A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada
The story of the S.S. St. Louis is well known in history, and immortalized in the movie The Voyage of the Damned. For those who need a refresher, the S.S. St. Louis was a Jewish refugee ship that set sail May 27, 1939, with 938 Jews from Germany headed for Cuba. (1) The short version is that it was turned away, not only by Cuba but also by the United States and Canada. As a result the ship was forced to take the refugees back to Germany, where many died in concentration camps. It has always been a black mark in our history.
And yet we now poised to repeat history with our government's handling of the Tamil Refugees. Through clever PR and hyperbole, these refugees are being painted as 'terrorists', and Stephen Harper has taken it one step further, by putting "pressure" on oppressive regimes, to make sure that victims of these regimes, never escape again. AKA: we support your oppressive regime and please do what you have to do. Just don't send them here.
Michael Ignatieff has said that "We [Canada] must always be a haven in a heartless world." Jack Layton called their plight "... a symptom of the continued humanitarian suffering in Sri Lanka."
While Stephen Harper "described the vessel as "abnormal", claimed that it created security concerns and warned that he could seek a change in the law to deal with similar arrivals. Canada's public safety minister, Vic Toews, said that it could contain members of the Tamil Tigers and that it was a "test ship ... part of a broader organised criminal enterprise". (1)
And a member of Jason Kenney's Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Maureen Bader, asked "... Do human rights advocates, clerics, and "progressives" really think that our lifeboat [Canada] can be infinitely accommodating? Do they even know that we are living in a lifeboat? ... Since several voices have spoken on behalf of the Canadian taxpayer and the need for public security, let me presume to speak on behalf of Mother Nature. She doesn't distinguish between refugees and migrants. She doesn't notice if they are legitimate or illegitimate, or whether they are skilled or unskilled. She doesn't really care if they will assimilate into our culture or remain apart. Nor does their fiscal burden impress her, or their crime rate, for that matter..."
She is citing potential ecological damage, but speaking for Mother Nature? What a load of crap. Jason Kenney must be so proud.
Canada is a big country. No one is saying that we need to simply allow all refugees to land without proper screening, but to suggest that all claims must be made and processed overseas, means certain death for many. And to paint them all as "terrorists" or threats to national security, sounds more like xenophobia , and has no place in a democratic and multicultural country.
The Voyage of the Damned
On the surface, it appeared that the Nazis were trying to be fair, and allow the Jewish population, at least those who could afford it, to leave. But there were other things at play here.
For one thing, it provided an opportunity for profiteers.
The cost of this trip was exorbitant; most Jews could not afford it. Almost all of them had lost their jobs. The Nazis had forced them to pay steep rents for their homes or apartments. Relatives from outside Germany, in some cases, had sent them money. Several families had to pool their resources so that just one member of the family could leave, thus rupturing family units. Each person was permitted to take the maximum equivalent of $4.00 in cash upon leaving. (3)And to top it off, visas had to be purchased from a corrupt Cuban government, who told the refugees that they would be processed in Cuba first, and then would be welcome into the United States.
But it was a set-up.
Even before they set sail, it was apparent that they would not be welcomed. "The U.S. State Department in Washington, the U.S. consulate in Havana, some Jewish organizations, and refugee agencies were all aware of the situation. The passengers themselves were not informed ..." (1)
And the reason for this, was that Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, saw it as a perfect opportunity to embarrass other nations who had been vocal about Germany's persecution of the Jews.
The voyage of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees. Indeed, the passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government. The Director-General of the Cuban immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, had come under a great deal of public scrutiny for the illegal sale of landing certificates. (1)But there was also a populist movement in Cuba against accepting these refugees. "Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations." and "Hostility toward immigrants fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia." (1)
And with the help of right-wing media:
Reports about the impending voyage fueled a large antisemitic demonstration in Havana on May 8, five days before the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg. The rally, the largest antisemitic demonstration in Cuban history, had been sponsored by Grau San Martin, a former Cuban president. Grau spokesman Primitivo Rodriguez urged Cubans to "fight the Jews until the last one is driven out." The demonstration drew 40,000 spectators. Thousands more listened on the radio. (1)So to recap: Profiteers profited. Governments used it for propaganda. Right-wing groups engaged in xenophobia. Right-wing media inspired demonstrations. And despite all of this, those refugees were still refugees and their claims of persecution valid, as later proven when the horrible news of the Holocaust was echoed around the world.
