote in Ontario and Quebec in federal elections in 1885, but it was revoked by the Liberals just 11 years later. And section 38 of the Indian Act,9 which is still in place today, was subject to protest from the Six Nations Council as early as 1894 for clashing with their status as British ally.

By 1922, the government had an RCMP detachment set up on Six Nations land in Ohsweken, inflaming tensions. And on October 7, 1924, the Six Nations Council was formally replaced by an elected council as set out in the Indian Act. Despite this, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has continued.10


Why the 114th matters to history – and the legacy it left for veterans and politics

Six Nations men may have signed up to escape the reservation system, in patriotism after years of militia propaganda from neighbouring communities, or even as an act against the politics of the Six Nations Council itself. Regardless, as a proportion of the community, the men of Six Nations were reported to have given more to World War I than Canada itself.11

Like the rest of Canada, there was a lack of support for families of soldiers while the men were overseas. When Six Nations men returned, they were veterans, but also wards of the state, and Canada then had to decide if they were more veteran or indigenous to determine their benefits.

It wasn’t until 1936, and after public pressure, that indigenous veterans got equal pensions and veterans allowance benefits. In the midst of a fight for money, there was virtually no support for the mental scars left from war.

Mr Habkirk said Six Nations were able to break the colour barrier against non-whites being used for combat troops thanks to their prior military experience.

He said: “That’s why I think the 114th is really important. There were other attempts early on in the war to recruit off of Six Nations because of their noted past military experience and their past military service towards the crown.

“You see similar cases like this with the Maori in New Zealand and other groups that have this noted service to the crown, even though the Six Nations didn’t see their role as ingrained with the crown as much as it was being portrayed in the European newspapers who, at this point, were believing in empire so just bought the thought that Six Nations was following in the steps of their participation to support the empire.”

Most groups or units that set specific recruiting goals in 1915-1916 failed and were eventually split up when they arrived overseas. Though only one company in the 114th was made up entirely of indigenous men, many who volunteered from the Six Nations believed they were supporting a traditional alliance to the crown, not the Canadian state.

“This wasn’t an idea of subjecthood,” insists Mr Habkirk. “This was an idea of being a separate, status-ed ally. That’s where you see conflicting literature all the time, and that’s what makes the first world war controversial for all indigenous groups. You see a lot of them participating and people sometimes look at this participation as their acknowledgement of subject status or loyalty status to the Canadian state, when, in fact, it’s actually them working on their own. And the 114th definitely falls into that.”


“Some [veterans] were told outright lies by the Canadian government about how it was their community was supporting the war, to the point that you do see some Six Nations veterans writing petitions back to the Canadian government saying, ‘Get rid of our current government at the reserve because it’s not supporting us’.

“It was a complete lie that somebody started. It had nothing to do with what was actually happening on the ground at Six Nations. And we see veterans being manipulated when they get home.

“We all know that in Canada that veterans had a hard time integrating back into the Canadian way of life after the war. But what we don’t know is that aboriginal veterans had an entirely new set of circumstances to deal with.

“People were actively trying to manipulate them into falling into certain categories of, ‘are you native or not?’. Decide between your community and your veteran status, and this was almost day one after returning home, where these decisions should NOT be made by veterans who are possibly suffering from shell shock or other problems. These are hard questions for someone who is of sound mind to make, let alone someone who is really just trying to piece together what exactly happened while they were gone.”

On November 11, 1918, World War I ended. But the internal divisions, the conflicts with the Canadian government and the scars of battle would last long after the guns fell silent.


  • Further reading on the 114th includes Fred Gaffen’s “Forgotten Soldiers” (Penticton: Theytus Books Ltd, 1985) and Janet Summerby’s “Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields” (Ottawa, 1993). Also see Veterans Affairs Canada reference list.



  1. The Scotsman, “Canadian Indians in Edinburgh: Chief Clear Sky at the Castle”, December 11, 1916, p9.
  2. Norman, Alison, “Race, Gender and Colonialism: Public Life Among the Six Nations of the Grand River, 1899 – 1939”, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 2010. Full copy here.
  3. Habkirk, Evan, “Militarism, Sovereignty, and Nationalism: Six Nations and the First World War”, Masters thesis, Trent University, 2010. Full copy here.
  4. About the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
  5. Summary on the Two Row Wampum.
  6. Habkirk, p72.
  7. Habkirk, p73
  8. Habkirk, p101.
  9. Indian Act 1985, section 38
  10. Mr Habkirk’s work refers to the Six Nations Council and the use of the term in historical records. The formal Haudenosaunee Confederacy remains active under this name.
  11. Habkirk, p109. This cites the Brantford Expositor of January 22, 1919.

