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Mordecai Richler (1931–2001): Saint Urbain’s Satirist

Mordecai Richler circa November, 1957. © Horst Ehricht / Library and Archives Canada.

For the Week of Monday January 23, 2023

On January 27, 1931, novelist and essayist Mordecai Richler was born in Montréal, Quebec. His many works, which spanned a wide range of subjects and genres, did not shy away from difficult and often uncomfortable questions, challenging readers to take a critical look at Canadian society.

Growing up on Saint Urbain Street in the at the time mostly Jewish neighbourhood of Mile-End in Montréal, Richler was known for having a sharp wit that made him a polarizing figure among his classmates. After dropping out of Sir George Williams College in 1950, he moved back-and-forth between Canada and Europe, working briefly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before moving to London, England, in 1953, where he lived for nearly 20 years. During this time, he published novels, worked as a journalist, and wrote screenplays for film and television. Though living in England, Richler continued to set some of his novels in Montréal, including St. Urbain’s Horseman, which won the Governor General’s Award in 1971. He moved back to Montréal with his family a year later.

Richler, a secular Jew, satirized Jewish-Canadian experiences. This was a departure from the works of earlier Jewish-Canadian authors, like A. M. Klein (1909–1972), whose English-language poetry explored the rich cultural heritage of Jewish Montréal. Perhaps his best-known book, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in London and Boston in 1959, confronted the continued existence of antisemitism in Canada and challenged cultural constructions of Canadian and Jewish identities. He later adapted the novel into a critically acclaimed film, starring American actor Richard Dreyfuss, and further criticized Canadian nationalism in the novel The Incomparable Atuk (1963). His book, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992), composed of controversial reflections, satirized the French-language laws in his home province and generated significant condemnation, especially from politicians and journalists, some of whom even called for the book to be banned.

Though popularly remembered for such controversial and critical examinations of Canadian society, he also explored lighter subjects, authoring the popular children’s book series Jacob Two-Two. Most of all, Richler is remembered for the teeming worlds in his funny and complex novels: Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here, and Barney’s Version. Fourteen years after Richler passed away from cancer, the City of Montréal honored his literary and cultural contributions by renaming the Mile-End Library in his honour.

Abraham Moses Klein was designated as a national historic person in 2007. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.


Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.
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