And yet this week, when a brave soul, Rob McKinnon, President or the Port Moody–Westwood–Port Coquitlam Federal Liberal Association, suggested that the actions of the Harper government were "akin to collaborating with the Nazis to stop the flight of Jews", the media went nuts. Dimitri Soudas went on one of his usual insane rants, and they followed him around with glazed eyes and open mouths.
But as Mr. McKinnon pointed out:
...while Canada supports the UN Declaration on Human Rights that provides that everyone has a right to seek in another country asylum from persecution, as well as conventions that clarify our obligations in such matters, it turns out that if refugees don’t reach our territory we don’t have to do anything. So they propose to stop on the high seas vessels carrying such persecuted souls, and turn them back well before they get to Canadian waters; if we build the wall high enough, and make it impossible for refugees to actually get here, we can bask in our warm pious glow and never have to actually face them. (4)We, as a nation, should be both alarmed and ashamed.
Taking the Moral High Ground
If you want to draw a modern parallel, look at Glen Beck and his Tea Parties. It's not too difficult to see him as a Grau San Martin urging Cubans to "fight the Jews until the last one is driven out." His demonstrations attract thousands, but the issue is now Muslims, women, blacks and Liberals. And in the same way that our media went after Mr. McKinnon, Beck's Fox News* attacks anyone with dissenting views. Facts are optional.
But we also have to take a look at ourselves. As Mr. Mckinnon says, "we can bask in our warm pious glow and never have to actually face them."
In 2008 the Harper government acknowledged our complicity in the St. Louis incident, which was a good thing.
This past week, the government of Canada made a series of important announcements, acknowledging errors of past governments and providing resources to commemorate these blights on Canadian history. Along with an announcement of funds for an educational program related to the St. Louis, recognition was also given to the Komagata Maru ship incident, where more than 350 potential immigrants from India were denied entry into Canada in 1914. (5)However, you can't apologize for past mistakes, and then continue to make them. This feel good, "pious" act is only candy coating for our new draconian immigration policies. We have to prevent further holocausts, not be seen as promoting or accepting them.
At about the same time as the S.S. St. Louis incident, there was a letter to the editor of Time magazine, chastising the the way that the Nazis treated their refugees. It was from a passenger who had travelled on the Caribia, another Hamburg-American liner. And he says:
It is one of the most exasperating and humiliating things that can happen to a human being in the world today—to travel on a German ship loaded with Jewish refugees. ... At first, you find yourself enraged at the Germans for being so inhuman but gradually you take a deeper and more abstract view of the situation and, while you develop a sense of shame for the Germans, you come to suspect that their treatment of the refugees is just another indication of a reappearance in Germany of that peculiar quality which in the end will always bring defeat on the German nation. . . .That same American soil that segregated it's blacks, and afforded few rights to African Americans. "No blacks allowed" ... "Blacks to the back of the bus". Those were familiar signs in Mr. Caldwell's America, but he could take the moral high ground because he defended the Jewish refugees. Prejudice is prejudice, and while he himself may not have harboured bigotry, what's that they say about people who live in glass houses? Or a segregated America?
... The lines between the Germans and the Jews and between the Germans and all other foreigners on board were drawn long before I got on in Curaçao. By the time I got on, the ship had divided into two groups with the Germans by themselves and all others on board—English, a few Americans, a few Irish, Venezuelans, Colombians, etc., all siding with the Jews. . . .
