On Oct. 16, 2023, Deborah Lyons was officially named Canada’s new special envoy on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism. She took over from the inaugural envoy, Irwin Cotler, at a time when Jews in Canada are facing frightening waves of antisemitism on the streets of this country, stemming from Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war.
Lyons, 73, is not Jewish herself but has deep ties to Israel, and to the Canadian Jewish community, having served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2016–2020.
She calls what is happening in this country “a moment of crisis” that calls for numerous societal changes. And to oversee that, she needs more staff. Right now she has one senior civil servant to help her.
Marking her first month on the job, Lyons joins The CJN Daily host Ellin Bessner to explain what she is doing on the ground to help make Canada’s Jewish community feel safer.
What we talked about
- Learn more about Lyons’s recent appointment as Canada’s special Envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, in The CJN
- Read about Deborah Lyons’s appointment as Canada’s ambassador to Israel in The CJN, from 2016
- Hear Lyons’s tribute to the slain Canadian-Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver on The CJN Daily
The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here.
The CJN Daily: Your strategy, since being appointed, was to not do media interviews, but instead to reach out and do basically a listening tour of the Jewish community in Canada. What made you decide that was the appropriate startup for your tenure?
Deborah Lyons: Well, of course I started the week following October 7th. So that was an incredibly painful time for Canadians, particularly a painful time for our Jewish community. And it was a very heated time. It was a very confusing time. It was a time filled with a great deal of anxiety as well.
And for me, the most important goal in front of me was to be with the community, was to hear from people as to how they’re feeling, the pain, the suffering that people were experiencing, and their fear and anxiety. And I really needed to, I felt, get very close to that, not just through [using ZOOM or] technology, but actually face-to-face in meetings with people. (And I can tell you there were a fair number of meetings where we were crying together.)
Then, [we wanted to] take the input from the community to make sure that the direction that our office was going to be taking fit for this critical crisis that we’re in right now. And I wanted to do that first before I got out and did a lot of media, either with you or any media. And even social media: I didn’t start up until two weeks into the job.
The CJN Daily: I appreciate that. You said people were crying. Could you remember one or two of the most poignant meetings that still stay with you now?
Lyons: Certainly, the most poignant of course would have been the meeting with the families of the hostages and the prime minister and some of our Canadian colleagues. I recall the prime minister did a magnificent job of responding to the families. When I began to respond, of course I started crying. But I continued talking and I talked through my tears. And I think in a sense that the families appreciated it because I think people want to know that their pain is felt and even understood by others. So that was particularly poignant, hearing their stories about their loved ones and the missing and agony that they were going through.
I think also just going across Canada, Eliln, and talking to parents and hearing from them how concerned they are about the safety and security of their kids, whether those kids are in university or the kids are going off to high school or the kids are going off to Jewish day school. I think hearing from parents across Canada that they don’t feel that their children are safe in this magnificent country of ours, I find that incredibly disturbing, incredibly upsetting.
This is not the kind of Canada that we’ve been building all these many decades. We’ve got to make sure that we take stock of where we are right now and do what needs to be done to get us… Well, I don’t even know if I’d say get us back. I would say move us forward, to a better place.
The CJN Daily: Look, you know, you said that this is the Canada that we want to be. Two years ago, your predecessor, Professor Irwin Cotler, chaired an urgent national task force on antisemitism in July of 2021. And even then, he said that it was “a toxic canary in the coal mine” and all the usual things that he likes to talk about when he talks about antisemitism, the spike. And now here we are, two years later, and the red line is even higher. “The worst people have seen since the Holocaust” is what people are calling it. So, what didn’t work? Why is it like this now?
Lyons: Well, I don’t know if I have the full analysis on that, but I would say that from the government perspective, in terms of what Irwin said and what we’ve done since, is we have managed now finally to get support from the federal government for this office. We’ve got funding in place to ensure that we have got a good team of people working on this issue and going across Canada, working with all levels of society on this issue.
I think there’s been movement on a number of other fronts. The government is soon going to be launching an online harm, hate speech legislation that they’ll be bringing forward.