The time the kosher butcher was put on trial

How Canada’s Jewish community lost, then won, the debate on animal ‘cruelty’

Baron de Hirsch or Starr Street Synagogue

Baron de Hirsch Synagogue, 19 Starr Street, Halifax, ca. 1902, from the book, “Halifax, Nova Scotia and Its Attractions, 1902”. Courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax, NS.

It was called “one of the greatest misfortunes which ever befell Canadian Jewry” but is an episode now almost completely forgotten.

One hundred years ago this April, the Jewish community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a pillar of their faith upended, branded a “pointless method” and a rabbi fined for being cruel.

The kosher butcher in the city was found guilty of using inhumane practices by cutting the throat of animals to slaughter them.

An appeal just weeks later reversed the sentence and decided the Jewish method was in fact “preferable” to the practice of slaughter by stunning animals first.

The episode brought together a mix of religion, science, local-versus-national politics and endless assumptions about animals from those who killed them.

But why did the trial take place, why in Halifax, and was it an anti-Semitic attack?


The first synagogue in the Maritimes

Jews were amongst the earliest arrivals in 18th-century Halifax, but a historical record of them was largely missing for several decades, only to re-emerge in the 1860s and 1870s.

The families ranged from settled North Americans – both Americans and Canadians – to Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution.

A former Baptist church on the corner of Starr Street and Hurd’s Lane – now roughly under what is now Brunswick Place office centre near Citadel Hill1 – was bought by the Jewish congregation, then naming themselves after Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the once prominent European philanthropist.

The building required repairs and $1,000 was donated by the Christian community, at the request of the Jewish congregation2.

On February 19, 1895, a large crowd turned out for the consecration of the first synagogue in the Maritime provinces. According to Halifax newspaper accounts, the 500-600 person capacity was filled by 1.45pm, 45 minutes before the ceremony was ready to start. “Hundreds” were turned away3.

In the years following the consecration, as the community grew in numbers, the businesses run by Halifax Jews increased in number and diversity, mostly on the eastern side of the Citadel, above the waterfront and docks. Many families started out living above their businesses, moving on to separate homes when they could afford it.

As the Jewish community grew in Halifax and the rest of Canada, so too did the need for services such as that of a kosher butcher, or shochet. The key distinction was, and is, that the Jewish method of slaughtering – or shechita4 – doesn’t allow for the animal to be stunned before the ritual cutting of its throat, compared to what was called in court the “Gentile method”.

Although the Halifax trial in 1913 was unique to Canadian Jewish history, it wasn’t alone globally.

News articles from The Jewish Times (later renamed the Canadian Jewish Times) regularly recounted attacks on shechita in various countries, including Finland, New Zealand, Britain, and Norway, usually involving proposed or enacted laws against the practice5.

By contrast, in Germany in 1911, there was a bill put forward to recognise the Jewish method of slaughter as humane.

Scientific papers written in the years leading up to Halifax trial argued about how to recognise consciousness in an animal and the length of time it took to die – questions that were key to the case and its appeal6.

One pamphlet, published in Massachusetts just months before the trial, insisted the opposition to the Jewish method wasn’t anti-Semitic – the quarrel was just with “their ritual of slaughter. . . I believe they think their method humane, though I am sure but few of them have ever witnessed it”. But the author added that swift reform should be the goal “in a land boasting a Christian civilisation”7.


The trial – a “pointless method”

Just months after that pamphlet was published, on April 1 or 2, 1913, Scottish-born Andrew Williamson from the Halifax Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (SPC) was delegated by the Crown8 to bring charges in the Halifax police court against Rabbi Aba (Abraham) Gershom Levitt, for inhumane practices in kosher slaughter9.

There are no official court records of the original April 1913 trial, with a noticeable gap in police court papers over several years at the time.

However, a transcript of both the trial and appeal exist in the Montreal archives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, as well as details from newspaper coverage, both from Halifax and from Montreal’s Jewish press10.

The case came before Stipendiary Magistrate George H Fielding, with Robert H Murray prosecuting and W J O’Hearn defending.

The trial consisted almost exclusively of evidence brought by the prosecution and the SPC and very little favouring the Jewish method. Mr Williamson was the central witness, as well as veterinary surgeon Dr Philip Gough, followed by slaughterhouse owners in the city and finally Rabbi Levitt.

According to the trial, Rabbi Levitt conducted his ritual slaughtering on the premises of the public slaughterhouse of James Shortell, one of the witnesses called against him.

Mr Williamson had been investigating the Jewish method since November 1912 and described what he saw when Dr Philip Gough accompanied him to the March 19 killing of a heifer by the defendant. He recounted in detail how the animal was tied and strung up, then,

. .  . the head turned over with muscle and throat up and head resting on horns on floor. Then defendant stepped up and cut the heifer’s throat. The animal struggled, pounded on floor, kicked with the fore leg, and gasped, and put out his tongue, gurgled in the throat, kept it up for five minutes, then passive for a short period and action of the same kind set in again.  Fourteen minutes from throat cut till ceasing of action. After cutting throat eyes gradually lost brightness.11

Under cross-examination, Mr Williamson admitted he had only been in Halifax for five months and Canada for three-and-a-half years. The supposed expert “never slaughtered cattle. . . was never employed in slaughterhouses” but had seen “as many as 1,000 cattle killed. . .[and] about 50 killed at a time”.

