Jewish community groups say federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s went too far in invoking Canada’s Nazi-era exclusionary immigration policies when he criticized the Harper government’s citizenship swearing in policy.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) called the remark inappropriate and inaccurate, while B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) also chided Trudeau.
His political opponents in the Conservative party weighed in as well, with Defence Minister Jason Kenney calling Trudeau’s comments “outrageous and beyond the pale.”
Trudeau ignited the attacks in a speech to McGill University alumni in Toronto March 9 when he compared Canadian Muslims to the Jews of the 1930s, slamming the Harper government for what he called a policy of exclusion and of sowing fear.
“We should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a ‘none is too many’ immigration policy towards Jews in the ’30s and ’40s being used to raise fears against Muslims today,” he stated.
Later in the speech, Trudeau attacked the Harper government for appealing a court decision that allowed a Muslim woman to wear a face-covering niqab during a citizenship swearing-in ceremony.
Harper said most Canadians would consider it offensive that someone would conceal their identity at the moment they are becoming a citizen.
It is not the business of government to tell women what they can or cannot wear, or to restrict their religious freedom, Trudeau stated in his speech, whose theme was liberty.
“It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.
“We all know what is going on here. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith.
“This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of ‘none is too many.’”
The Komagata Maru incident took place in 1914 when a Japanese ship sailing from India with prospective Asian immigrants was turned away from Vancouver and forced to return.
The SS St. Louis was a ship sailing from Germany in 1939 with 937 refugees fleeing the Nazis. It was refused entry to Canada, the United States and Cuba. It returned to Antwerp, where its passengers disembarked and were taken in by other countries. It’s estimated that 254 passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
“None is too many” refers to a statement by a senior Canadian immigration official in 1945 commenting on the number of Jews that should be allowed into the country.
CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel said that in arguing against racism and prejudice, “Mr. Trudeau invoked a dark chapter in our history when he referenced the ‘none is too many’ policy of the 1930s and 1940s. The comparison is unfortunate, distracting from the important message he was trying to convey. We view this comparison as inaccurate and inappropriate, and we will communicate that sentiment to Mr. Trudeau’s office.
“Canada’s decision to restrict Jewish immigration prior to the Holocaust was the product of an era in which Jews faced extensive social and institutional discrimination in Canada. Jewish Canadians were subject to quotas restricting admission to university programs, as well as outright bans from numerous social clubs and corporations. Signs in public parks went so far as to declare: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’
“In contrast, it is our experience that discrimination today is rightly countered – rather than fostered – by the vast majority of Canadians. This includes discrimination experienced by Muslims who, like all minority groups, unfortunately face a degree of prejudice from some elements of Canadian society. When it comes to racism and bigotry in Canada, there is little to compare between 1939 and 2015.
“In this regard, we note that the government of Canada has appropriately and consistently distinguished between marginal, extreme, terrorist elements of the Muslim community and the broader Muslim community. This distinction is reflected by the more than 300,000 Muslim immigrants who have been welcomed to Canada since 2006, and no less by remarks offered by Defence Minister Jason Kenney supporting the Muslim community as recently as last Saturday.”
In an interview in Maclean’s magazine, Kenney said, “To compare anti-Semitic immigration restrictions during the Holocaust to a request that people take the public citizenship oath publicly demonstrates a grotesque lack of judgment on [Trudeau’s] part.
“The facts profoundly belie everything he said or intimated… This is a government that has maintained the highest immigration levels in our history since coming to office – almost 300,000 Muslims have immigrated to Canada.
“Perhaps Mr. Trudeau has some legitimate difference of opinion on allowing the self-effacement of women when they are doing a public citizenship oath, but to suggest this is reminiscent of anti-Semitism during the Holocaust is bizarre and contemptible.”
B’nai Brith Canada called Trudeau’s comparison of Canada’s current immigration policy to that of the 1940’s “wholly inappropriate.”
“Every year, B’nai Brith Canada hosts a Holocaust remembrance ceremony on Yom Hashoah to commemorate those who perished at the hands of the Nazis – such as the passengers aboard the MS St. Louis who were barred from entering Canada,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “Mr. Trudeau is the latest in a long of politicians who fall into the trap of drawing highly-inappropriately and offensive Nazi-era comparisons by using the term ‘none is too many’ haphazardly.
“Such language is divisive and only does a disservice to Canadians interested in dealing with pressing issues of the day. We must find the balance between freedom and security without resorting to inaccurate historical parallels that have no bearing on reality.
“The threat of radicalization and jihadist terror is real. We must all work together to address that threat while being part of a tolerant and pluralistic society.”
The FSWC also criticized the Liberal leader.
“I am not clear what Trudeau meant to imply by equating the wearing of a niqab during the citizenship oath to the turning back of Jewish refugees and their murder at Auschwitz. However, tossing the Holocaust into a political debate is concerning,” said CEO Avi Benlolo.
“It was a careless metaphor that could easily lead to divisiveness and friction between communities. I encourage Trudeau to be more responsible with his illustrations and avoid comparing the experiences of diverse communities. The focus of our leaders should be to promote inclusivity, human rights, women’s rights and democratic freedoms, and to uphold the values upon which our nation was founded, for which so many Canadians fought and died to preserve.”
However, none of the groups censured remarks by Public Security Minister Stephen Blaney, who on March 10 invoked the Holocaust to support the Conservative government’s proposed anti-terror bill.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee studying the bill, Blaney said “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber, it began with words,” and that the proposed law is needed to protect Canadians from a “jihadist threat.”
Asked by reporters why he referred to the Holocaust, Blaney “gave a rambling answer,” the Toronto Star reported, ending with, “We have to take into account that now the terrorists are targeting everyone. And that’s why we need Bill C-51, to protect Canadians against this general threat by terrorists.”
NDP MP Randall Garrison called Blaney’s Holocaust comparison “overinflated rhetoric” and said “there is no equivalence to anything we’re talking about here today to the Holocaust.” He urged Blaney to retract the remark.
Fogel later defended Blaney's comments, to a point.
"Minister Blaney was speaking to an element of the legislation that focuses on the power of words and referenced Rwanda and the Holocaust in that context. Considering the genocidal statements issued by the Ayatollah calling quite literally for a new Holocaust targeting Jews, and the actions of ISIL along with their pronouncements, any discussion about the rationale for legislation that would address such language and its potential toxic influence is not entirely out of place," Fogel said.
“That said, politicians run an obvious risk when they invoke the Holocaust in policy debates, and we generally think that such references are best avoided as they distract from the issues at hand.”
With files from JTA