Twin victory against racism

July 28, 1995

When Bernard Shapiro publicly assumed his role as principal of McGill, Canada's most prestigious university, it was hailed as a remarkable personal feat.

Joining the celebratory throng was Shapiro's brother, Harold, who aroused similar excitement in 1987 when he became Princeton University's president.

The Shapiro brothers are Jewish twins and their career successes have paralleled each other. When they themselves entered McGill University as undergraduates in 1952 vocational opportunities in higher education for Jews were virtually non-existent.

McGill counted one Jew on its academic staff and not a single Jewish professor. The annual intake included only 10 per cent of Jews but the university required of them substantially higher academic standings. The district in which they lived had actually excluded Jews altogether from its schools.

But the boys' parents were determined they would succeed. Bernard recalls: "It was assumed that no matter how clever you were, it wouldn't help unless you applied a lot of disciplined effort to what it was you wanted to do."

The timing of the return of Bernard, former deputy minister of education for Ontario province, to the city of his birth could hardly be more poignant given the 50th anniversary of the ending of the second world war. Their father had emigrated from eastern Europe in 1913 and rapidly established his business credentials. This soon led the family to move into the city's upwardly mobile district, Hampstead, where the school was effectively off-limits to them.

This, however, was to prove fortuitous for the neighbouring district's school of their choice - somewhat better disposed to Jews - was among the nation's best.

"You remember feeling aggrieved and angry to some extent," Bernard recalls. "I can't say I remember wasting much time thinking about it. What I do remember is that it makes you more determined. They're going to have to pay attention and they're going to have to make room for you."

These were the years following the war, of almost unimpeded mobility upwards on the social scale. People of ethnic origins and religious minorities shared in the bonanza, "a startling transformation for my father", Harold declares, "as it was for a whole generation of immigrants".

But their father had developed liaisons with the gambling underworld, a factor which necessarily impinged upon his sons' future. "My mother had begun to talk to my father, with us present," Bernard remembers, "about the need to find another kind of business, something that would be 'more suitable', I guess, for Harold and me."

Thus a Chinese restaurant, Ruby Foos, was set up and rapidly established an international reputation. Almost immediately they assumed their father's share.

When he died they sold the business and returned to the more genteel life of postgraduate study. Their academic aptitudes and social habits had outgrown even famous restaurants.

The twins seem remarkably unimpressed by the power and prestige they command. All of which helps explain the warmth and interest manifested in this famously divisive city for Bernard.

Local politics practically guarantee that public subsidies will ignore the fact that McGill's enrolment is stronger than at rival, French campuses.

Such realities will tax to the limit Shapiro's vision, imagination and leadership. Funding, for example, is a matter of literally daily concern. Whether or not he is the person to lead one of Canada's great institutions forward in an environment mired in apparently intractable social, cultural and political squabbling remains to be seen.

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