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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Politics of Indifference: Are We Repeating History?

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:

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.


  1. Wise words. More people need to remember their history.

    What is going on in Canada is nothing new and it scares the hell out of me.

    Traitors are in charge and nobody is being brought to justice.

    1. Sadly, you're right - this has all been done before and it'll be done again. So long as people tell themselves it's okay to be vengeful and petty, we'll keep revisiting this ground.

      Fortunately, there are less vengeful and petty people each subsequent trip around the loop.

  2. I would like to tell you a little about my familys situation. My father came to Canada in 1957 from Hungary after the Revolution. We returned to Hungary and lived there for 4 years in the 1980,s when my grandfather was passing away and I had a chance to experience Communist Hungary first hand. I have to say that in this supposed democracy that has been formed over there, I would feel more afraid now than I ever did in my childhood living there. My cousins have recently decided to not return to Hungary after coming for a visit, they needed to get away because of extreme harrassment and threats on their lives by the Hungarian Guard for participating in demonstrations and trying to spread the word to the Hungarian people about the atrocities occuring there against Roma people. The media is not allowed to report on such abuses, but they are allowed to report false stories about Gypsy crime. The people do not know much of what is actually occuring unless they were direct witnesses themselves and most are afraid to say anything for fear of their families being targeted by the Guarda. The papers and the news reports alot of propoganda inciting hatred towards these people, most of the social, economic problems of the country is being blamed on their presence. People are raised to hate them. Most people of Roma descent living as regular Hungarians are secretive about their anscestry because of the persecution that is taking place.

  3. As is the case with my family directly. My cousin is 18 years old and believes in the right to peaceful assembly and human rights, she never thought that she would be afraid for her life when getting involved. Now she is here, she has never broken a law anywhere and has drawn very little assistance from our government financially, she is already working and paying taxes and speaks quite good english now. She and her boyfriend arrived in October 2011. They both are just barely 18. Since leaving, her mother, aunt and uncle, her boyfriends parents and grandparents have all been harrassed and threatened by Guardist searching for them. These Guardists are a neo nazi paramilitary group, that supposedly have been banned from operating, however, I can tell you that since they have been "banned" in 2009 their membership has more than tripled. My cousin is very afraid to go home, the family is even divided because many of them have either given in to the brainwashing of the governement and will give them up or they are afraid for themselves, so to save themselves they are willing to out the other. It has become a sick state of affairs really. I feel that they are such brave kids and I will do what I can to keep them here in Canada where they are safe but I am not hearing alot of encouragement in the reports on this issue. We are being fast tracked so to speak and they were called for a hearing to take place tomorrow May 16th. We recieved word to prepare their evidence and have it mailed in to the IRB within the same week of recieving a date, we were told that we can do this without a lawyer and that is what we did since we do not have the money to retain one. They recieved a letter on Monday from the IRB stating that their evidence was not submitted properly and it can be considered as abandoning their claims as refugees, so I am not sure what will happen. They came with $500 in their pocket and a little bit of clothing, their initial intention was not to stay, but hoped something would change for them back home while they were away, but reports of the Guardists searching for them and the harrassment and threats placed on their families were significant. I was the one who suggested they try to stay, ask Canada to help, because that is what Canada is all about, we help those in need. My father chose Canada because of our love for everyone around the world and he hoped that if any of his family members ever needed to flee, we would be there welcoming them with open arms. Canada does not seem to be the same place it once was in this regard. I have been seeing alot of anamosity, misconceptions and everyone we talk to about our plight seems to not really care. I know that not everyone who comes here deserves to stay, nor is everyone who comes is an asset to our country, but why does it seem to be okay for criminals to come but the crackdown occurs to the one group who really has never had anyone on their side. The holocaust happened and they rarely are mentioned, the Gypsy hunt actually started long before that and has continued into present day, now our government is participating in it? I appologise for this lengthy comment, but just needed to be heard. Please continue to help bring this issue out and hopefully Canadians will stand up for what is right.

    1. Liz, thank you for sharing your story. I have met many Roma/Sinti survivors and had the pleasure of speaking with Romani Rose in 2010 at Buchenwald. The situation in Europe is getting worse; we cannot turn a blind eye in this hour of need.

      To quote Canadian professionr and former Nazi Adalbert Lallier "I pretended not to have seen, I pretended not to have heard because I didn't want to be responsible." That's what Canada and too many government's around the world are doing.

      Liz, write to Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney; include the press at local and national levels. Tell your story. I am happy to help share it. Only by getting stories like these out there and sharing them with our decision makers can we get action taken before it's too late.

      Thanks again for sharing.