On the shores of a lake just like yours or mine...

When Bernard Wolf attempted to buy a small cottage in 1948, he was met with resistance and discrimination from his would-be neighbours. But his struggle to settle on Lake Huron was about more than just owning a weekend getaway. It was about the future of human rights in Canada

By Katherine Laidlaw

O n the August day I visited, a watchful security guard presided over the gate at Beach O’Pines, a community of cottages near Grand Bend, Ont. Get past him, and gain entry to an exclusive stretch of beachfront and smattering of cottages that’s been coveted for nearly 100 years. Ambling over the bridge and into the criss-cross of paved roads, even the light seems to soften. In place of urban laneways, footpaths run behind rows of cottages, greenery cascading overhead and underfoot. The white sand beaches seem made for building castles. Tall, sun-bleached grasses rustle in the wind.

The area is a mash of old and sprawling new. Rustic cabins share the roads with four-car garages. In one driveway, a vanity plate on a dusty Jeep Wrangler reads “Bass Lass.” Across the way, wrought-iron fish swim across an ornate gate carved with an underwater scene. Spiky seaweed pokes up from the top, deterring uninvited guests. At the foot of one waterfront property, a sign peeks out amid the trees. “We believe: Black lives matter, love is love, feminism is for everyone, no human being is illegal, science is real. Be kind to all.”

Growing up in nearby Grand Bend, Michelle Adelman remembers a different kind of sign. As a child in the ’70s, she spent hours biking along its main drag, which had been a tourist destination for decades. At the end of Main Street stood the imposing Lakeview Casino, a dance hall that opened in 1917. In its early years, two all-Black bands played the hall at night, and even Louis Armstrong travelled in to perform. But while they were allowed to entertain, they weren’t allowed to stay: the venue refused to house Black staffers or entertainers, and refused to accept Jews as guests. By the time Michelle rode by in 1970, the building was in disrepair. But the sign hanging on the door had endured all that time, and, as one of the only Jewish children in town, she remembers it even now. “It said, ‘No Jews and no dogs,’” says Michelle. Back then, signs like those stretched from Grand Bend all across the province, and right up into the Kawarthas and Muskoka.

In the early 1900s, a boy named Bernard Wolf was throwing snowballs on a river between his Russian village of Volochisk and the Austrian village across the water. His father had left Russia for a job in New York, sending money back for his wife and sons every month. The government wouldn’t allow the boys to leave; Bernard and his brother, David, were too close to army age and were refused visas. Under the watchful eye of Russian sentries, children were allowed to play together on the ice. Bernard realized he knew enough German to pass for an Austrian boy, and he asked the other river boys to help.

They skated him across to safety, and from there, he sent for his brother. The family reunited in London, Ont., in 1904. By then, his father had followed other Jewish thinkers and writers to the southern Ontario community. A group of immigrants, incensed from living under Russian despotism, embraced communist ideals, even going so far as to move to Washington state to try commune life. When the commune failed, they moved back to London. Although the Wolfs didn’t partake, they were part of a branch of the freethinking group the Workmen’s Circle, a club that conducted their affairs in Yiddish and pinned five-dollar bills on the wall of the hall where they met, for immigrants in need.

“My father was a radical,” Bernard told the Canadian Jewish News in a 1982 interview. “He was imbued with a new idealism, born of the struggle against Russian tyranny. He and other radically minded immigrants made London a stronghold of Jewish radicalism for two or three decades.”

The group clung tightly to the concept of tzedakah, the act of granting charity to the needy: the impoverished, the widows, orphans, and strangers among them. Bernard revelled in the atmosphere his father created for him and his younger brother, David.

Five years after they arrived, Bernard and David opened a bespoke and designer women’s dress shop, one of the first in London. In 1932, Bernard became the inaugural president of the newly formed London Jewish Community Council.

