Tightening The Screw
An article in today’s Toronto Sun boasts the headline “Bogus Refugee Claims on the Rise.” The article asks us this question: “with all the hostility and turmoil in the world, why would more than 20% of all refugee claimants to Canada last year be coming from the European Union? Is Hitler back? Tito? Mussolini?”
The article goes on to say that nearly “half of last year’s bogus European refugee claimants were from Hungary." The suggestion is that these are economic migrants, seeking better job opportunities or, perhaps, are hoping to milk the Canadian system. A disproportionate number of these claimants are Sinti-Roma, often referred to as “Gypsies.” Canada’s Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has singled out Sinti-Roma, suggesting they, as a social group, are actively attempting to abuse the system.
Reading headlines like these, it all seems so much an over there problem. We’re here in Canada, worried about jobs for our youth, the viability of our pensions and whether there will be a doctor available when we need one. With debt crises and unemployment challenges, we’re already worried; we don’t need to add anyone else’s woes to our mix. In short – we are anxious enough to be receptive to messages that validate our fears.
This is a big part of why Canada has recently elected a majority government whose key campaign theme was protecting Canada against “troubles lapping at our shores.” In Ontario, the Conservative Party’s recent election campaign focused on pointing accusing fingers at “foreign workers” for stealing local jobs and “foreign students” for taking opportunity away from local students.
Does this sound familiar? It should.
What Has Happened Before…
During the lead-up to and beginning of World War II, Canada embraced a closed-door immigration policy that stigmatized foreigners and “special interest” groups specifically. Canada’s Director of Immigration (Equivalent to today’s Immigration Minister) of the time, Frederick Charles Blair, focused in particular on Jews. Between 1933-1939, while anti-Semitism and hate-crimes were on the rise, Blair allowed less than 5,000 Jews, mostly European, into Canada. A shameful example of his blatant refusal to assist a persecuted people was the turning away of the MS St. Louis and its 907 Jewish emigrants. Apparently, Blair once asked a prominent Jewish Torontonian "Why don't you people learn to live with your neighbours wherever you are? Why are you hated?"
Canada confabulated justification for ignoring people in need with essentially the line that it wasn’t our problem; we had enough concerns of our own to worry about. In fact, we did even worse – fearful of the enemy without, we started to look for enemies within. Nazi Germany had its Concentration Camps and Soviet Russia had its Gulags, but Canada had Internment Camps of its own.
I can only assume that the Frederick Blairs of the world actually believed that external firewalls and internal containment were in the country’s best interests. I would certainly question who from our populace they saw as true Canadians. That was a different time, though, when we had less understanding of genetics and largely viewed “ethnic groups” as Others posing built-in threats because they were different. Surely we’ve learned since then?
… Will Happen Again
It doesn’t seem like it. We have Kenney’s railing against Roma-Sinti immigrants, giving plenty of generalizations and half-truths to justify his position. Internally, he’s finding palatable ways to put constraints on minorities. His colleague Vic Toews is pursuing a new anti-terrorism strategy that will target any group of “vulnerable individuals” with issues “based on grievances – real or perceived.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper questions the patriotism of any group or individual who disagrees with his positions. This all sounds familiar, too.
I’m not trying to invoke Godwin’s Law, here. My goal is never to point fingers, but to identify concerns and present solutions. Here’s the problem I want to raise today. Canada is cycling back to political divisiveness. As economic uncertainty fosters social anxiety and as competing media (both old and new) fight for dramatic headlines to attract an overwhelmed audience, we are putting on blinders to what’s happening beyond our shores. As our politicians attempt to outdo each other with feats of policy muscularity, our vision is becoming clouded with fear and anger.
What’s happening as a result of existing anxieties and political jockeying is that we are falling into a predictable, unfortunate political cycle of contracting tension and explosive release. As we become more insular in our focus, we are confabulating reasons not to look at and address the challenges that surround us.
