Published in the Toronto Star, February 26, 2014
Never forget: these are charged words for Canada’s ethnic or religious groups when it comes to keeping alive the memory of historical atrocities “back home.” But they’re also charged words, in more problematic ways when they’re used to justify grudge-holding and witch-hunts against individuals or groups who may have said inflammatory things in the past that no longer reflect their present positions. When this plays itself out against the background of global conflicts and ethnic groups within Canada, it opens up divisive and dangerous ground.
A case in point came in late January, when the prime minister’s communications director, Jason Macdonald, called the National Council of Canadian Muslims “an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.” It was a well-worn political tactic: in face of the NCCM’s criticism that a rabbi accompanying the prime minister on his trip to Israel held anti-Muslim sympathies, Macdonald struck back by alleging skeletons in his accusers’ closet. And as the familiar pattern goes, the NCCM struck back in return, holding a press conference to announce its decision to file a notice of libel and demand an apology from the PMO.
What counts as evidence of a group’s beliefs about foreign conflicts, and who counts as authoritative spokespersons of those beliefs, will always be open to dispute.
The most immediately important thing at issue is indeed the question of whether one of Canada’s leading Muslim groups actually has Hamas ties or sympathies. On this score, there is very little evidence to support that claim, and much to refute it. As the NCCM has pointed out , it has repeatedly made public statements against terrorism and condemned specific terrorist groups including Hamas. Various civil society groups have written letters of support attesting that the NCCM’s principles and track record embody Canadian values. The organization has been asked by the federal government to testify before the Supreme Court and major national inquiries, and to advise national security agencies.
True, it is possible for witch-hunters to point to some faint guilt-by-association linkages of NCCM predecessor organization (CAIR-CAN) with past Hamas supporters. But as writer Omer Aziz has noted , those linkages are so distant as to be ludicrous: “it is the equivalent of calling someone a racist today because they knew someone who was racist 20 years ago.”
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Even though this particular skeleton can safely be considered nonexistent, however, it’s worth stepping back to think about how the whole question of skeletons in the closet bears on Canada’s experience with immigration and diversity. One of the often-stated goals of our immigration system is for newcomers to “acculturate” to Canadian values, among them respect for diversity and commitment to peaceful democratic dialogue. These values may take a while to take root fully among communities coming from conflict-torn regions of the world where those values are routinely violated.
That’s why, for example, the federal government and other donors have been eager to support the work of the Mosaic Institute , whose mission is to help Canada’s ethnocultural communities promote peacebuilding here and abroad. Encouraging groups and individuals to move away from advocating violent solutions to homeland conflicts is a tremendous achievement. It’s happening incrementally within various groups within Canada — Sikhs, Muslims, Tamils, Jews and others — often prompted by younger-generation leaders aiming to change their communities from within and reshape them in the eyes of outsiders.
- Natalie Brender, Migrants’ Global Ties Challenge Canada to Make Big-Picture Policy
Still, the transitions aren’t complete or seamless, and past legacies remain. Among those legacies — now more powerful than ever in the age of Google — is the capacity to call up previous incarnations of communal groups and their leaders, from times when they were saying less temperate and less “Canadianized” things about foreign conflicts. As Canada grows more diverse, new arrivals build fledgling communal organizations, while longer-established communities become more politically sophisticated in their views and public messaging. But even while new groups are formed to convey fresh images and messages, the public statements and leaders of older organizations remain in the virtual and paper archives, ready to be hauled out by those hunting for skeletons to display.
What counts as evidence of a group’s beliefs about foreign conflicts, and who counts as authoritative spokespersons of those beliefs, will always be open to dispute. Anyone aiming to discredit Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Tamils or others will always be able to find some archival fodder to display as proof of that group’s lack of proper “Canadian values.” Such “proof” may, in turn, be disputed by those willing to recognize that all groups contain a diversity of opinion about homeland conflicts and religion, and believing in “Canadianization” as a process of value-shaping. The latter will be unlikely to see past skeletons as representing the present and future of any ethnocultural group.
There’s no way around the problem except to have frank public discussions and to keep the realities of communal evolution front and centre. Leadership on this issue from the Prime Minister’s Office — instead of skeleton-rattling vindictiveness aimed at scoring political points — would be a fine place to start.