Seven years later, anti-Semitism would rip through the world like a plague as the Second World War wreaked havoc on the world order, and Hitler ordered the deaths of six million European Jews. Across the country, anti-Semitic hatred led to store boycotts, vicious attacks, and at least one violent riot. In London, Jewish leaders advocated for the Canadian government to take in refugees.

“None is too many,” responded one government official when asked how many Jews should be accepted. The London Club, a social club for businessmen, refused entry to Jewish professionals. The University of Western Ontario had an unspoken but firm policy not to hire Jewish faculty.

Bernard’s brother, David, was determined to help, and he and his wife welcomed a young girl seeking a safe haven into their home during the war. By 1948, Bernard was a wealthy man. Strolling down Dundas St., Artistic Ladies Wear and its glamorous window displays were impossible to miss. And, inside, so was Bernard, out on the floor in the long, narrow shop filled with formal dresses and furs, as tailors and seamstresses sewed away downstairs.

The brothers had built their fortune bringing ready-made designer fashion to London, Ont., travelling to New York and Paris sourcing textiles and trends. “The brothers were partners. David handled more of the business logistics, and Bernard was out front, meeting and greeting. He was the personality,” says his great-nephew Ron Wolf. “He was warm-hearted and really liked people. He liked to do good for people, and he liked people to like him.”

In 1929, American resort developer Frank Salter was boating with friends on Lake Huron when a storm rolled in. He sought shelter in Grand Bend and realized its surrounding countryside was ripe for development. Soon after, he purchased 5,000 acres that he intended to turn into a luxury resort, but his plans were foiled by the impending Great Depression. Instead, he divided the land into 35 plots and sold them off as individual parcels to cottagers, many of whom lived across the lake in Michigan.

A few years after the war, Bernard’s neighbour, Annie Noble, lost her husband. She began to look for a buyer for a summer home the couple had bought years before, feeling overwhelmed by her two properties. The Noble cottage, as it was known, was located in an exclusive, gated community called Beach O’Pines, a ten-minute drive from downtown Grand Bend and an hour from London.

Bernard and his wife, Bessie, were excited at the idea of owning a cottage. “London really had two options close to the city: Port Stanley or Grand Bend,” says Ron Wolf. “Grand Bend is really a perfect getaway.” The couple had no children, but they spent Sundays picnicking with their nieces, nephews, and cousins at Springbank Park in London. A cottage at Beach O’Pines would give their family somewhere to vacation for generations.

“They wanted to have a place in the summer, to be able to get out of the city and enjoy a social life,” Ron says. Annie invited Bernard to tour the cottage, and he agreed to buy it for $6,800. Bernard hired his wife’s cousin, a recent law school grad named Ted Richmond, to draw up the offer for the sale. As Richmond prepared the contract, he discovered a clause in the deed that made him incensed.

“The lands and premises herein described shall never be sold, assigned, transferred, leased, rented or in any manner whatsoever alienated to, and shall never be occupied or used in any manner whatsoever by any person of the Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or coloured race or blood,” it read.

The rule was written into the original deeds of sale from the Salter Co. in 1933, and because so few of the cottages at Beach O’Pines had changed hands in the intervening years, Annie Noble didn’t know that by even having Bernard as a guest at the cottage, she was in breach. Back then, racial segregation was imposed by private contracts, winks, and nods. Richmond called his client. He’d spoken to Noble’s lawyer, who had no issue with removing the covenant and wanted to go through with the sale. Richmond thought it would be a formality, he assured Bernard, to get it dismissed. He’d file the paperwork on behalf of Bernard and Annie straight away.

How Jewish was too Jewish to be excluded? How could you know for sure if someone was Jewish at all? And what would happen if a gentile man married to a Jewish woman bought one of the properties and then died?

When the Beach O’Pines Protective Association (BPPA), the cottager group that managed the Beach O’Pines area, heard about the proposed sale, they called an emergency meeting. Shortly after, the association offered Bernard the $6,800 asking price, plus a hefty profit, to not buy the cottage. They were adamant the restriction be upheld. But Bernard didn’t need money, and he was outraged at the cottagers’ determination not to accept Jews onto their beach. When he rejected the offer, 26 of the association’s 35 members voted to defend the covenant in court.