He then concluded that less struggling is caused by stunning than by the Jewish method. Mr Williamson said: “I infer pain from the action, such [as] kicking, after the throat [is] cut. I have seen defendant’s method twice or thrice practised. It, to my estimation, produces pain.”

Insisting that he knew what he was talking about, all [the] while undermining his credibility, he concluded: “I am not an expert. I infer from the physical effort. I laid the complaint. Cutting the throat causing pain.”

Veterinary surgeon Philip Gough based his knowledge, like Mr Williamson’s, on experience and the “looks of the animal. From practice I am able to say if from appearance [the animal] is conscious or not”. Both the first two witnesses agreed that “pain” continued in the animal for 12-15 minutes after its neck was cut.

The following Tuesday, the trial resumed to a chorus of Halifax slaughterhouse proprietors. Sidney R Tucker, James Shortell, and James F Peeley all used stunning to render “instantaneous” unconsciousness. Mr Tucker told what method he used. Mr Shortell said the defendant would not allow stunning. Mr Peeley said only that, “as to methods [the] Jewish is longer and most painful”.

Rabbi Levitt was then sworn in. He explained what the Jewish method requires, as dictated by law. He told the court that he couldn’t say how long this animal took to die, but that typically the time until death was between two and five minutes.

Rabbi Levitt went through various qualifications and reasons for the Jewish method, but didn’t infer pain based on the animal’s struggles.

Dr Gough was recalled to the stand and his evidence linked death with pain so that time of struggle and pain became identical and indistinguishable.

Defence lawyer Mr O’Hearn raised the point that the law allowed a certain degree of pain in the killing of animals, and that this degree was not exceeded by Rabbi Levitt. But his argument on religious grounds was dismissed by Magistrate Fielding as “no answer to the law”.

After all the evidence, Magistrate Fielding concluded on April 23:

“I look at it this way. . . I quite understand the view that persons must be cruel in a relative way to kill animals for food, and must take life to get food. If there are two methods by which that can be accomplished and one is more humane than the other, I think the more humane method should be followed. If the least humane method is followed it is unnecessary cruelty. It has been suggested that to convict would deprive a certain portion of the community of food. That may be.

“I don’t see that it is necessary to slaughter animals in this fashion because pain and suffering is caused which is unnecessary. I cannot see why there should not be a conviction. I have nothing to do but administer the law. To my mind this is a very painful way of killing animals. This method has been practised for over 3,000 years without obstruction, and while perhaps it seems a cruel thing to continue in this way all these many years, still at the same time these people have conscientious scruples, and this is the first time the method has been attacked. It is really setting a principle.”12

Magistrate Fielding said a “former rabbi” in the city would cut the animal’s throat and then stun it, but Rabbi Levitt would not allow stunning.

Rabbi Levitt was fined $6 and $7.65 in costs for causing “unnecessary pain and suffering while slaughtering”.


From the moment the rest of the Canadian Jewish community found out about the case they were alarmed. And Halifax turned to their only hope, in Montreal, then home to the country’s  largest population of Jews.

The case was the talk in synagogues across the country and the Canadian Jewish Times said “a great injustice had been done to the Halifax community, which could result in endangering the position of Jews in the Dominion”. The paper, on its front page of May 2, 1913, declared it an attack on “Jewish ritual law”.

Meanwhile, the SPC started a campaign in Nova Scotia to ensure all animals, large or small, were stunned before killing, according to the Halifax Herald. The prosecutor was quoted as saying the city was “fortunate in having a fearless magistrate”, where other cities might not challenge the Jewish method.

Halifax letter to Montreal

Letter from Louis Webber to Rabbi Glazer asking for assistance in the appeal of the court decision against Rabbi Levitt, June 2, 1913. Courtesy Canadian Jewish Congress National Archives.

Halifax’s Jewish community wrote to Montreal just a week before the appeal in June and pleaded for help from Rabbi Simon Glazer, then Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Montreal and Quebec13.

Louis Webber, president of the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society14, wrote: “We are a small congregation here in Halifax, and this is a matter that concerns all the Jewish people in the Dominion. If we lose here that means trouble for you people as well.

“We have not any one here that can explain to the judge in English about killing matter or talmod [sic].”

The letter was also sent to the Canadian Jewish Times, which was home to sniping between the paper feigning ignorance and lack of contact with Halifax after the trial, against readers claiming a the lack of “action”.

