Saturday, June 16, 2012

Louis Rasminksy and Canadian Antisemitism

Rasminsky.Karsh, Bank of Canada Archives (BCP 153-5)  Currency Museum
Louis Rasminsky was one of a key group of bureaucrats who transformed the Canadian state in the Second World War.  Jack Granatstein's The Ottawa Men (1982) notes that Rasminsky was, "one of the architects of the new monetary system" set up at the July 1944 Bretton Woods Conference.  (p. 134) Despite his talent, Rasminsky would face resistance at home due to antisemitism in the civil service.

In 1930, at the tender age of twenty-two, Rasminksy won the job competition for a position at the League of Nations.  Before he headed to Geneva, however, some domestic business needed to be attended to.  Legend has it that Rasminksy sent the following proposal to Lyla Rotenburg: "Have accepted job League of Nations at 13,700 Swiss francs.  Will you marry me?" (p.136)  Her reply was purportedly, "What is exchange rate on Swiss francs?"  She also agreed to become his wife.

As Rasminksy was Jewish, and Canada was far from the tolerant state that some would imagine, the bureaucrat would come across several barriers during his tenure in the civil service.  In 1932, O.D. Skelton, Under-Secretary for the Department of External Affairs wrote of,
...the difficulties which our unavowed but quite effective Canadian anti-semitism places in the way of such men.  When last in Geneva I was much impressed by a young Canadian of Jewish extraction named Rasminiski [sic], a Toronto University graduate, now in the Economic Section of the League Secretariat.  He struck me as having about the most vigorous and clear-cut intellectual equipment I had met in a young man for years.  Clark, Deputy of Minister of Finance was also impressed...and made efforts to secure him for a minor post...As it happened Rasminiski was not prepared to take the post.... Even if he had been willing there would probably have been difficulties because of the prejudice in question. (Granatstein, p. 138)
Despite such resistance, Rasminsky would join the Bank of Canada in 1940.  At the Bretton Woods Conference in July 1944, which established the groundwork for the International Monetary Fund, Rasminsky helped expedite an international consensus which leaned towards the clout of the Americans.  Rasminksy played the role of broker at the conference, and moved away from John Maynard Keynes' suggestions of a supranational currency (the bancor), and towards the system which set up the basis for the IMF and pegged currency values to the American dollar.  The eventually agreement was a compromise between American hopes for freer trade, and British wishes for full employment and stability.

Photo/Scan: Skaha_boY
Rasminsky would later rise to the position of the governor of the Bank of Canada.  Unfortunately in the early 1960s, he was still experiencing trenchant antisemitism from Canadian high society.  The Rideau Club of Ottawa, a long established cloister of the political and business elite, still maintained a policy that Jews could not become members.  In 1964 a group of members would not stand for this continued racism. Rasminsky's name rose as one of four members who must be granted admittance.  As Robert Fulford noted, "the motion passed, and in 1964 one of the institutionalized absurdities of Canadian bigotry vanished."

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