To Richmond, the case’s outcome seemed obvious. He walked into the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto in June 1948 feeling confident. For one, there was legal precedent. In 1945, an Ontario court judge had already ruled that restrictive covenants were illegal. And two, he’d phoned the lawyer who’d won that case, John Cartwright, and asked him to come aboard. Cartwright was one of the best legal minds in the country. Together, they argued for democracy, equality, and inclusivity—the right for anyone in Canada to live anywhere they wished. But on the bench that day was Justice Walter Schroeder, a judge known for his traditional views. Bernard and Annie faced a resounding loss in a judgment that made international news, from Johannesburg to Zurich to London to New York. Not only did Justice Schroeder enforce the covenant, he discredited the precedent.

“The notion of any danger to public interests involved in the use of restricted covenants seems to me fanciful and unreal,” the judge wrote. The Globe and Mail ran an editorial supporting the decision. When the judge suggested Wolf buy a cottage somewhere else, Annie Noble’s lawyer, John Cartwright, responded: “I have been told he would have to walk a long way along Lake Huron before he could find a place to buy.”

On the spot, Bernard and Annie’s lawyers decided to appeal. When the Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the decision in 1949, public backlash ensued. Jewish leaders denounced the shocking outcome. Bernard knew some of the world was with him, and some of the world wasn’t. “He had to fight the battle and some of the hate that came with it,” Ron says. “It was very emotionally wearing on him.” It wore on his wife too. Bessie was embarrassed by the attention and begged her husband to let it go.

Richmond wrote to the Canadian Jewish Congress for guidance. Neither Annie nor Bernard wanted to continue the fight, which by then had dragged on for two years. Annie had decided she would only continue to allow the lawyers to use her name in the legal battle if, in addition to a guarantee that she’d receive the purchase price whether they won or lost, she also received rent and interest from Bernard for the time it took to resolve the case. Bernard, on principle, didn’t want to meet this new slate of demands.

“Mr. Wolf, personally, would like to wash his hands of the whole matter but is willing to leave the final decision up to the Canadian Jewish Congress,” Richmond wrote to the Congress in July 1949. With only Bernard’s name on the docket, Richmond and Cartwright were certain they’d lose. The congress agreed to pay Annie what she was asking so her name could remain on the case. The congress also agreed to fund the entire proceeding, escalating the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. By then, the fight was about more than a cottage, more than a beach association so determined to hold onto its racist values that it would stand behind those values at every level of court in the country.

“This came at a time where anti-Semitism wasn’t just rampant, it was part of Canadian culture,” says former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber. “There were limits on how many Jews could study at universities. There were bans on Jews on beaches. There were clubs that were specifically anti-Semitic. Jews were attacked in the streets.”

Outside of court, public opinion was starting to turn. Ontario Premier Leslie Frost decided to take a stand against the appeals court decision and, in March 1950, passed a law declaring restrictive covenants illegal going forward. That didn’t help Bernard, though. His lawyers knew, based on the lower courts’ responses, that arguing that racial discrimination was contrary to a civilized society likely wasn’t going to work. Instead, they shifted their stance. The covenant was unenforceable, they argued, because the language was too vague. How Jewish was too Jewish to be excluded? How could you know for sure if someone was Jewish at all? And what would happen if a gentile man married to a Jewish woman bought one of the properties and then died?

Kenneth Morden, the high-powered lawyer hired to argue on behalf of the cottagers, had no answer. He claimed that people had the right to associate freely with whomever they choose. The uncertainty argument resonated with the seven legal minds adjudicating the case, who, in their written judgment, gingerly sidestepped condemning the covenant’s racism. Instead, they determined the language was so unclear that it rendered the contracts unenforceable.