One slammed the paper for failing to help the “small and poor community” of Halifax in the face of “one of the greatest misfortunes which ever befell Canadian Jewry”15.

The appeal – the “preferable” method

Even if it wasn’t overtly stated as an anti-semitic attack, challenging and even criminalising such a foundational part of the Jewish faith was going to be considered an attack on the community itself. Though there is little evidence of Halifax’s own opinion of the case, the wider Canadian Jewry certainly took it as an attack on the faith.

King v Levitt, Appeal, June 13, 1913

District Number One (Halifax County) procedure books, listing of King v “Leavitt” appeal, June 13, 1913, Nova Scotia Archives. Photo taken by Kurt Sampson.

On June 13, 1913, an appeal went before Judge William Bernard Wallace of the County Court, complete with new witnesses and wider perspectives.

Mr Williamson again opened with essentially the same testimony. Again, he ate away at his own testimony: “The head was pretty well severed. . . I would deny a statement that the struggling was any evidence of pain. I have not studied any science. . . I don’t regard myself as an expert in this matter. I think that struggling means pain.”

Dr Gough stated death by stunning occurred in one-fifth the time of the Jewish method.  Mr O’Hearn, again for the defence, nibbled at Dr Gough’s credentials and experience. Dr Gough admitted: “We are all liable to make a mistake. It may be possible that my opinion is wrong.”

Dr Gough’s scientific analysis was that “consciousness has relation to [brain] control. . . the brain is in the head. I think that that floundering head had consciousness for three or four minutes. . . After the cutting of the throat I would say that there was still blood in the brain”.

As Dr Gough was re-examined by the prosecution, the time limits for conscious pain became shorter and shorter. The blink of the eye is examined to determine consciousness. He said: “I would consider that a hen with it’s [sic] head cut off still suffers pain.”16. “The animal must be conscious to suffer pain. Consciousness is necessary to pain. I believe it would be conscious with it’s [sic] head off for a short while.”

Howard McFatridge was sworn in as a veterinary and a graduate of the same school17 as Dr Gough. However, Dr McFatridge entered an entirely new “scientific fact” to the trial: “After the animal’s throat is cut in that way, the animal is unconscious of pain. The struggling pounding and kicking is a reflex action.”

Dr McFatridge stated upon cross-examination that he went by “the pulsation to determine consciousness” compared to looking into the eyes. He declared that the Jewish method was “as good as any”.

Rabbi Simon Glazer came to defend Halifax, but managed to do it with a dig as well. He defended Rabbi Levitt’s strong credentials and his capability of “performing the operation well”, but added that: “The paraphernalia of the slaughterhouses in this city is not modern.”

Rabbi Glazer refuted any connection of reflex action to consciousness: “A motor may be shut off by an engineer, but the momentum may continue.”

Dr David Fraser Harris – who was quoted in the Halifax press after the trial defending the Jewish method18 – held the chair of physiology at Dalhousie University, having a doctorate of medicine from the University of Glasgow and a doctorate of science from the University of Birmingham.

He told the court: “A rooster with it’s [sic] head off could have no consciousness. … Consciousness has it’s [sic] seat in the brain alone. There is no pain where there is no consciousness. The quickest way to stop consciousness is by cutting the throat. The convulsions spoken of have nothing to do with pain.”

Judge Wallace was quoted as saying that he had “no hesitation in coming to an immediate decision”. He found Rabbi Levitt “not guilty'”.

It was reported: “In his opinion, based on the evidence before him, the Jewish method was more humane and therefore preferable to the other method. The appeal of the defendant from the conviction was allowed, and the prosecution was dismissed.”19[Tweet “”The Jewish method was more humane and therefore preferable to the other method.””]


For all the significance and concern over the case at the time, within weeks it had all but vanished from the public’s attention.

Almost no record exists of the relations at the time between the Jewish communities of Halifax and Montreal, other than the plea for help from Louis Webber. A later article in the Canadian Jewish Times in 1914 revealed that the Montreal community judged Halifax’s synagogue to be “hardly an inviting place of worship. This is probably the reason why the Halifax Jews keep away from it”20.

A reader – in Sydney, Nova Scotia, not Halifax – hit back, apologising that “only a few of our present congregation can afford to support silk hats on their craniums”21.

Three years later, the congregation’s home was gone. Twenty-two years after the first synagogue in the Maritimes was consecrated, the building was damaged beyond repair in the “Halifax Explosion” of December 6, 1917. The blast, caused by the collision of the Belgian relief ship SS Imo with French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc, was the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bombs of the second world war, leaving more than 2000 people dead and 9000 wounded22.

Although no Jews were killed in the explosion, much of the early community’s history was lost with the building. The Torah scrolls were saved, however, and later became part of a new synagogue founded in 1921.

Of what remains of the historical records of the Jewish community, the trial of the shechita remains the most detailed and dramatic chapter of that first community’s history.