The CJN Daily: That they’ve tried to do for the last four years.
The CJN Daily: And it hasn’t gone forward yet. They’ve had a lot of challenges.
Lyons: Yes. Rest assured, it’ll be happening in the coming months and it will take time to debate it and so forth, but it needs to be there. And the government’s been working hard on that.
I think that there are things that have been happening inside of government. We’ve seen provincial governments moving as well. We saw the Ontario Minister of Education move to mandatory education on Holocaust education,
The CJN Daily: Alberta as well, B.C. as well.
Lyons: And B.C. And I think we’re going to see it in other provinces.
I want to talk for a minute about what happened, what was happening outside. I don’t know why we continue to see an increase in antisemitism in Canada, you know, in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. Before October 7th, we were seeing a consistent increase. I think it might have something to do with the intensity of the environment right now for everything, the cost of living, the frustration coming out of COVID, whatever it might be. Often, sadly, we see during a time of strain in a society that hate speech does rise, that this kind of frustration in society reflects itself and manifests itself in many ways. And unfortunately, one of the ways is in a rise in antisemitism. And believe you me, that’s part of what we’re going to be studying and examining, and we’re going to be combating as we move forward and steadily make our way out of the crisis we’re in right now.
The CJN Daily: Okay, let’s unpack a couple of things you talked about. First of all, you talked about the data and statistics. One of the things I read that you want to do is collect data to see what really is happening, mainly on campuses, but also in Canada. How different is that data going to be than what B’nai Brith does already, or, for example, the police forces that report every year from Statistics Canada?
Lyons: Certainly, we’re going to work with B’nai Brith, and the good work that they’ve already done. And we will be working with the police forces and working with the Center on Hate Speech and Hate Crimes at Statistics Canada that is documenting a lot of this.
I think we need more consistency in reporting. I think we need to do more work with communities across Canada to ensure that people understand that they can report these incidents and that those incidents will go to a repository that we will be using to analyze what’s actually happening in the country. I don’t think that the data that we’re getting now is giving us a fulsome enough picture of what’s really happening.
So, we’ve got to be encouraging people to report. And we’ve got to be making sure that the methodologies that are being used and the interpretation is there and that what we’ve got is a much deeper and more comprehensive picture of what’s really happening in the country. And I think it’s critical that we do that.
I think there are people, not since October 7th, but perhaps before October 7th, who actually might think that anti-Semitism is not an issue in Canada at all. Does it happen in good, wonderful Canada? I mean, you know, we’re an open society and so forth. I think we have to make sure that we are reflecting the true picture of what’s going on and there is no better way to do it than with data, than with the numbers.
The CJN Daily: So, the 2,900 cases of hate incidents directed at Jews in Canada, for example, in the past year that B’nai Brith found, are you saying it’s not a complete enough picture, or it’s just not scientifically defensible enough that you can use it as an unassailable number, or maybe some other interpretation of why that’s not it.
Lyons: I think B’nai Brith has done a great job in focusing on this, and they’re an organization that everybody depends on to do this. I don’t think that it’s comprehensive enough or complete enough. And I think that they would admit it as well. I’m hoping that what we’re just going to be able to do is enhance their work and ensure that we’re well connected to others who are gathering this data. The police forces will tell you the same thing. In some cases, it’s hard to get people to report the incident because they don’t think that anything is going to be done with the data. I think it’s important that we get a much more accurate reflection, and particularly, particularly in this moment. Now you mentioned universities. Let me just quickly say that in the conversations I’ve had with the Hillel students, and I have conversations with every city that I go to, they themselves are saying that they are trying to encourage their colleagues to make sure that they’re reporting the incidents on campus.
I was with a university president last night. He said the same thing. We need to have a better understanding of what’s happening on the campuses, and we need to have better reporting and data collection.
The CJN Daily: So how will data help Jewish people feel safer now?
Lyons: What’s happening at the moment needs its own response. What I’m talking about with data collection is we want to have that so that ongoing we’re able to interpret exactly what’s happening in Canada and respond to it in whatever fashion. If we’re talking about online hate speech, if we’re talking online anti-Semitism, if we’re talking about destruction of property, if we’re talking about students feeling uncomfortable on campuses, whatever those areas are, we’re better able to respond to them.
