October 6, 1909 – June 6, 1983
Max Wershof was the first Jewish diplomat in Canada’s history, joining the very young Department of External Affairs—as the foreign affairs ministry was then called—in 1937. He served in many positions, eventually becoming an ambassador with three different postings overseas. During his retirement years, from 1974 until his death, Wershof was active in Government social circles and also in the Jewish community. His pride and public affiliation show how attitudes towards Jewish identity had evolved positively in Ottawa and Canada in the decades after the Second World War.
Wershof’s parents, Aaron (1856-1934) and Ethel Sucher (1861-1951) came to Canada from Lithuania in 1905. They lived first in Ottawa, then Winnipeg, Man., and then settled in Edmonton, Alta., in 1912, where Aaron was the first head of the Talmud Torah afternoon school. Max, their youngest child, was a successful student, a member of the university’s championship debating team, and law class gold medallist in 1930.
Wershof began to practise law in Edmonton, and was associated with at least one social cause, the Edmonton Council for the Canadian League Against War and Fascism. In 1937, he joined the Department of External Affairs. After an initial posting in Washington, Wershof began work in Ottawa on legal subjects that became his lifelong expertise: treatment of prisoners of war, civilian detainees and refugees. After a stint in London, he was promoted in 1954 to the prestigious and sensitive position of legal adviser. His expertise in legal and defence matters were important in shaping Canada’s role in NATO and continental policies.
Wershof was appointed to his first ambassadorial position in 1957, as Canada’s representative to the Union Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. During this period, he was on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. An internal report from the United States delegation described Wershof in glowing terms, praising Canada’s team in Vienna as most competent and stating ambassador Wershof spoke “forcefully and effectively …”
In 1967, Wershof was named as ambassador to Denmark, and in 1971, he was posted to Czechoslovakia, with additional responsibility for Hungary. He retired in 1974, completing 37 years of active service. Wershof often described the pleasure he and his wife, Miriam, had in representing the country. He also said in a 1980 interview with the Canadian Jewish News: I never found in my career that being a Jew hindered my prospects, assignments or promotion. In the official Ottawa of his time, Jews were not allowed to be members of the important Rideau Club until 1964. The first Jewish cabinet minister was only appointed in 1969. Wershof’s memory of his experiences differed sharply.
In retirement, Wershof remained active in the Ottawa circuit of semi-official diplomatic dinners. He was a member of Beth Shalom synagogue (now part of Kehillat Beth Israel) and a board member of the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation. He died in June 1983, and is buried at the Jewish cemetery on Bank Street. His wife, Miriam, died in 1997. Their son, Peter, was a career lawyer in the Department of Justice.
Featured Photo: Max Wershof, Laddie Ponich Studios, 1958 Courtesy of the Wershof family.
Photograph: Max Wershof receiving honorary doctorate from University of Alberta, October 27, 1958. Courtesy of the Wershof family.