Note: This feature is based on research conducted in 1999-2000 by reporter/directing editor Tristan Stewart-Robertson for his BA honours history degree thesis at Dalhousie University.

  1. The formal address was 19 Starr Street, and the building known as both the Starr Street Synagogue and the Baron de Hirsch Synagogue in historical records. Currently, Halifax Developments.
  2. There is no formal record of exactly where the money came from, merely the citation of a contribution.
  3. The Morning Chronicle, February 21, 1895, Vol XXXIII, No 44, 2.
  4. The trial is frequently referred under the title of the process, “shechita”, not the individual, shochet. There are variations of spelling in some records.
  5. The Jewish Times and Canadian Jewish Times articles used in researching the original history thesis were courtesy the National Archives of Canada. Scans of some of those pages are included with this feature under fair use for news reporting. Copyright remains with the archives.
  6. J. A. Dembo, The Jewish Method of Slaughter, translated from the German with author amendments (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turner & Co, Ltd., 1894).
  7. Francis H Rowley, Slaughter-House Reform: in the United States and the Opposing Forces, “A pamphlet prepared especially for the humane societies of the United States” (Boston: The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1912 – the date does not appear on the document, although it does on the archival listing, and the content indicates publication after August 1912).
  8. The title of the group was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, and did not distinguish the “to animals” until after the trial. Under the appeal, it details that the SPC was delegated by the prosecution to investigate. The Jewish Times refers to the “1 or 2 April” for the summons to Rabbi Levitt, and the paper received a trial clipping from Halifax on April 9.
  9. Rabbi Levitt is noted as the rabbi of the Webber Shul, a breakaway private synagogue on Proctor Street in 1912, according to research by historian Sara Yablon. None of the coverage of the trial or appeal distinguishes Rabbi Levitt as part of a separate congregation, nor the possible relation of Louis Webber, who later writes to Montreal appealing for help. The congregations reunited in the 1930s. The full name of Rabbi Levitt comes from Simcha 100: 1890-1990 100th Anniversary Book. Halifax: Baron de Hirsch Congregation, 1990.
  10. There are no details where the transcript came from. Various reproductions from the trial and the appeal exist, but without any clear reference to if the origin was a formal court transcription, or a reproduction of local newspaper coverage.
  11. Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) National Archives Collection, Series ZD (Communities)/Halifax/File#1 1913 (?) “The King vs Levitt” (evidence).
  12. National Library/Canadian Jewish Times, May 2nd, 1913. Vol XVI No 21, p8.
  13. Rabbi Glazer:
  14. The society was the official body of the synagogue. See scan. From the CJC archives, Personalia Files, “Glazer, S-Various File”, June 2, 1913.
  15. National Library/Canadian Jewish Times, June 13th, 1913. Vol XVI No 27, p12-14.
  16. The CJC has various copies of a transcript of the appeal, without stating its origin. All the quotes here are from those transcripts. Kurt Sampson assisted recently to double check Nova Scotia Archives records, which only includes just the misspelt name of “Leavitt” for June 13 [District Number One (Halifax County)
  17. Ontario College.
  18. Dr Harris, who was a doctor of medicine of the University of Glasgow and a doctor of science of the University of Birmingham, was quoted in the Halifax Herald and later the May 2, 1913 edition of the CJT.
  19. National Library/Canadian Jewish Times, July 4th, 1913. Vol XVI No 30, p5-7.
  20. Canadian Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 1914, 11.
  21. Canadian Jewish Chronicle, July 24, 1914, 11.
  22. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Halifax Explosion exhibit.

The man who had a C-section

How one of Canada’s most important leaders and a ‘man of courage’ battled depression

● Instrumental in bringing ‘responsible government’ and modern democracy to Canada
● Opposed extending voting rights, debt and interest rates above 6 per cent
● Grandfather to Oscar Wilde’s lover and Canada’s first pilot

HE was one of the most instrumental figures in Canadian history, widely respected as a great leader. His grandchildren included the first Canadian to fly an airplane and Oscar Wilde’s lover.

And yet Robert Baldwin was a troubled and tortured soul, struggling with what today might be diagnosed as severe depression; a man stuck in a world eager to move faster than his traditional beliefs would allow.

Even while leading the country he had times when he hid from the world for months, bursting into tears when his co-leader1 came to visit him. But it was the circumstances of his death, and his “cultish” devotion to his dead wife, that cements Baldwin’s place as one of Canada’s most unique leaders.

A new book out this year will detail Baldwin’s struggles with modernisers eager to push the frontiers west, as well as with his own demons.

Michael Cross, emeritus professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia,2 says Baldwin should be seen as “courageous”.

“He is an extremely important person,” says Dr Cross, “and a very strange person, which made the appeal [for me] all the greater – someone who was as troubled as he was his whole life, was able to accomplish, basically, laying the groundwork for our modern system of government in Canada.

