Jews and aboriginals make a powerful team

Bernie Farber

Jews get it. We understand bigotry and discrimination. More sadly, we understand how otherwise civilized people and nations can target the most vulnerable amongst us.  We also know what it means to be a stranger in a place you call home while simultaneously having a visceral appreciation of what it means to be an aboriginal person. As Irwin Cotler is fond of saying “Jews were the aboriginal people of Israel.”

Our history is one fraught with all of these elements; exile, inquisitions, pogroms and ultimately even genocide. It’s for all of these reasons that we of all people should also embrace the plight of Canada’s First Nations people.

Yet since immigrating to this country over the last 100-odd years our connection to Canada’s aboriginal people has been limited at best. 

Don’t get me wrong; from time to time there have been intersections. In the late 1980s during the ascendancy of neo-Nazi groups in Canada like the Heritage Front, we found ourselves thrown together to deal with a common enemy. The late Rodney Bobiwash was an anti-racist worker with Toronto’s Native Canadian Centre during that time. Together with Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) we confronted bigots like the now deceased Wolfgang Droege, exiled Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and others as they threatened and targeted both our communities.

And philanthropists Larry Tanenbaum as well as Michael Dan (with whom I work) have been very generous in their outreach to First Nations in Canada. However, for the most part especially in the past, our paths rarely crossed.

Two significant events changed the dynamics at the turn of the 21st century. Former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chief and community elder David Ahenakew’s unprovoked verbal attack against Jews told us that we needed to work towards a better understanding. This led to the first ever First Nations /Jewish community mission to Israel as a means by which to share our stories and histories.

Led by CJC and the AFN, it saw 18 First Nations chiefs and elders participate in a first ever visit to the State of Israel. We learned together of our common tragedies while visiting Yad Vashem where we shared stories of the Shoah and residential schools. We felt each other’s pain in the wiping out of generations, the loss of culture and the failed attempts to destroy our traditions.

We have a long way to go. Happily, today’s generation of young Jews have found ways to reach out to Canada’s First Nations. Recently I participated in a Justice Shabbat that brought together a number of synagogues and temples with First Nations advocates to engage in a discussion of our commonalities.

Young Jewish activists and consultants work with First Nations using both their acumen and cultural history to connect. Folks like Steven Strauss and Jon Telch, young Jewish government consultants with a wealth of contacts between the two of them work closely with First Nations reserves and organizations. 

Steve has been working in the aboriginal space for five years. He began working at a Toronto-based boutique government relations firm, where he predominately represented First Nations communities and organizations in Ontario. Only 18 short months ago, Steve decided he would start his own firm, Steven A. Strauss & Associates Inc.

Jon Telch joined Steve in June 2014. Jon has worked for a federal member of parliament, tasked mainly with policy research and speech writing. After a stint in politics Jon moved to London, England where he earned a master of science in politics and international relations. Jon has always been active as a community advocate, and currently sits on the board of the Jewish Refugee Action Network and as the political consultant to a campaign to end child poverty.

Steve and Jon are able to marry their skills, education and passion for community advocacy into assisting First Nations. With their added Jewish soul, their work with Aboriginal Canadians is a partnership fuelled by an added knowledge of the importance of history and spirituality.