The decision came down six-to-one for Bernard and Annie, a clear victory, which meant the sale of the Noble cottage could finally go through. When Richmond got the call that the court had ruled in their favour, he ran down the street from his office and burst through the doors of Artistic Ladies Wear, yelling, “We won! We won!”

“It was one of the first times that a minority group won in court,” Farber says. And while the judges didn’t rule on discrimination specifically, making the decision a tainted one for many who’d worked to see it through, it would set in motion a cascading effect that would include the creation of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1961.

“It started to move the needle toward a major philosophical change in the country,” Ron Wolf says. And it turned Bernard into a hero. A few weeks later, London’s Jewish Community Council held a dinner in Bernard’s honour. Crown Royal was poured out and congratulatory telegrams poured in from across Canada and the U.S. as guests feasted on matzoh ball soup, roasted chicken, and knishes. Everyone toasted to a man who’d become a pillar of the community.

But Bernard and Bessie never set foot in the Noble cottage again. After the telegrams and the victory celebrations quieted, Bernard received an offer from another Beach O’Pines resident and sold the cottage. “He was a man of principle,” said Alec Richmond, a cousin of Ted Richmond’s and another lawyer at the firm, in a 2009 interview. “He didn’t want to keep the damn cottage, so he sold it.” Wolf wanted no part of a community that wanted no part of him, and he never bought another cottage for the rest of his life. “Part of it was the emotional damage caused by the whole event. A summer home is something you want in life as a pleasure,” Ron says. “His neighbours didn’t just go to one court. They continued their fight on why they should have a right to exclude Jews and people of colour. They were vehement.”

Instead, the Wolfs became snowbirds, flying down to Daytona Beach, Fla., every year for the winter and frequenting their favourite London restaurants during the summer, choosing locales for their kind-hearted proprietors over their expert cuisine. Bernard remained a pillar of the Jewish community, its defacto leader, for decades. In the 1950s, he became the first Jew appointed by the city of London to the University of Western Ontario’s senate, where he served as a member for nine years. When he and Bessie celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, even the Prime Minister wrote to congratulate them.

Today, Beach O’Pines is home to more than 100 cottages and several Jewish families. Michelle Adelman, who remembers the jarring sign on the old Lakeview Casino, owns a cottage there now. “Growing up, my father was the only Jew within a huge radius of this place,” she says. “I don’t think he even knew there were any Jews who had cottages.” He’d be horrified to know that she and her husband bought a cottage there, years after he died.

As a child in Grand Bend, Michelle had spent so much time trying to go unnoticed, attending church and singing in the choir, doing her best to fit into the fabric of the place. What attracted her to Beach O’Pines is that it’s left to thrive in its natural state, though, she adds wryly, the new buildings tend toward the grandiose. Still, the stretch of beachfront along Lake Huron has kept its wild, windswept quality. “It’s beautiful, it’s not manicured,” she says. “I liked the idea of us trying to live with that rather than cutting it down and making it something else.”

For Bernard Wolf, the case remained a source of great pride right up until his death in 1987. “Sometimes when you win a case, you look back twenty years later and think it was kind of hollow,” says Ron Wolf. “What he won was a permanent change. It was the beginning of the end of the ability to legally enforce racial or religious discrimination.” The process only served to further entrench the values of philanthropy and community that his principled great-uncle held dear. Across southern Ontario, performing arts centres, schools, and scientific research centres bear the Wolf name, largely thanks to Bernard’s nephew, Norton.

“Norton took Bernard’s legacy and expanded it. That sense of being part of a community, showing leadership in a community, and giving back to a community—those were all parts of our family’s evolution as it went through this,” Ron says. “I think the wonderful thing is, the family didn’t turn away from the community after that. We wanted to give back.”

Katherine Laidlaw has won five National Magazine Awards. Her work can also be found in Toronto Life and Wired. This is her first story for Cottage Life.