“Part of the man’s strangeness was that he spent the last seven years of his life after he retired from politics almost in complete isolation, except for his family. And much of it was spent organising his papers, copying papers, living in the past – his own past and in particular the past of his dead wife.

“She was the great force in his life. For 22 years after her death he saw his life as culminating when he was able to join her, so much so that it became a death cult really.”

He helped introduce the idea of “responsible government” – self-government and parliamentary accountability – and arguably founded the University of Toronto. But above all else, Robert Baldwin was brave. Not only did he stand up for ideas that were behind the time – such as a six per cent cap on interest rates and avoiding debt – but he probably never should have been a politician in the first place, according to the forthcoming A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star Of Memory3. And the “absolute devastation” at the death of his wife Eliza4 flung him over the edge.

For two decades after Eliza died, he prepared himself to be with her in death and left strict instructions about his funeral and other wishes. But his eldest daughter, bitter at being prevented from marrying as she was expected to care for her father, ignored his wishes.

It was only a month after he was buried in 1858 that his son William5 found a copy of the instructions in the breast pocket of a suit jacket – Baldwin carried them with him in case he died away from home, says Dr Cross.

“What was to happen was he was to have an operation performed on his body, a Caesarean section, so he could have the same scar as Eliza did. They were to be in the family tomb, side by side, with her coffin on the left so she was closest to his heart. The coffins were to be chained together. He was to have her handkerchief on his chest and her letters on his chest when he was put away.

“So the son got senior male members of the family together with the family physician, they opened up the tomb which was in the side of the hill which is now Casa Loma, which was where the family home was. They opened the tomb, went in, opened his coffin and the family physician performed the operation on his corpse.

“There is simply a scrawled note by his eldest son saying, essentially, ‘We found these instructions and carried them out’.”

* * *

Baldwin was born on May 12,1804 in York in what is now part of the sprawling city of Toronto, Ontario. His aristocratic family had been important Anglican figures in Cork, Ireland who had tried to resolve the clash between Irish and English, and when that wasn’t possible, they moved to Canada.

Dr Cross adds that when Baldwin was almost 23, he fell in love with his first cousin, Eliza, then only 15. The Sullivan family sent her to relatives in New York in hope “their ardour would die”. It didn’t.

“They exchanged not only letters but vibrations,” he says. “They read the same passage of the Bible at the same time every day so they would be in kind of mental contact. She came home, the family gave in. [In] 1827 they got married, they had four children, they were deliriously happy.

“She was this idealised creature for him. If you look at her, there’s nothing there that is ideal. She was rather homely. Her letters were kittenish but nothing substantial. But to him, she was everything – this lonely young man who felt out of place among aristocrats who were sophisticated and worldly. For him, she was everything.”

Personally, he seems to have been happy – in their nine years of marriage, the couple had four children, two girls and two boys6. Politically, Robert Baldwin came last in his first attempt, in 1828. But in December 1829, he was elected in a by-election to the parliament of Upper Canada, replacing John Beverley Robinson to represent York, where the parliament was based, only to be defeated in the general election the next year.7

He then retreated to private life until 1836, when Eliza died.

“1836 is an example of this man’s courage,” asserts Dr Cross. “His wife died in January 1836. Six weeks later, a new lieutenant governor of the province, Sir Francis Bond Head8, came out with instructions from Britain to try to reconcile the differences that were tearing the Canadian political scene apart.

“So he decided to call people from all political elements together into his executive, among them Robert Baldwin.

“Baldwin was out of politics but he had this reputation of the man of not only substance but a man of great integrity. He was called to enter the executive and he felt it was his duty to do so, and six weeks after his wife’s death, he entered into the executive.

“Still grieving deeply, and yet, duty calls; he has to respond – for an experiment which lasted a couple of weeks because it was clear Bond Head wasn’t prepared to listen to the executive, so they all resigned and created a giant political crisis which contributed to the rebellion the next year.”

After the rebellion of 1837-1838, Baldwin suggested the concept of responsible government and became a member of the first executive council when Upper and Lower Canada – modern Ontario and Quebec – united to become the provinces of Canada West and Canada East in 1841. Baldwin would stay in the legislature for the next 10 years, twice as co-premiers effectively with Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, his friend and Lower Canada ally.

In the first parliament of the Canadas in 1841, Baldwin was elected in both Hastings and 4th York constituencies and chose Hastings, while LaFontaine represented York. When Baldwin was defeated in the 1842 election, he accepted a Lower Canada seat and was returned by acclamation in Rimouski the next year.

It was not until 1848, however, that the government introduced responsible government – Canada’s modern form of parliamentary rule.

Dr Cross credits this to Baldwin’s Irish heritage – it was a system that was conciliatory and would “bring political peace”.