What we have to be doing now is a much more intensive effort overall on every single front that I have said we are going to work on. We have to have a much more intensive effort on data collection in terms of what is happening on the streets, what is happening on the campuses, what is happening online. We need to be tracking it very carefully and make sure we’re responding to it and following up on incidents so that if in this particular case, say, police are dealing with an incident, we need to make sure that incident is well recorded and that there is actual follow-up. So that goes beyond data collection. That goes to actually making sure that there is a police response, that there is communication with the community on whatever that incident was, that there’s engagement with community leaders so that there’s some sense of reassurance that there is a response to the incident.
What we set out when we started the office back on October 16th, which seems like ages ago now, the priorities that we set are all priorities that we need to work on in the medium term, in the long term to build a much better society, a better country to ensure that we’ve got the kind of just and respectful and compassionate Canada. But right now, we’re in a moment of crisis. Certain areas need to be intensified.
One of those is the policing and the reporting of incidents. So right now, we’re working with the Hillel students, we’re working with universities to make sure that incidents are being documented so that we know what’s happening and that they’re being responded to. That is an intensive effort underway right now to try to ensure that people can feel that when they report an incident, that it is going to be taken seriously and that there’s going to be follow-up.
And what I’m saying as I meet with different groups is, if you have reported an incident and you are not happy with the follow-up, you go back and you ask for further recourse and you go back, and if you’re not having success, then you let us know and let your [Jewish] Federation know, let your Jewish leadership in your community know and you let us know.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. I’m dealing with an incident in one of our cities in Canada where a city councilor has been very outspoken in their position on Israel. Without question, it’s in our view, antisemitic messaging that she is doing. We are working with the community in that city to make sure that they’re taking this issue to the councils, and that they are getting follow-up.
We have a case in another city of a synagogue that has been threatened. They’ve been taking their issue to the police. We’ve been working with them to make sure that the police are giving them the appropriate response in a timely manner. If it’s not happening, then we’re engaging again with the police to make sure that there is the communication that’s needed and that the person who threatened is actually being monitored. And I can give you case after case.
The CJN Daily: I’m assuming that’s Moncton.
All right, let’s move on from there and go back to what you said earlier about the things that need to be done to fix the crisis at the moment. One of your goals that you stated when you took the job is that you would like to see a lot more education on antisemitism. Yet, the traditional Canadian responses to hate
in terms of the Jewish community has for generations been Holocaust education. It’s not the same thing. You didn’t say Holocaust education, you said antisemitism education. So, I would like you to unpack that for me. It’s a very important distinction.
Lyons: I think that we have to do both. I think we have to do much more on ensuring that we have a good solid curriculum on Holocaust education. I think that the Holocaust has to be one of the most critical teaching instructive moments for humanity. However, it’s not enough. We have to ensure as well that the curriculum includes a better understanding for the students of contemporary antisemitism, of what’s happening now, how this, as my good friend Michal Cotler-Wunsch (Israel’s new antisemitism special envoy) says, antisemitism moves forward into its different manifestations.
I’m hearing resounding agreement on this from people that I speak to right across the country and at all levels. I’m hearing the positive response to that from policing. I’m hearing it from university presidents who are saying, ‘Maybe one of the things that we have failed at is we really have not had the education in place that we should have on antisemitism.’
So, I think, you know, as painful, Ellin, and it is enormously painful, and it is causing great anguish and anxiety, as painful as this moment is, it is an opportunity for us to get an intense understanding of the course corrections that we need to do. And one of them is ensuring that we’re not just focusing on Holocaust education, but we’re combining that with a much better and deeper understanding throughout society on contemporary antisemitism.
I mean, it’s incredible that there are even people who suggest that antisemitism didn’t need to be part of the racism strategy in Canada. I mean, its mind boggling. So again, it just gives you an indication of how big the gap of understanding is out there. Some of it is ill-intended, but I don’t think all of it at ill- intended. I think it’s just people not understanding what’s really happening.
