Column

Controversy over a delicate matter

Barbara Amiel December 29 1997
Column

Controversy over a delicate matter

Barbara Amiel December 29 1997

Controversy over a delicate matter

Column

Barbara Amiel

Itried to explain the problem to an Israeli friend visiting me in London. The Canadian War Museum is planning a $12-million expansion that will include a Holocaust Gallery. Canadian war veterans don’t like the idea. They think the Holocaust Gallery should be in the Canadian Museum of Civilization—which, by the way, runs the Canadian War Museum. The Israeli looked thoughtful. “So, what’s the real problem?” he asked, having unearthed various agendas when he was a dissident in the Soviet Union.

Our dispute over the Holocaust Gallery is a sad, muddled business that has pitted people of decency on both sides against one another. Ask the museum officials why they are planning the Holocaust Gallery in the War Museum and they will point to the role of Canada’s veterans in fighting the Nazis and liberating Jews.

Ask war veterans why they are opposed to the idea and they will say they are not opposed to a Holocaust memorial, but the Holocaust itself has little to do with Canada’s military history. The truth lies somewhere between. Many veterans don’t trust the people who run our museums. They fear that the Holocaust Gallery may turn out to be an exhibition that, far from celebrating Canada’s war effort in its defeat of Nazism, will deal with other issues such as anti-Semitism in Canada’s immigration policies during the war years and shortly thereafter. They worry that this gallery will be used against the armed forces to suggest, perhaps, that it is the same qualities of patriotism and military spirit they displayed that led to anti-Semitism and the Third Reich.

There is another agenda here. Behind this sorry little tale is a last Mohican stand of Canada’s old left-liberal arts and political establishment, which by now represents just

about no one but its own little clique. Ordinarily, it would make good sense to have the Holocaust Gallery as part of the War Museum. After all, it relates to one of the fundamental reasons why we fight wars against totalitarian regimes. But for years, war veterans have seen a denigration of much that their generation stood for. By now, the very people who risked their lives to actually end Nazism have become identified with some of the injustices and discrimination they fought.

This was pointed out in a recent column by David Frum in The Financial Post. ‘The Second World War generation,” he wrote “has endured the systematic obliteration of every one of the symbols that defined the nationality of the country for which they shouldered arms. Their flag: gone. Their head of state: virtually gone. The armed services themselves: withered, bureaucratized and corrupted.” The CBC documentary The Valour and the Horror seemed only to depict veterans as killers or victims. Air Canada withdrew its offer of $1 million worth of funding to the Canadian

Some veterans fear the exhibit may convey the idea that anti-Semitism is an integral part of Western culture

The fears of the vets are not helped by Adrienne Clarkson, who heads up the Museum of Civilization’s board of directors. Ms. Clarkson is no worse nor better than any of her generation that swallowed holus-bolus the spirit of moral relativism that worries the vets. She belonged to that school of artists and intellectuals who together with prime minister Trudeau were shouting “Viva Castro” even as Cuba’s political prisons were overflowing; or sup-

Warplane Heritage Museum because it wouldn’t drop the term “warplane” from its name. The Museum of Civilization refused to ante up the $20,000 at which the war medals of our own Lt.Col. John McCrae, soldier and author of “In Flanders Fields,” were offered to it, leaving it to a recent immigrant to pay the $400,000 they fetched at auction. (He donated the medals to McCrae House Museum).

ported Canada’s then-Minister of Sports and Culture Iona Campagnolo when she said how marvellous it was to play sports with the totalitarian Soviet Union in the Olympics while boycotting South Africa. This generation now makes up most of our cultural establishment and foreign office. A current preoccupation is re-evaluating Western culture from the point of view that it is fundamentally racist. People who hold such views are likely to be less concerned with celebrating the achievements of our armed forces during the war than with unearthing the unsavory aspects of Canadian politics in that period. And there were unsavory aspects in Canada’s immigration policies towards Jews fleeing Hitler. But unpleasant as such policies were, they have nothing to do with veterans who volunteered to risk their lives and fight the Third Reich.

No doubt most veterans never gave a moment’s thought to saving European Jews from annihilation when they went off to fight Hitler. No one knew about his plans for genocide against Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and the mentally defective. Canada’s vets went to fight a regime that was nevertheless the enemy of every group in the world that cherished fundamental principles of liberty and justice.

That was the big picture and the Holocaust, though a central and very painful part of the war, was only one aspect of it. This, then, is why veterans worry that the Holocaust exhibit will somehow turn into a gallery that manages to convey the notion that anti-Semitism is a deep-seated part of the fabric of all Western cultures in general and of Canada’s in particular. Minimally, if the Holocaust wing is to be built as a part of the War Museum, the people put in charge of running it need remember that its main purpose is to commemorate the efforts Canada made to rid the world of anti-Semitism as a general concept. Unless that is the vision of the organizers, then the veterans who are against the placement of this exhibition at the War Museum will have turned out to be right in all their fears.