Baldwin recognised French Canada was “central” and that “no political system could function without French Canadian support”.

Dr Cross says: “Even though he had no experience with French Canada [and] he didn’t speak French, he staked his whole political future on an alliance with French Canada, [and] sent his children to schools in Lower Canada, in Quebec.

“His daughters went to a convent in Quebec City, his sons to a school in Quebec City, so that, as he told them, they would not suffer the miserable embarrassment that he had at not being able to speak French.”

But despite his clear leadership on one level, Baldwin was far from a natural politician and had inherited a love for the law from his father, though he was not himself a particularly good lawyer.

“You have to feel sorry that he was, in many respects, cast into this role that he thought he was unsuited for – the role of political leadership,” says Dr Cross. “He wrote often that he felt that this was not the right role for him to play, that being in public was not a comfortable experience for him.

“His father was this larger-than-life character: a duellist, both a doctor and a lawyer, loved politics, loved running the law. So Baldwin loved the laws and institution and felt it was the kind of cement of society.

“I think he would have been happy serving the law. He didn’t have to work – he was wealthy. He could have spent his time running the benches of the law society. Certainly he was happy in the years between 1830 and 1836 when he was out of politics except to support interest groups, and spend his time with his wife.”

* * *

The Baldwins’ last child, Robert, was born by Caesarean section in 1834, an enormously dangerous procedure at that time. Eliza never recovered and died a year and a half later in the family’s Front Street house in Toronto.

Throughout the years he was hailed a political hero, along with LaFontaine, Baldwin battled nostalgia and anticipation of reuniting with Eliza.

Soon after the government collapsed just a few weeks after Eliza’s death, Baldwin went to England and then Ireland to examine places significant to the family history. He went to the graveyards of all the ancestors and took sod from each, carefully wrapping them up to be shipped back to Upper Canada.

This was Baldwin’s healing method. When he returned to Toronto, he kept Eliza’s room exactly as she had left it and allowed nobody to enter until his eldest daughter was 21.

And he began recreating their wedding on the anniversary annually, by first visiting the church, then back to the home, and picking a sprig of lilac from the same bush he went to on the wedding day. Baldwin would then spend the rest of the day in her room.

“Needless to say, given this mentality, he was a victim of severe depression throughout much of his adult life, and during the time he was running the government he was the victim of severe depression,” says Dr Cross.

The Baldwin Home

Today, Casa Loma in Austin Terrace, Toronto, is a museum. Building work began on this city landmark in 1911.

But almost a century earlier, it was home to the Baldwins. Spadina, as it was called,  was in the woods, up on a hill, well out of the city.

Dr Cross says that the property had a “goose walk” down to the street – a path which Baldwin’s aunt used to walk geese down to the water. Steps down the hillside led to the stream and a resting place, half way down, had a little book in which visitors or family were to write something, preferably poetry.

Baldwin grew vegetables and had fruit trees. He had a lemon tree that he kept indoors; he wrote home in his letters, complaining, “No-one has told me how my lemon tree is doing” when he was away running the government in Montreal.

When Spadina was sold, Robert and Eliza Baldwin’s bodies were removed from the family tomb and were reburied in St James Cemetery, in Bloor Street.

“There is one, very vivid account of him in 1850, one of his worst depressions where he was incapacitated for several months. He was simply unable to function. He stayed in a dark room in his home. And his partner, LaFontaine, in a letter to another friend, said he came to see Baldwin, was ushered into this dark room and he was absolutely flabbergasted because Baldwin had this reputation as a very withdrawn, in many ways severe, unemotional man in public. So LaFontaine came in to see him and suddenly Baldwin burst into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.

“And you could see through the letter that LaFontaine was absolutely flabbergasted, no idea what to do, when this monument was flowing tears. All he could do was try to urge Baldwin to at least let his family help him.

“Needless to say it damaged his government to have the head of the government unable to function for months at a time.”

Throughout this period, the public did not know what was going on, although there was speculation and rumours in the newspapers. Even his supporters wondered if Baldwin would return.

Dr Cross says the depression may have contributed to Baldwin’s final departure from politics in 1851, in a flood of tears after giving his resignation speech.

Author John Ralston Saul, in his 2011 book for the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series9 on LaFontaine and Baldwin, credits the pair with ushering in democracy in Canada.

But Dr Cross disagrees and describes Baldwin as more of a conservative man who inherited liberalism from his family.

“He opposed the abolition of primogeniture – that system where estates were divided among children,” says Dr Cross. “He still believed that the eldest son should inherit the whole estate so that property could be maintained.

“He was opposed to extending the franchise [for voting rights] because he believed that property was the only basis for independence. If you didn’t have property, you couldn’t be independent – you owed somebody and therefore you could not exercise political judgement independently.

“He opposed modernisation in things like usury. He opposed removal of limits on interest rates. At the time, legally, no interest rate higher than six per cent could be charged. And he tried to maintain that against those that wanted higher interest rates to allow capital to be generated.