The CJN Daily: You were on CTV the other day with your counterpart, who is Canada’s special representative to combat Islamophobia. Why did you want to do that? What did you hope that visual and symbolic thing would do?
Lyons: Well, I think that early on, directly following October 7th, it was hard for people to see Amira Elghawaby and I together. I think that there was a lot of pain in our community and a lot of pain developing in her community. So, I respected that.
I am very much of the view, though, that what we need is very committed and strong and vocal leadership, a very present leadership on the crisis that we’re facing. It’s not easy because people still have big, big differences in how they see events unfolding in the Middle East. How they see the responses here in Canada. And so, we have to find a way of accepting that we’re going to have some of these different points of view, even some of them very strongly held. And we have to say, ‘Fine, but we are Canadians. This is Canada. We have to come together to demonstrate a much more cohesive leadership to our communities and to Canadians.’ It’s not easy to do.
Certainly, Amira and I, I will tell you that I met with her before I even accepted this job because it was very important to me that she be someone who I knew I could work with and who I felt a huge amount of respect for. And I must say that we hit it off incredibly well. And I had visions of she and I traveling across the country, meeting with ministers of education, ministers of public safety, talking about how we project and move forward to create a much more inclusive and compassionate Canada. Since October 7th, it hasn’t been as easy to do it, but we’ve begun it in the last week, and we’re going to continue to do more of that.
And I hope that faith leaders, education leaders, municipal leaders, political leaders, follow our lead and try to bring us together so that we make our way out of this period, for however long it may last, with minimum damage done to our Canadian fabric and maybe even a stronger sense of the work we have to do together to build a stronger society. It’s not easy.
The CJN Daily:
I’ve heard from a lot of readers and listeners that this whole “what-aboutism” is giving them more pain. In other words, it’s not enough to be the victim of antisemitism without also having to recognize other people’s oppression at the same time. Like, Jews can’t have agency over their own oppression. That’s a theme. It’s a theme that I heard. And the prime minister says, ‘We have to also talk about Islamophobia.’
A lot of Jewish community members feel this is exactly antisemitism all over again. And it’s a controversial move that you pulled. So, I wonder what pushback you have received about doing it.
Lyons: I’ve heard more positive response than negative response to the fact that we did that. That’s one point. Secondly, I would say that I understand that sentiment that ‘Why can’t we just talk about the antisemitism activity that is taking place right across this country without having to say, ’Oh, and then there is’.
You would have heard me in that particular CTV interview, where when my colleague was talking about Islamophobia and the concerns and what’s happening there and that freedom of expression and the importance of people being able to get out and have these peaceful gatherings and so forth.
And then I followed her comment by saying, ‘However, these are not peaceful gatherings in all cases. What we have here is very aggressive rhetoric, and in some cases, real violence. And that’s what’s happening to the Jewish communities across Canada.’ And I will continue to say that. And I think that has to be emphasized because that is what is happening, whether you’re talking about the incidents in Calgary, whether you’re talking about the incident here in Winnipeg, whether you’re talking about Toronto and some of the examples there, Montreal, Moncton, we could go on, and our university campuses. It is very much a situation where the Jewish community is feeling under siege. And I think that we have to make sure that we’re speaking about that, that we’re highlighting it, that we’re very vocal about it and asking for a response to it and remedies.
And that we’re doing so in such a way that it stands alone. It stands on its own merits.
We can, of course, be continuing to say, as I think the Jewish community has been, that we support peaceful gatherings and that we support lots of debate and open discussion on many of the issues facing the Middle East. However, I want to emphasize, it is not the Jewish community that is leading these attacks out across the country. I’m not exactly sure who’s leading them, but I have to say that we are having discussions with government at all levels and police about these, where they turn ugly, where they turn nasty. Where people are having a peaceful protest, that’s fine. But we’re seeing way too much activity that is concerning and it’s often directed against Jewish Canadians or Jewish Canadian support of Israel.
The CJN Daily: Going back to your own personal journey into this position. Professor Cotler told me you were his number one choice way, way back. It took a lot of convincing. What were the roadblocks or the challenges for you personally until you could accept this in October of this year? Because I know he was after you for months.
