Is This Canada, That Canada?

As we wear our poppies and mark our nation’s most sacred civic day – Remembrance Day – we pause to ponder and reflect. We think about and commemorate the millions of Canadians who served this nation and sacrificed their lives so we might live free of tyranny and hate. Canadians have been engaged in many fronts, including peacekeeping missions, over our 150-year history. The two Great Wars took a heavy toll on Canadians, with over 100,000 killed in action of nearly two million enlisted personnel.
These numbers are staggering, especially considering that Canada was in its infancy as a new nation state. Yet, over the years Canadians felt the call to duty to defend and protect freedom and democracy from those who tried to deny it, especially from their allies. One could only imagine that to fight the Nazis must have been especially meaningful – given its wanton drive for conquest of Europe, including Great Britain, and the horrific genocide launched against Jewish communities.
Nazi sympathy existed in Canada before the war. Who could forget the Christie Pits riot?
But it casually subsided after the war given the great loss this country experienced fighting the Nazis. Of course there were still Nazi sympathizers, and that grew as former Nazis snuck into this country. But to raise the swastika flag in public was a rare occurrence. European bigotry like antisemitism decreased in this country after the Second World War, even while episodic tremors occurred (e.g. Keegstra, Zundel). Jewish Canadians proudly participated in the fabric of society.
Canadians fought and died against the Nazis. To support Nazism was tantamount to treason in this country, one felt. But while we say “Lest we forget”, mass-market memory is fading fast. There is a loss of historical understanding and respect for the maple leaf. When a surge of white supremacy and neo-Nazism grips this nation coast to coast, it’s because of lost memory. It’s because our social awareness is in peril about the lessons of history.
When highway bridges are painted with slogans like “Hitler Was Right”; when swastikas are graffitied on slides in community parks; when schools are desecrated with hateful messages that reinforce hateful ideology and when flyers appear on university campuses encouraging white supremacism – something is deeply wrong. It implies a weakening of our social fabric that binds our nation into a singular thought: “this is intolerable.”
Is this Canada, that Canada? Some might say this is the Canada of the 1930s – when Nazism and antisemitism were accepted and “none were too many.” They would say we are regressing – that we are forgetting what we fought for. When a Jewish student is voted out of student council for being Jewish, such as what took place at McGill, it sends reminiscent tremors reminding us of the hate and intolerance which once prevailed in this country.
Others might answer the question differently – that indeed “this is Canada”, the land where we proudly wear our poppy, where we pledge to never forget the freedom that our soldiers fought valiantly for. This is the Canada that will stand up to bigots, and while it may take us some time to get moving – in the end, this Canada will do the right thing.
The answer might be somewhere in the middle. But this Remembrance Day, let us take a moment to think about our freedom and our democracy – because THIS IS CANADA and we can never, we MUST never, take it for granted.

About the Author
Avi Benlolo is the former President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), a Jewish non-profit human rights organization. Avi is a prominent Canadian human rights activist dedicated to promoting tolerance, freedom, democracy and human rights.
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