“He opposed the removal of dower rights. Dower was a system that allowed a woman to have a claim on one third of her husband’s estate. And again, those that wanted a rapid turnover of capital saw this as a barrier. Women could hold on to land that could be instead turned into capital.”

The changes Baldwin opposed increasingly brought him into conflict with colleagues in the run-up to his resignation. As Dr Cross says, Baldwin could not come to terms with the modern direction of politics, particularly the railway age, which demanded the freeing up of financial capital. There was no room for somebody like Baldwin with his old-fashioned view of land and property.

“Politically the great irony of this man is that he created in responsible government a system which allowed these modernisers to come to power and simply wipe out his class and destroy his vision of the world,” says Dr Cross. “He was driven out of office in 1851and the railway promoters, the financiers took over politics.”

Baldwin’s colleague Francis Hincks, who succeeded him as leader, was “the moderniser, the hustler, the mining promoter, the guy who was always looking for the next buck”, eventually unleashing an “orgy of railway construction” that bankrupted municipalities and the province.

“Baldwin somehow never understood what his colleague was about,” says Dr Cross, “even though as early as 1843, Hincks wrote to Baldwin and said, ‘We are fighting now, the battle of the middle class against the aristocracy’. And here’s Baldwin – who if anyone’s an aristocrat in Canada, he’s it – doesn’t respond, doesn’t recognise the import of what Hincks is saying.

“Baldwin’s resignation speech to parliament, June 30, 1851, is full of his final recognition that things have spun out of his control, the control of his class.

“He says there’s a want of first principles in politics and in economics, as he understands it, his first principles, his set of understanding of how the world ought to operate.”

* * *

Dr Cross’s biography is the first full-scale attempt since the 1930s, adding new information and papers from France. But most other volumes on Baldwin are political biographies and Dr Cross says he was keen to re-integrate the political history into social history.

Baldwin's family vault

Contributed pic by Michael Stewart of the headstone marking the vault of Robert and Eliza Baldwin, in St James Cemetery, Toronto.

After Baldwin’s death, his children had mixed fortunes. Maria, the eldest, was prevented from marrying and died a “bitter spinster” in 1866. The eldest son, William, inherited the family home but frittered away the money and had to sell it, the property eventually being torn down. Robert Baldwin Jnr became a “religious fanatic and embarrassed the family by standing on street corners preaching”.

The next generation, however, found fame in different corners. Robert Baldwin Snr’s second daughter, Augusta Maria, married a politician and had a son, Robbie Ross. He became a journalist and, allegedly, Oscar Wilde’s first male lover.

Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, grandson of William, was the first Canadian to pilot an airplane, helping build the early experimental Silver Dart with Alexander Graham Bell, flown first in the US and later Nova Scotia.

Baldwin, despite Canadian “Heritage Minutes” on television over the years10, has not been as recognised as other Canadian leaders – his headstone in Toronto’s St James’ Cemetery had fallen down and was overgrown when Dr Cross visited while researching his book.

So what does the historian want readers to take away with them from the story of Robert Baldwin?

“I’m not sure people realise how complex political leaders often are in Canada,” concludes Dr Cross. “One thinks of Mackenzie King and his spiritualism, talking to his dead mother, his dead dog, and yet by consensus our greatest prime minister. John A Macdonald, desperately unhappy personal life, his excessive drinking, and yet obviously an enormously important and accomplished prime minister.

“There’s something about Canada that has given us very strange but very courageous and accomplished leaders.”

* * *

The book was published on September 20, 2012 – details here.

Other resources:
The National Film Board has a short cinematic telling of one of Baldwin’s most important moments during the rebellion of 1837. Robert Baldwin: A Matter Of Principle, 1961 by John Howe.

  1. Dr Michael Cross: “Baldwin formed the United Reform Party with LaFontaine when the Union of Canada, Quebec and Ontario, was launched in 1841. Baldwin deferred to LaFontaine to confirm his his commitment to justice for French Canada. So LaFontaine was called to form a Reform government in September 1842. However, they were really co-leaders of the ministry, as Attorneys General East and West. A similar pattern was followed when they resumed office in 1848, and they continued as co-leaders until June 1851.”
  3. Cross, Michael. A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory. Oxford University Press, Canada. Expected publication, September 2012.
  4. Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, born in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, June 11, 1809. Died in Toronto, January 11, 1836.
  5. William Willcocks Baldwin, born May 20, 1830, died 1903.
  6. In order, Phoebe Maria (February 27, 1828 – 1866), William Willcocks (as above), Augusta Maria (December 13, 1831 – 1871) and Robert (April 17, 1834 – 1885).
  9. and see Christopher Moore’s review of the book at
  10. Two Heritage Minutes on Baldwin: and