The Hitlerites would not swim in the pool with the Jews. . . . The Germans ate their meals in solitary Nordic splendor—all by themselves. . . . The Germans were angered beyond measure when we went ashore with the Jews at Cartagena and Puerto Colombia. . . . I never was so glad as I was this morning to put foot on American soil. (6)
A similar situation, that was even more grave, also proves this point. In his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, tells the story of Captain Wolfgang Hoffman. Hoffman was not a member of the SS, but an ordinary citizen; the commander of a Police Battalion, given the task of executing Jews in Poland.
But when the commander was presented with forms that he must have his men sign, promising that they would not steal from the state, Hoffman fired back with righteous indignation:
" it appeared to me a piece of impertinence to demand of a decent German soldier to sign a declaration in which he obligates himself not to steal, not to plunder, and not to buy without paying. . . ." He continued by describing how unnecessary such a demand was, since his men, of proper ideological conviction, were fully aware that such activities were punishable offenses. He also pronounced to his superiors his judgment of his men's character and actions, including, presumably, their slaughtering of Jews. He wrote that his men's adherence to German norms of morality and conduct "derives from their own free will and is not caused by a craving for advantages or fear of punishment." (7)He took a stand in protecting the honour of his men. The same men whose duty was the senseless slaughter of human beings. Not in self defense. Not as justice for crimes. But for the simple sin of being Jewish.
In the Bible study of the St. Louis incident (3), that I quoted, there is an interesting assumption made by the author.
The S.S. St. Louis incident also underscores the constant need for a strong and secure Israel. Had there been an Israel during the years of the Holocaust, not only would the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis, but thousands, if not millions, of the victims of Treblinka, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other death camps could have found a place to begin their lives anew. Regardless of our views of some of Israel’s policies, we must acknowledge that it is the only country in the world that will admit an unlimited number of Jews living under duress at all times. (3)But they are wrong. Prejudice against Jews was not confined to non-Jews. According to the James Shasha Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:
"Vomited them out"? Again, prejudice is prejudice. Xenophobia is xenophobia. No one can take the moral high ground unless they earn it.
Some 90,000 German Jewish immigrants came to Palestine in the 1930s, particularly in 1933 after Hitler’s rise to power. Their impact was felt in almost every sphere of life in the country – academic, social, cultural, industrial, judicial, medical, agricultural and architectural. This was not another immigration of young pioneers, but of people in their 30s or older, who already had established professions, such as, physicians lawyers, merchants, economists, theatre professionals, musicians and artists.Much has been written of the painful absorption process of the German Jews into the local society.
There was a huge clash between these migrants, whose nature was seen as foreign, and the absorbing element, the Eastern European Jews – established, patronizing and holding key positions in the community. For example, Eliezer Yafe, a leading figure in the Labor Movement, wrote: "There is a great danger to the community from the Hitler Zionists, after their Vaterland vomited them out. Is it not possible that they will wish to have their own German schools, a German hospital?"
When Canada turned away the St. Louis, we had an arch anti-Semite as Minister of Immigration, by the name of Frederick Charles Blair. And his opposition to the Jews was based on ignorance.
“I suggested recently to three Jewish gentlemen with whom I am well acquainted, but it might be a very good thing if they would call a conference and have a day of humiliation and prayer, which might profitably be extended for a week or more, where they would honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular almost everywhere...I often think that instead of persecution it would be far better if we more often told them frankly why many of them are unpopular. If they would divest themselves of certain of their habits I am sure they could be just as popular in Canada as our Scandinavian friends are.” (9)This was not unlike what William Aberhart said on the matter:
Personally, I have little doubt that in working through Jews, the Jewish financial group has sacrificed its own people on the altar of its greed for power and this group is preeminently responsible for the poisonous anti-Semitism which is rampant in the world today. (10)Or in a report prepared by Ernest Manning tying Communism with Judaism:
If international finance and socialism are travelling in the same direction is it possible that socialism is promoted by the money power to hasten the completion of their plot for world domination? Not only is it possible, but there is a fund of evidence which leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is a plot, worldwide in scope, deliberately engineered by a small number of ruthless international financiers. (10)It was their own fault. They just needed to be sat down and have the whole thing explained to them. Maybe a day of humiliation and prayer would make them see the light.
