J. B. Salsberg

Joseph Baruch “J. B.” Salsberg was a labour leader and major figure in Ontario left-wing politics, advocating for human rights and fair employment practices. He was also an important journalist and influential figure in Toronto’s Jewish community, committed to the preservation and strengthening of Jewish culture.

J. B. (1902–1998) was born to Abraham and Sarah-Gittel Salsberg in Lagow, Poland. His father immigrated to Toronto in 1910, and J. B. followed three years later with his mother and two younger sisters. Around 1916, J. B. dropped out of school and took a job in a leather-goods factory to supplement his family’s income. His family was deeply religious, and J. B.’s embrace of Zionist socialism as a teenager created tension within the family, although it did not seriously impact his familial relationships. He met Dora Wilensky, a Russian immigrant, around 1922, and they were married in 1927.

As a teenager with newfound political independence, J. B. become involved in establishing the Young Poale Zion organization, a Marxist-Zionist movement dedicated to secular aims. He was made secretary general of the Young Poale Zion of America in New York, where he worked for one year. Upon returning to Toronto, he became more involved with labour issues, organizing the Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers Union of North America and acting as the national organizer for the Industrial Union of Needles Trade Workers.

He was an active member of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) for thirty years, serving as the head of its Trade Union Department for two decades. It was as a member of the CPC that J. B. first entered electoral politics and in 1938 was elected alderman of Ward 4 in Toronto. He was re-elected to this position in 1943, beating out Nathan Phillips, before being elected to the Ontario Legislature. J. B. sat as a member of provincial parliament for the Labor-Progressive Party for twelve years, focusing on issues such as the minimum wage, reasonable hours of work, discrimination against minorities, and the mental and physical health of workers. As MPP, he helped create legislation prohibiting discrimination in public places and introduced a bill that would ensure fair employment practices throughout the province.

Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he grew increasingly concerned about reports of antisemitism in the Soviet Union and urged party leaders to pursue the issue. In 1956, J. B. went to Moscow as part of a CPC delegation and met with the then leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Krushchev. The tension between his loyalty to the Communist cause and his concerns about growing Soviet antisemitism finally came to a head in 1957, when J. B. split with the CPC. Shortly after the death of his wife, J. B., along with some other former members of the United Jewish People’s Order, founded an alternative, non-Communist, left-wing Jewish organization called the New Fraternal Jewish Association. It was at this time that J. B. became more involved in journalism both writing for and editing Fraternally Yours. He also began writing an award-winning weekly column for the Canadian Jewish News and occasionally wrote articles for the Globe and Mail. During this time, he began to advocate more heavily for the preservation of the Yiddish language and Jewish identity.

J. B. was active in several organizations, including the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. He was awarded the CJC’s Samuel Bronfman Medal for distinguished service and the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto’s Ben Sadowski Award for Merit. He helped to establish the J. B. and Dora Salsberg Fund and the J. B. Salsberg Fund for Yiddish at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. The late Gerald Tulchinsky talked about J. B.’s fabled kindness and his commitment to the welfare of the working-class, writing that “people admired him for his attitude towards them, and his commitment to make the world and their environment better.” J. B. passed away in 1998 at the age of ninety-five.

Archivist Notes

The records that make up the Joseph Baruch Salsberg fonds provide an overview of his personal, professional, and Jewish communal activities. Correspondence, photographs, reports, political writing, pamphlets and brochures, campaign literature and notes, posters, press releases, articles, speeches, meeting minutes, periodicals, notebooks, pins, plaques, event invitations, and programmes are just some of the materials that make up this fonds.

The records showcase the political issues of the time including the development of legislation regarding fair employment practices and other legislation that would eventually lead to the passing of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The records also provide an overview of the activities and evolutions of various Jewish organizations, as well as the history of the Jewish community in Toronto. Lastly, they offer insight into how the government addressed Soviet antisemitism and how Jewish groups in Ontario organized to help those who were being persecuted in the Soviet Union.

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