The Sun asks us, has dictatorship returned to Europe? While it poses the question sarcastically, what if that is actually the case? There are real concerns being expressed not just by Hungarians, but by the EU and the US that Hungary, under the reign of the Fidesz Party, is on the slippery slope towards dictatorship. Power is being increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few; the voices and opportunities for expression of opposition are being suppressed. A noose is slowly closing around the neck of dissent. At the same time, there are questions of state-facilitated racism, labour camps, etc. Beyond Hungary, racism and anti-democratic sentiment is on the rise in Europe, fueled by the Eurozone crisis. The Roma-Sinti are being targeted now just as they have been before.
The Canadian government is not demonstrating any interest in raising concerns over the democratic processes of a foreign government. Doing so doesn’t fit into the theme of “trouble lapping at our shores” as well as Islamic terrorists or the threat of war with Iran do. More to the point – if Stephen Harper were to denounce the slide from democracy in Hungary, how much credibility would he have? He has repeatedly dismissed Canada’s democratic laws and tradition to further his own ideology – he has given Canada a glass roof when it comes to commenting on respect for democracy.
Feeding the Beast
This is where I part company from many detractors of the Harper regime. I’ve no interest in calling Harper a dictator, nor branding his Ministers as racist. Labels like that brand and isolate the problem without doing anything to provide a solution. To me, the Harper team is victim of the same structural flaws that people around the world have twigged on to. That's where our focus needs to be.
Our political system is a zero-sum game; one player’s success can only come at another’s expense. This makes it a survival of the fittest contest. To the victor go the spoils – therefore, the ends justify the means; all else is collateral damage. Under this banner, I have seen Parties of all political stripes embrace wedge-issues they knew were detrimental to the interests of their constituents, eat their own young to strengthen or save the people at the top and ignore the issues that mattered in deference to the issues that had traction.
It’s an exact repetition of what’s happening on the national scale. I don’t see this as coincidence – I believe that the polarization of politics is informing the polarization of the populace in general. Seeking shocking headlines, the media is simply feeding the beast. So long as the worst of the problems are “over there”, we feel we can get away with this. In doing so, we are abdicating our social responsibility to make the world a better place than it was as we found it.
My grandfather is a Holocaust Survivor. Through a tragic twist of fate, he was one of 168 Allied Airmen that ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Having signed up to fight for a cause he believed in – stopping the Nazis – he ended up witnessing first-hand just what mankind is capable of when we make the choice to either ignore or give in to fear and hatred. Another survivor of Buchenwald, Elie Wiesel, drew this lesson from his experience of the Holocaust:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”
I have been to Buchenwald. I have talked to Jewish survivors of the Camp, to political prisoners who survived the Camp and to Sinti-Roma survivors of the Camp. I don’t believe I’ve spoken to homosexual survivors of the Camp – there weren't many gay survivors. I have also talked to the children and grandchildren of these survivors and asked them this question – “what’s it like today?”
The answer is disheartening. Racism is on the rise. Disenfranchisement is on the rise. Suppression is on the rise. There are political challenges happening not just in Hungary, but elsewhere in Europe, too. Of course, the Eurozone is in crisis and more than a few nations (and nationalists) are pointing fingers of blame at each other.
It is wrong for us to willfully ignore the problems of our neighbours, be they across the street or across an ocean. All the justification in the world cannot undo the damage that is done when we turn away from the suffering of others. Sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t isolate us from the problem – instead, it brings it that much closer to home.
We have to care about the state of democracy, here and abroad. We have to speak out with our votes and our words and our dollars against any system or group that would tell us security trumps diversity or that success comes only at the expense of others. It’s our responsibility to let our politicians know we do care – about our political processes here in Canada and about the problems of friends, relatives and even complete strangers abroad in places like Hungary. It means telling the world that Canada wants to be part of the solution, not a contributor to the problem.
This isn’t about tackling insurmountable problems. It’s not about pandering to the weak or interfering in the lives of others. Simply put, it’s about learning from past mistakes so that we don’t relive them. My grandfather, like so many grandfathers and grandmothers, was victimized by the Holocaust, which happened because people around the world - including Canadians - decided what was happening in Nazi Germany was not our problem. People to this very day are being slaughtered, beaten, starved and oppressed – because our inaction lets it happen.
Don’t let our grandfathers’ sacrifices be in vein; don’t force our sons and daughters to relive them.