What Kind of Country Do We Want to Live In?
That question was asked recently in a column about the closing of Canada's Prison Farms, but it relates to many of the changes made to the Canadian identity, since Stephen Harper and his Reform Movement took power.
Do we want to be "a haven in a heartless world" as Michael Ignatieff suggests and see the symptoms "of the continued humanitarian suffering in Sri Lanka" as Jack Layton reminds us. Or will we simply "bask in our warm pious glow" as feared by Rob Mckinnon?
We have pulled ourselves, for the most part, out of the darkness of anti-Semitism, but now risk jumping head first into the perils of bigotry against others, based on the fear of "strangers". This is the kind of fear that prompts a Florida minister to consider burning the Quran. And it is the kind of fear that prompts right-wing groups, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to suggest that taking in refugees is a threat to Mother Nauture. (I'm sorry, but that's just nuts).
And it's the same fear that prompts Stephen Harper to tell oppressive regimes to sort out their own "mess" and not send it here. Canadians should not have to be "bothered" with this.
Forget that Sri Lanka is quickly become a "white van" culture, where the police and other government agents engage in intimidation and unwarranted arrests**. Where corruption and police brutality have become the norm. (11) And that Reporters Without Borders have ranked Sri Lanka 165th among 173 countries in its annual worldwide press freedom index***. Or that Human Rights Watch**** research alleged that the Sri Lankan government is responsible for widespread abductions. (Wikipedia)
Instead Vic Toews is focusing on the criminal act of selling passports to legitimate refugees, as the main problem, and not the fact that they are "legitimate refugees." That we have to listen to their stories, and not as Stephen Harper suggests, leave it to the government with the "white vans" to sort out the problem.
The refugees aboard the St. Louis bought their freedom. But by not listening, and assuming the worst, we sent them to their deaths.
Is this really your Canada? Is this really how you want to be defined?
We need to listen to the Rob McKinnon's of this country and ignore the Dimitri Soudases, and the Vic Toews and the Stephen Harpers and the Maureen Baders.
And we need to listen to the Tamil Refugees. Our identity as a fair and compassionate people depends on it.
Something else to think about. The following Nazi poster depicts the heroes of the French resistance as members of an Army of Crime. Something to think about.
*Canada may soon have out own Glen Beck in Kory Teneycke and Fox News North.
** G-20 anyone? Witch Hunts Anyone?
*** Accurate News and Information anyone?
**** Amnesty International report anyone?
1. Voyage of the St. Louis, Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Museum
2. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees spark racism row in Canada: Government accused of scaremongering after prime minister claims 500 asylum seekers aboard boat a security concern, By Duncan Campbell, UK Guardian, September 7, 2010
3. The S.S. St. Louis, Bible Study, No. 148
4. An Evasion of Duty, By Ron McKinnon, Discourse, September 8, 20105. Voyage of the SS St. Louis: Journey toward a better future: Canadian government points the way forward by commemorating blights on our history, By: Bernie Farber, Toronto Star, May 27, 2008
6. Letters, Apr. 24, 1939, By: Ben Caldwell, Time Magazine
7. Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Vintage Books, 1997, ISBN: 0-679-44695-8, Pg 3-4
8. The Migration Experience as Expressed in the Arts, James Shasha Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, June 4 – 8, 2006
9. A Look Back at Canada’s Anti-Semitic History: Frederick Charles Blair, Fight Hatred, March 22, 2010
10. A Trust Betrayed: The Keegstra Affair, By David Bercuson and Douglas Wertheimer, Doubleday Canada, 1985, ISBN: 0-385-25003-7, Pg. 34-38
11. The Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan State, by Ashik Bonofer & David Morgan, South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No. 3786, April 29, 2010
Guest Column by Ashik Bonofer & David Morgan