My Shame and the Shameless Racist

An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.

Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.

The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.

He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?

A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.

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He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.

The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.

There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.

We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.

History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.

I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html

 

 

Embers: Warnings Offered by Our Anti-Semitic Past

On a cool April 16, 1933, ball players warmed up at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. Like nearly everything else in the city, the teams were ethnically segregated and so a Jewish team faced an Anglo-Saxon opponent. A Nazi flag was unfurled and anti-Semitic abuse was screamed. The chanting young men left, pausing only to paint a swastika on a park building. Two nights later the Jewish team was back and so were the angry young men. As the flag returned and taunts began, a scuffle ensued. Cars filled with supporters of both sides screamed to the scene. Pipes and bats were swung. Bones and teeth were smashed. Blood flowed as an hours-long riot spilled into the streets.

Newspapers suggested that the Jewish community was to blame for what they dubbed the Christie Pitts Riot. Editorials insisted it was an aberration and that anti-Semitism did not exist. City council promised to address Toronto’s many Swastika Clubs. But nothing was done. To deny a cancer is to allow its growth or a lanced tumour to return.

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Canadian anti-Semitism is a long, sad tale. It began with Esther Brandeau. She had disguised herself as a man to secure passage on a ship but her identity was revealed in 1738 upon her arrival in Quebec. The deception was fine but her Jewishness was not. According to the French and Quebec law, she was banished. The British Conquest changed the laws but not mindsets. A Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was elected to represent Trois-Rivières in Lower Canada’s legislative assembly. He was ejected with a resolution stating, “Anyone professing the Jewish religion cannot take a seat nor sit nor vote in the House.”

Canada’s prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, perhaps believing he was being liberal in his attitude rather than perpetuating a stereotype, said, “A sprinkling of Jews in the North-West would be good. They would at once go in for peddling and politiciking, and he is of as much use in the new country as cheap jacks and chapman.” Goldwin Smith, the influential public intellectual who was among the founders of Canadian liberalism, wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles advocating the deportation of Jews. He wrote, “Few greater calamities perhaps have ever befallen mankind than the transportation of the negro and the dispersion of the Jew.” Clifford Douglas advocated a Jewish-free Canada in Social Credit, the book that led to the creation of the Social Credit Party that formed Alberta’s government. Henri Bourassa, the father of Quebec nationalism, stated, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people a country can have…they are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” While he later renounced racism, Quebec’s powerful Abbé Lionel Adolphe Groulx never did. The widely-read periodicals he edited and sermons he influenced were virulently anti-Semitic and bathed a generation of Quebec Catholics in a racist cauldron.

With the sanctioning of Canada’s elites, it is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism weaved itself into society’s fabric. Many universities restricted Jewish enrollment or banned Jewish entry into certain programs. A Quebec program called achat chez nous promoted the boycotting of Jewish businesses. Golf and other private clubs banned Jewish membership. Signs proclaiming “No Jews Allowed” were seen at many beaches, hotels, parks, and restaurants across Canada.

In July 1939, 917 German Jews aboard St. Louis sought refuge in Canada after being denied sanctuary elsewhere. In cabinet and House debates, it was explained that if turned away they would end up back at Hitler’s mercy. They were turned away. Deputy Minister of Immigration Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish people Canada should accept. He replied, “None is too many.” The ship left. Over two hundred people that we could have saved perished in the gas chambers. Hitler’s Holocaust was the shrinking of the sentence: You cannot live among us as Jews. You cannot live among us. You cannot live. We were participants in the shrinking sentence and withering humanity.

Canadians should feel proud of promoting not just tolerance but the acceptance and celebration of differences. But we need vigilance. Those who fan hatred’s embers are among us now, speaking of immigration restrictions and Canadian values tests. They are speaking in code at the moment but as Mr. Trump has demonstrated, it is a short step from code to clarity and far too easy to spark racist embers to flames.

Let us beware of the future by being aware of the past. Let it serve as warning and invitation to reject those who promote a return to a dark version of ourselves that deserves to remain in the past and never, ever return.

If you found this column of value, please share it with others. I tell a fuller story of Canadian anti-Semitism in Last Step to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, available online through Chapters-Indigo and Amazon. https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html?ikwid=john+boyko&ikwsec=Books&ikwidx=5