Louis Rubenstein

While it is likely that not too many Canadian skaters have ever heard of Louis Rubenstein, it is he they have to thank for their long and rich heritage in the sport. Rubenstein, long considered the father of Canadian figure skating, was that nation’s most successful proponent — nationally and internationally — during his era.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Montréal in 1861, Rubenstein was one of 12 children. Figure skating gained popularity in the 1860s and it is reported that at age 3 he was inspired to take up skating after watching Jackson Haines perform. Haines would later become Rubenstein’s coach.

A member of Montréal’s Victoria Skating Club, Rubenstein excelled at compulsory figures and won the Montréal “fancy” skating championship at age 17. He captured the first of seven Canadian titles in 1883, the Championship of America in 1887; two North American (1888-89) and three U.S. crowns (1888-89) and tied for first place at the 1891 U.S. Championships. 

In 1888 Rubenstein and other members of the club established the Amateur Skating Association of Canada, which instituted rules to govern both speed and figure skating competitions.

His international breakthrough came in Russia when, in 1890, the St. Petersburg Skating Club held a competition to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Rubenstein was chosen to participate, making him the first Canadian skater to ever compete internationally. He left New York in January that year and it would be two and a half months before he reached his Russian destination. Upon his arrival, he learned that not only would he be competing on outdoor ice, as opposed to the luxury of skating indoors, but that he would also have to perform on-ice acrobatics in addition to compulsory figures.

However, a bigger hurdle awaited the Canadian. Issues with his religion almost forced him to miss the competition. It is reported that he made numerous visits to the police station, and that it was only through the intervention of the British ambassador that Rubenstein was allowed to remain in the country to compete. He won the compulsory figures segment of the competition and returned home with a gold medal.

Rubenstein retired from competition in 1892 but his passion for skating motivated him to look for new avenues to promote and encourage the participation of people of all ages to enjoy the sport. Of independent wealth, Rubenstein began sponsoring gifted young skaters. One of his many legacies was the introduction of junior competitions in 1894. His efforts began to pay off at the beginning of the 20th century when skating attracted the attention of royalty. In 1903, the Earl of Minto — then Governor General of Canada — presented the awards at a competition at Ottawa’s Minto Skating Club. Two years later he became the patron of the club and donated the Minto Challenge Cup to encourage the development of the skillful execution of compulsory figures.

His wife, Lady Minto, who had taken up skating when she first arrived in Canada in 1899, hosted skating parties in the gardens of the Governor General’s residence. In later times, a skating injury prohibited her from donning her skates but she never lost her passion for the sport and continued to support Rubenstein’s efforts.

On February 1, 1907, the Canadian and U.S. organizations formed the International Skating Union of America. Rubenstein became its first president, a position he held until 1909. The Figure Skating Department of the Amateur Skating Association of Canada was created in 1914 and Rubenstein became that organization’s first president (a position he held until his death in 1931). That same year the first official Canadian Figure Skating Championships were held at the Minto Skating Club. The Figure Skating Department was renamed the Canadian Figure Skating Association in 1939 and became an independent body in 1947.

In 2002, a 26-minute documentary entitled “Inspiring Figure: The Louis Rubenstein Story” was written and produced under the auspices of the National Film Board, with commentary from former International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound and 1948 Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott. “If I had to summarize Louis Rubenstein, it would be somebody I would like to think of as the Olympic ideal,” Pound said. “Somebody who understood the sport and the ethics involved and who, at the same time, was educated, cultured and gave back to the development of the sport for the future.”

For Scott it was all about the sport’s transition. “In Louis’ day it was all about figures. In my day it was all about double jumps,” she explained. “Today it is all about triple jumps and quads. I think Louis would be entranced to see our modern skaters. He left a legacy for all of us to follow. Hard work, dedication, a sense of humor and a great pride in representing Canada.”

In 1914 Rubenstein stepped away from the ice and ventured into a new arena following his election as an alderman in Montréal’s Ward 5, a position he held for 17 years. Though his riding was one with many new, impoverished immigrants, Rubenstein was popular with its residents and was known for taking an interest in the welfare of the less fortunate. The Depression had taken a hefty toll with many Montréal residents lacking the basics of life, including hot or running water. Rubenstein stepped in, and in January 1916 the Rubenstein Bath (now the site of Complexe Desjardins), which provided a place for people to bathe, was officially opened.

When he died suddenly in the early hours on Jan. 3, 1931 at age 69 the entire city mourned his passing. Thousands of people attended his funeral. As one Montréal daily noted: “He was indeed the pioneer of winter sports in Canada. It is also worth noting that, as a young man, wherever he went representing Canada at the amateur level, he always paid his own expenses.”

Several years later, friends and supporters raised funds to build a permanent memorial in his memory. In 1937 a fountain was constructed at Fletchers Field (now Parc Jeanne-Mance). It is believed to be the only monument in the city dedicated to a person of Jewish heritage.

Rubenstein was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Skate Canada Hall of Fame in 1990. A bronze bust of his likeness is housed at the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Over the ensuing decades, Rubenstein’s Canadian vision has evolved into one of the most successful skating stories on the planet. From two clubs in 1914, Skate Canada has grown into one of the largest figure skating organizations in the world.