Lyons: Well, okay, Ellen, first of all, you don’t say no to Irwin Cotler no matter how many times a person might try. He’s a very convincing individual, as you well know. But also, I would just simply say I had worked for the federal government for some 37 years. I had worked for the UN for three years. I thought maybe I should just stop and grow some tomato plants or something, and spend more time with my grandchildren.
The CJN Daily: I actually don’t know how old you are. Are you allowed to say?
Lyons: I’m a very young 73.
I saw when I was in Afghanistan in my last tour, and even actually when I was in Israel, I looked across the pond at North America and I thought, what is happening to North America?
What’s happening to our country of Canada? What is happening to all the great work we have done over the years on a more compassionate society, on human rights, on equal opportunity, what is happening? We’re slipping backwards. And the thing that most disturbed me was the malignancy of hate speech. And I said, when I go back home, if I do go back to work, I want to focus on that because I have lived in countries where I’ve seen the democracy fall backwards and Canada is not immune to that. And I worry very much about the divisiveness that’s taking place in Canada, nowhere near as severe as we’re seeing in some other countries, obviously, but still concerning. I felt that I want to spend time with my grandchildren, but I also want to know that my grandchildren are going to have a good safe world to grow into. So, when this opportunity came up, it just kept hitting all of those right buttons, that sentiment of I need to contribute.
Because of my incredible time in Israel, and my time with the Canadian Jewish community, this issue was a very important one for me. I feel that as hard as it is, and none of us expected October 7th, these days are very long, they’re very weary. Sometimes you get encouragement and sometimes you just get sad and frustrated. But we’re working literally day and night and seven days a week. We take a couple of hours off on Saturday. But I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere else. I really wouldn’t. I would have hated myself if I had missed this moment to contribute to the community at a time of crisis like this, and to contribute to Canada, because how we come out of this is going to define whether or not we will have a compassionate and inclusive society going forward.
The CJN Daily:
I want to bring up what you just said about Afghanistan. You were there twice, once for us, once for the UN, and you saw that, of course, the country is now controlled again by the Taliban. So can you put that framework onto the experiences that you had there working with Muslim countries and those kinds of leadership and geopolitical issues and figure out how that’s going to help you in this job? It’s like an ace in the hole for you in a way, because you’ve lived in that area and so you know the players.
Well, it’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I can articulate it so much as I can feel it, perhaps. But I think one of the things that happened to me when I was in Afghanistan is I felt that we’re not allowing ourselves to see the true reality that’s in front of us. It’s very easy for us to sleepwalk our way through some of these issues and challenges that arise in our world. And just somehow living on the island of North America, and I truly call it an island, we think that the rest of the world is like this–that somehow, it’s the comfortable lives that we have and being backed up by rule of law and all of that, when in fact, most of the world is suffering enormously from incredibly bad government, governance if at all, authoritarian regimes, tyrants, terrorism run amok, lawlessness.
We often don’t want to face what is truly in front of us, and that it’s not even out of cowardice. It’s almost out of a kind of blind trust that it’s all going to get better on its own because frankly, in North America, our last 50, 60, 70, 80 years have been pretty good. I think that the experience in Afghanistan, and frankly to some extent in Israel and then Afghanistan before that mean that the rose-colored glasses are off. I am pretty clear that unless you do the hard work, the hard, hard work, that you cannot protect these kinds of open societies, just societies that we absolutely have got to ensure continues for our kids.
And I will say one other thing on that. I had a wonderful experience with a beautiful young North African diplomat when we were talking about the chaos in the world. We were sitting, waiting actually for Benjamin Netanyahu to come to an event that we were all participating in. And at that point, President Donald Trump was in office in Washington, and we were talking about some of the things that were happening in Canada and some of the challenges. And he turned to me with great poignancy and said, ‘You people, you people in the West, you don’t understand. We look to you for our barometer. We look to you for the way forward. And when we start to see you crumbling, we get afraid. We get afraid about where to go.’
