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Kalmen Kaplansky

January 5, 1912 – December 10, 1997

Kalmen Kaplansky came to Canada from Poland in 1929. A printer by trade, Kaplansky worked as a typesetter and linotype operator for the Kanader Adler—a Yiddish daily newspaper in Montreal, Que. There he became involved in union activities, first as a member of the Montreal Typographical Union No. 176, then as a member of the union’s executive and as union delegate at meetings of the Montreal Trades and Labor Council and the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. He was the secretary of the Montreal District Council of the Labour Party of Canada (Quebec Section) from 1936 to 1938, and was chairman of the Workmen’s Circle in Montreal between 1940 and 1943. In 1943, he joined the Canadian Army, where he served until 1946.

Upon his return to Canada, Kaplansky was named national director of the Jewish Labor Committee of Canada (JLC), where he remained for 11 years. Throughout his post-war work with the JLC, Kaplansky took a leading role in building the human rights movement in Canada. During the 1940s and 1950s, Kaplansky and the JLC helped organize Joint Labour Committees to Combat Racial Intolerance in several cities and together they lobbied the Ontario government for legislation to bar discrimination.

In large part, Kaplansky was responsible for the passing of the Ontario Fair Employment Practices Act in 1951, an act subsequently used as a model for virtually all provincial and federal codes that followed; the Ontario Fair Accommodations Act in 1954; and, ultimately, the Ontario Human Rights Code. Kaplansky also pioneered efforts to eradicate discrimination against black Canadians and indigenous peoples. He was involved in the Canadian Jewish Historical Society and twice ran for public office as a Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) candidate.

From 1957 to 1966, Kaplansky served as director of the Department of International Affairs of the Canadian Labour Congress and as secretary of its national committee for human rights. In 1967, he was appointed director of the Canadian branch of the International Labour Office (ILO) and special adviser to the ILO director-general, roles he fulfilled until his retirement in 1980.

Throughout his career, Kaplansky acted as a consultant and adviser to the federal government, serving as chairman of the Special Staff Group on Employment and Economic Opportunities for Native Northerners, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, 1971-1974; member of the Economic Council of Canada, 1978-1988; member of the Refugee Status Advisory Committee, Employment and Immigration Commission, 1978-1988; and adviser to the minister of labour, 1979-1982. During 1980-1990, Kaplansky was a senior fellow of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Ottawa and was active in many other organizations, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (board of directors), the Canadian Hunger Foundation (trustee), and the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation (president). Kaplansky also had numerous speaking and writing engagements concerning human rights and international labour affairs.

Remembered as the zaideh of the Canadian human rights movement, Kaplansky was the recipient of many awards and commendations, including the Order of Canada (1980), an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa (1983), the CLC Award for Outstanding Service to Humanity (1984), the 125th Anniversary of Confederation Medal (1992), and the United Nations Association in Canada Medal of Honour (1995).

Featured Photo: Kalmen Kaplansky, Andrews- Newton [ca. 1980] Ottawa Jewish Archives, K-007.
Clipping: Order of Canada honoured. (1983, November 25). Ottawa Jewsish Bulletin, p. 5.