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Federal Politics

Trudeau Was Right to Call Out Racist Past

Canada's list of wrongs against minorities is long.

Rafe Mair 23 Mar

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every other week. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

On March 9, Justin Trudeau made a speech where he castigated Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his views on the niqab issue and civil liberties in general.

"These are troubling times," Trudeau said. "Across Canada, and especially in my home province, Canadians are being encouraged by their government to be fearful of one another.

"For me, this is both unconscionable and a real threat to Canadian liberty. For me, it is basic truth that prime ministers of liberal democracies ought not to be in the business of telling women what they can and cannot wear on their head during public ceremonies."

Trudeau went on to say, "You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up as a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights.

"But those who would use the state's power to restrict women's religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear."

At this point, the columnists who-know-what-is-best-for-us started to spin out because Trudeau mentioned many of our past sins with respect to minorities in this country. Somehow, we just should not talk about these when we talk about treatment of minorities today. This is utter rot. I reserve judgment on Mr. Trudeau generally and surprise myself for springing to his defence, but he's entitled to be defended by all decent citizens.

Surely, in dealing with issues today, we can't ignore our past; particularly since the events Trudeau mentions were not that long ago. Indeed, many of the serious examples of Canadian intolerance happened well within my admittedly long lifetime.

Refused refugees

I was not alive 100 years ago, of course, at the time of the disgraceful Komagata Maru matter, where 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, all British subjects, were refused entry into Canada at Vancouver and sent back to India.

I was very much alive in 1942 when Japanese-Canadians were expelled from the British Columbia coast, without charge or trial and interned, with their property seized and sold for peanuts.

(I pause here to admit, as I did here a few weeks ago, that my father "bought" a factory from the "trustee" for the Japanese at 10 cents on the dollar, and with this "loot" I was educated and raised. No doubt my conscience bothers me, but in the words of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, "Always let your conscience be your guide.")

The Vancouver Sun, recently and commendably, exposed its conscience by printing a 1942 editorial, which it admitted was racist.

"The Sun has repeatedly pointed out that during 50 years of Oriental immigration to this continent, British Columbia has consistently fought against the Japanese infiltration... and just as regularly we have been over-ruled by Ottawa," the original editorial said.

"Now, for excellent military reasons, the Japanese are being moved inland. Can anyone blame us if we hope that by May Day we shall have seen the last of them -- and for all time?

"We shall have to admit that we are gladly using a necessity of the war to give us a solution, a permanent solution if possible, of an immigration that was thoroughly distasteful and objectionable."

When I was a boy in the 1940s, there was a popular restaurant chain in Vancouver called White Lunch. This, courtesy of Vancouver-based AHA Media:

"A number of White Lunch restaurants operated in the city (and) included 865 Granville, 737 West Pender and 714 West Pender. The White Lunch name reflected a policy of serving and hiring only white people. The civic government of the 1930s reinforced racism in the culinary industry by passing a 1937 ordinance that prohibited white women from working in Chinatown. Whites believed they had a properly appointed place in the Darwinist order and needed to protect white women from "lascivious Orientals." A delegation of 16 waitresses from 3 restaurants marched to City Hall on Sept. 24, 1937 to protest the ordinance but the mayor refused them a hearing. Restaurant proprietors had their licences revoked if they failed to observe the civic ruling."

Incidentally, Canadians of Chinese extraction didn't get the vote until 1947, Japanese-Canadians until 1949, and it wasn't until 1960 that First Nations were allowed to vote.

Most of us can remember when some Canadians thoughtlessly overreacted because Sikhs wearing turbans were enrolled in the RCMP. Then we had the disgraceful and ridiculous spectacle in 1993 of Sikhs being denied admission to the Canadian Legion because wearing a turban was tendentiously said to be "disrespectful to the Queen."

First Nations struggle

It wasn't until the 1970s that the courts began to give First Nations their rights and it is only very recently that these rights have actually materialized. Their struggle continues.

Now to Mr. Trudeau's alleged offence.

In May 1939, after the terrifying night of Kristallnacht, the SS St. Louis fleed Nazi Germany carrying 937 Jewish refugees and sailed to Cuba. But the ship was refused permission to dock. The United States and Canada also spurned the passengers. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and France accepted the refugees, but more than 250 were killed in the Holocaust after the Nazis invaded western Europe.

Trudeau said this about that: "We should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the '30s and '40s being used to raise fears against Muslims today."

Now this is critically important given that even Thomas Mulcair, along with many writers, has Trudeau conflating the treatment of Muslims with the Holocaust.

He did nothing of the sort. He did not directly or inferentially mention the Holocaust and has not mentioned it since, despite the baiting of the Tories and now Mulcair and the NDP.

The policy he mentioned predated the Holocaust. The Jews in question were fleeing because of Kristallnacht, literally, "Night of Crystal," of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on Nov. 9-10, 1938, throughout Germany.

If anyone in May 1939 had predicted that a civilized nation would murder some six million people, including I might say, the mentally ill and disabled, Roma people and homosexuals, he would have been considered mad.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney raised the Holocaust the day after the Trudeau speech when he said that Bill C-51 seeks to criminalize pro-terrorist speech because "the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words."

Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who as immigration minister introduced the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies in 2011, joined in, tweeting this jab: "It is obscene to conflate the essentially public nature of the citizenship oath with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust."

But Trudeau did nothing of the sort; the raising of the temperature of the debate rests entirely on the Harper government.

After this long, 100-year odyssey from the Komagata Maru to Harper, it seemed that we'd reached the point where most Canadians truly were a gentle and tolerant people. Our maturity allowed both the free speech to criticize and the freedom to do that which does no harm. Then disaster struck in the person of Stephen Harper and a government which is petty, mean spirited and vindictive towards those who don't agree with them.

It must be remembered that it was Harper and his cabinet who got involved when the federal court of Canada held that a Muslim woman was entitled to wear a niqab during a citizenship swearing-in ceremony. They could have and should have left the issue to the justice system for resolution.

Moreover, they spouted their provocative language at a time when some Canadians, thanks to the Harper government, were scared stiff of the threat of militant Islam.

Now this is not rocket science. Fear brings out the worst in all of us.

In the First World War, not only were Germans in Canada discriminated against, so were Dachshund dogs! The town of Berlin in Ontario changed its name to Kitchener.

During the Second World War, in Kerrisdale where I lived, people boycotted Barers Bakery because of its German name. In fact, it was owned by a Dutch couple. The name of the German Shepherd dog was changed to Alsatian. And we know what happened to Japanese-Canadians. This is what leaders such as prime ministers are supposed to recognize and take care to avoid.

Let me put it plainly -- the Harper government has, with full knowledge of the consequences, taken a public position in inflammatory language at a time when they knew or ought to have known this would bring out the worst in some people. Under these circumstances, how can one possibly criticize Trudeau for reminding us of where we have been in our less attractive moments and urging us to remember our history in dealing with situations of human rights today?

Perhaps this was a matter of political opportunism. Frankly I don't care because the message was important on its own terms.

My hope is that we all calm down and go back to being what we were before this scary government took over the reins of power -- decent, caring, tolerant people, conscious not only of our own rights, but those of others.  [Tyee]

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