COLUMN

Canada and the issue of racism

Barbara Amiel May 14 1984
COLUMN

Canada and the issue of racism

Barbara Amiel May 14 1984

Canada and the issue of racism

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

In the autumn of 1938 Hitler was putting into place the events that would lead to the Second World War. The Jewish “problem” was well in hand, and Europe’s Jews were in flight, desperately looking for refuge, knocking at the doors of the Western world.

For them Canada was one goal, a sanctuary. But in Canada, far removed from the brutal truths of Hitler, life moved at a stately pace. Canada was still very much Upper Canada, with British rituals and policy discussed by civil servants over Scotch and water in the large offices inhabited by Ottawa’s mandarins.

It was at this time that the man in charge of Canada’s immigration policy, Frederick Charles Blair, wrote a series of letters. Portions of them are reprinted in the excellent book None Is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, which details Canada’s policy toward the Jews during the Second World War. Blair’s letters may have been an extreme but they were not untypical of a view of the Jews held by a substantial number of Canadians at the time.

Wrote Blair: “Pressure on the part of Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add, after 35 years’ experience here, that it was never so well controlled.” Blair was unhappy about “certain of their habits.” He saw Jews as a pushy people who could “organize their affairs better than other people . . . are utterly selfish in their attempts to force through a permit for

the admission of relatives or friends____

They do not believe that ‘no’ means more than ‘perhaps.’ ”

According to Abella and Troper, that letter reveals Blair as an anti-Semite. They quote from another letter he wrote at the same time. “I suggested recently to three Jewish gentlemen with whom I am well acquainted,” wrote Blair, “that it might be a very good thing if they would ... honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular almost everywhere. If they would divest themselves of certain of their habits, I am sure they could be just as popular in Canada as our Scandinavians.”

The easy explanation for Blair’s attitude is simply to label him a racist, a person who is the anathema of everything we believe in. No doubt there was that in his attitude, but having said

that, is it the whole truth? Is it mere evil, old-fashioned bigotry that contributes to the tensions between groups? And if you outlaw prejudice and re-educate people, will that solve all the problems? In part the answer must be yes.

But to believe that is the whole problem, and re-education and legislation the whole answer, is to be wilfully blind about the entire human experience. Historically speaking, whenever two different cultural, linguistic, religious or national groups were forced together for geographical or geopolitical reasons, the situation has been perilous so long as they maintained their own strong identities. Two weeks ago in Montreal a taxi company wrote letters of dismissal to its 24 Haitian drivers on the grounds that the company was losing business because significant numbers of taxicab users would not tolerate black drivers. It takes only a quick historical look around the world to see the enmity be-

‘Ottawa has created cultural tensions by forcing people under law to disregard the very differences it encourages ’

tween the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium, the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and, in one of the more bizarre outbreaks of hostility, the fight in Africa between the Tutsi and the Hutu of Rwanda, where the Hutu at one point decided to cut the Tutsi down to size, literally, by amputating the legs of the taller Tutsi tribe!

In Canada the government has taken actions that to some of us seem designed or at least destined to create explosive cultural tensions in this country. Our government decided, first, to make Canada a country consisting of as many cultures as possible. Then it decided to include in our immigration quotas large numbers of races and cultures as remote as possible from our founding Anglo-Celtic-French groups. Thirdly, it has embarked on a program to make sure our immigrants maintain their cultural identity and separateness as much as possible forever and a day through the policy of multiculturalism. And fourthly, and most importantly, the government has obliged people under the penalty of law to disregard completely in their daily lives—business

hiring, renting and selling of apartments, etc.—the very differences that it fosters and encourages.

Cultural self-definition is an important part of human identity. For even the most enlightened individual, his linguistic, national and cultural identity, made up of his dress, gestures and behavior as well as a thousand and one tiny habits, are part of his essential being. Saying that a person shares in the national character of a group or country is not evil. Not every individual shares in his group’s identity to the same extent—just as you can say a person is very English or very Jewish, you can say a person is barely Jewish or hardly German at all. That cultural character includes a diversity of talents and gifts, which not all groups share to the same extent. There are fewer Norwegian jazz players than one might statistically expect, fewer Prussian humorists.

Those characteristics are not constant and may change over time and circumstance. The conditions that prevailed in feudal times which relegated Jews, for example, to practising moneylending when the status occupations of the time were the martial arts and agriculture, became a benefit when free enterprise emerged. Whether the Jews had those business characteristics innately or because of the circumstance does not really matter. That is how part of their national character was shaped.

What Frederick Blair did, in part, was to identify certain characteristics that the Jewish national character does have, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. But when he declared that he would not tolerate those characteristics, he was wrong and offensive. The solution to the problems still brewing in Canada among different cultural groups is to be sure not to misidentify the problem as simply one of bigotry. Canada ought never to close its doors to those of different cultures, but should bring them in with some regard for the concepts of gradualness and assimilation, which should not be dirty words. The more distant a culture is from our own Canadian culture, the more gradual the number of people from it you let in at one time. And, most importantly, our government should be promoting the idea of a Canadian identity at least as strongly as it promotes the idea of multiculturalism. That could do more for our new Canadians from distant lands than any coercive legislation will ever achieve.