So, I think what came from my experiences in the Middle East and South Asia is that we really have to be very focused. We need to do the hard work to protect our democracy, to protect our society. And we all need to step up. And I think particularly people of my generation who’ve done a lot of good work to bring us forward, need to step up as well, and not just use that reference that, ‘Oh, we’ll turn it over now to the younger generation’. No, the world is in too much of a mess. We are really in a perilous time, both I think in North America, but most particularly in many other parts of the world.
I think I’m much more of a hardened diplomat than I was before. I’m much more of a hardened realist than I was before. And I am very determined to make sure that I’m doing the hard work and that other Canadians are as well.
The CJN Daily: I have some short snappers. Do people mix you up between The U.S Special envoy on antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt and Deborah Lyons?
Lyons: Not quite yet, but I’m expecting it’ll happen because we go back and forth on the Debra’s.
The CJN Daily: Okay. And this is a serious question. You’re in Winnipeg. You know of course, Vivian Silver’s family was informed on Monday that she was actually not a hostage, but she was murdered. Have you met with them? Are you in touch with them? Do you plan to be? What are you doing there?
Lyons: So, I was in touch with her son who’s here in Canada because of course he came with us to meet with the prime minister. Vivian was a friend of mine, is a friend of mine, was a friend of mine. I spent many beautiful hours in her kitchen on the kibbutz Be’eri drinking tea and talking. And she spent many hours in my residence in Tel Aviv, and we spent many hours together, many days together, doing a variety of peace initiatives with Palestinians. Because Vivian, as you know, was one of the foremost peace activists in Israel at the time. I was very proud of her as a Canadian, that this incredible Israeli Canadian was doing this enormous amount of work.
I think Hamas was wrong on so many levels, but to have taken a peace angel like Vivian Silver and brought her life to an untimely end, I feel it deeply. And I’ll be talking to her sons in the coming days. And it is poignant actually, in a way to think that I was in Winnipeg when we got the news about her. I mean, it makes me want to come to tears
But you know, then we all become Vivians. That’s it. We all become a little bit of her and continue to do this work.
The CJN Daily: Thank you very much.
Lyons: You know, one of the things we have to try to figure out how to start communicating is results. What results are we getting from our work? I’m enormously concerned about making sure that I’ve got the resources I need to get the job done. But I think really part of the role of this office is going to be as a catalyst to get a lot of other people getting the work done that needs to be done, like the ministers of education, like working with the police forces across Canada on training, like working with the university presidents.
The CJN Daily: How many staff do you have? I know that when the office was open before, it was Irwin and one person.
Lyons: Right now, it’s Deborah and one person. But we have another three people that we’re in the process of hiring now. But nobody anticipated this crisis at this time. And so, I think the government is going to be helping us to ramp up a little bit more.
The CJN Daily: You’re going to get more money?
Lyons: I think that there is a consideration, given the crisis that we’re in. I mean, this is truly a period of crisis communications to make our Jewish community feel more supported, to make them feel safe, to work with all of the entities that we have to work with: the faith leaders, the university presidents. I mean, there’s so much work to be done in each one of these areas, but it’s not work that needs to be done over the next two to three years. It’s work that has to be done right now!
The CJN Daily: Why not do with the prime minister a national televised address or an online address. Like he’s been doing bits and you’ve been doing bits and bytes. So why not think about a national broadcast.
Lyons: Well, that’s a great idea. Let me take it back and see what we can do there. I am going to start doing some more video clips rather than just do the statements on social media. But again, even that is limited. I will tell you though, when we’re out across Canada, meeting with the Hillel students, it was really clear to me that this is a special group of Canadians that we have to be closely connected to. So, we are actually setting up a direct conduit from those students across Canada, the different groups, the advocacy champions for Hillel right across Canada, directly into my office so that we’re hearing from them about what they’re doing, what they’re experiencing, and what recourse they need, if any, and whether or not it’s actually being achieved.
That’s something I just absolutely have to do, whether I have lots of resources or not. But they themselves then become an outreach of energy because as you can imagine.
The CJN Daily: They become your army.
Lyons: That’s exactly right. My foot soldiers.
The CJN Daily: Okay. Thank you so much.