Whether the genocide was occurring in South Sudan, Rwanda or Darfur, Jews owed a special duty to speak out – at the least.
Dr. Norman Epstein felt strongly about this.
“Jews must continue to be the canary in the coal mine whenever the nefarious prospect of genocide rears its ugly head,” Epstein wrote in The CJN in 2017. “The Jewish community did so during the Darfur genocide, and we must heed the call once more and marshal our resources.”
The “once more” Epstein referred to were events in the still nascent country of South Sudan, where political and tribal turmoil was spiraling into another African bloodbath.
Gross atrocities had occurred in the nation that had been independent only since
2011: Rape, murder, torture. The country was littered with mass graves, and a civil war had triggered famine. There were even cases in which people were trying to buy back family members from slavery.
“Feckless” UN peacekeepers had to be augmented to protect vulnerable civilians.
Peace talks must recommence in earnest. Arms embargoes and economic sanctions against South Sudanese leaders must be attempted.
The country’s plight exasperated Epstein, as did the media’s ignoring of it. He did his best to keep events in the spotlight. Epstein “has been talking about Sudan to anyone willing to listen,” noted a magazine profile in 2006 – years before South Sudan was even born.
And even before that, in 2001, he co-founded Canadians Against Slavery and
Torture in Sudan with Dr. Acol Dor, a Sudanese woman who had witnessed atrocities first-hand. The organization raised awareness about the violence in the region and served as a platform for advocacy.
When the genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region emerged before that, he was instrumental in forming a Canadian coalition to deal with that calamity.
But Africa was “a forgotten continent,” he once rued, hamstrung by Western politics of oil and arms sales – and indifference.
All this fierce advocacy for social justice and international human rights nearly threatened to eclipse Epstein’s day job as an emergency doctor at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., a position he held from 1993 until a few days before his unexpected death from a heart attack on March 4. He was 62.
A recent online tribute attended by about 150 friends, family and colleagues painted a picture of a caring, hardworking and beloved doctor, but also as “Stormin’ Norman” – the man so discomfited by outrages in foreign lands.
“He believed the most important pursuit in life is attaching to something bigger than yourself,” stated his death notice. “He believed in strong character (emphasized through his repeated phrase, ‘what a character!’) and fought to make the world a better place.”
He was the first of three children born in the small but tight-knit Jewish community of Cape Breton, N.S. on March 10, 1958 to Eleanor and Murray (Buddy) Epstein, a well-known local dentist.
The family, recalled Norman’s brother Brian, wasn’t particularly religious. Shabbat dinners were held, and at Passover seders, “there were more laughs than prayers.”
Norman was a well-rounded student and was his high school graduating class’s valedictorian, Brian said.
Norman graduated from Dalhousie University in 1979 with a bachelor of science degree and from the University of Ottawa’s medical school in the mid-1980s.
It was not just Africa he focused on. Epstein was a key advocate in forming legislation to prevent Canada’s complicity in forced organ harvesting in China that mainly targeted the Falun Gong, Uyghur and other vulnerable communities. He also chaired a student movement called STANCE – Students Taking Action Now against China’s Extreme crimes.
Here at home, he co-chaired Physicians and Paramedics Urging Life Saving Education (PULSE), a non-profit that seeks to dramatically increase the number of citizens trained in lifesaving. He was also a regular volunteer at an Out of the Cold program, serving dinner to the homeless.
He spoke to young people often at universities and high schools. If an “old man” like him can make a difference, so can students. “You’re all good people,” he said at one talk in 2005. “But good people can’t be apathetic.”
He is survived by his wife, Iris; children Maor and Chantelle; his mother, Eleanor; his brother, Brian; and sister, Arlene.