Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Jerry Amernic: I’ve seen real prejudice in the past. Barring social media, we’re getting more tolerant

Commentary

I keep seeing on the news how incidents of anti-Semitism in Canada are on the rise. If one were to judge by what passes as news coverage these days it would seem this country is an anti-Semitic haven where xenophobia reigns supreme. I come from a Jewish family and think this is nonsense.

My grandparents were from eastern Europe and arrived here before World War I, which was a good thing or I may not be writing this. But to depict Canada as a bastion of racism—and let’s not confine this to anti-Semitism—is absurd. Before venturing down that road we should compare Canada to other countries (take your pick) and, all things considered, I think we come out pretty well. I would hazard a guess there are few if any nations as tolerant and open to diversity as this one.

That is not to say there aren’t crackpots among us. Indeed, there are, and in this day and age of social media they rear their heads on a regular basis. However, those who make decisions at the news desks of TV networks and mainstream media—it’s another ball of wax with other media where anything goes—seem to think anything above ground zero means we live in an intolerant society. Well, I have news for the news desks. Ground zero doesn’t exist and never did.

I got a good glimpse into anti-Semitism years ago when writing a newspaper column about the justice system. Ernst Zundel was a Toronto resident of German extraction and the world’s leading publisher of Holocaust denial. He was charged and it went to trial where Holocaust survivors had to testify about their wartime experiences. Zundel was convicted but this was overturned on a technicality and a second trial took place so those Holocaust survivors had to again take the witness stand. I wrote how ridiculous this was and make no mistake, the theme was that Canada was going easy on Mr. Zundel and the other Nazis who came here after the Third Reich went up in smoke. And a letter arrived at the newspaper I wrote for.

I was threatened by a neo-Nazi. He was picked up by police, charged, and incarcerated pending a hearing. As it turned out, he had a rifle with a night scope and a slew of other things. This was not his first run-in with the law. When things got to court I was asked to appear and read my column into the record.

“That’s a very controversial column,” the judge said. The charges against the defendant were thrown out and he was let go with the proviso that he writes no letters to any newspaper in the country for the next year. Harsh treatment but hey this is Canada.

As for Zundel, he was convicted at a second trial, but acquitted by the Supreme Court of Canada because of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The man’s rights were being abridged. He was eventually extradited to Germany where they are more serious than Canada has ever been about hate crimes; he got a five-year prison sentence, the maximum allowed under German law. Zundel died in 2017.And here’s a little-known fact about him: at the 1968 Liberal Leadership Convention that elected Pierre Trudeau as leader, Zundel offered himself as a candidate and even spoke at that gathering!

Let me say at this point that I grew up in north Toronto in an area with many Jews. Did I ever experience anti-Semitism? In Grade 7 a non-Jewish classmate told me that I killed Jesus. The husband of one of my wife’s friends was a buyer at a major retailer who confided that he only liked doing business with white people and Jews. When I was in residence at university my roommate explained how he got “Jewed” out of $10. When my wife and I were dating—she’s not Jewish—we had problems with her father. But racism can go two ways. I had a close friend who became an Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. After he was long gone to New York I visited his parents whom I knew well. Keep in mind these people were immigrants.

“I understand you married a non-Jewish girl,” my friend’s father said. “How could you lower yourself like that?”

I have never forgotten those words, and recall his stories about growing up and taking part in knife fights between Arabs and Jews. That was the world he came from. That was the life he came from. And he brought what prejudices he carried with him to Canada.

My wife and I have two kids and four grandchildren. Religion has never been an issue with us. Nevertheless, finding someone to marry us back then was no simple matter. My parents knew this Reform rabbi and suggested we see him. We did and he refused to marry us. We wound up getting married by a United Church minister and if that means it’s null and void after all these years then I’m a monkey’s uncle.

Over the years I’ve heard it all. That Jews control half the world’s wealth. That the murder of six million European Jews is a complete fabrication. And the age-old conspiracy about taking over the international order. Ultimately, people believe what they want to believe and there is always a direct correlation between ignorance and what is perceived as truth. As the level of ignorance goes off the charts truth becomes the proverbial first casualty of war. The fact is there are a lot of ignorant people out there. But is anti-Semitism—never mind anti-anything else—such a dire problem in Canada today? Relatively speaking? I think not.

I do media seminars and will take an actual interview to illustrate things. One that comes to mind was years ago when Avi Lewis had Ayaan Hirsi Ali on his CBC show On the Map after her best-selling book Infidel about her life as a Muslim woman was published to wide acclaim. The host argued there was rampant Islamophobia across North America and that Muslims, including here, felt under siege. But Ali disagreed.

“I think it’s highly exaggerated that Muslims living in America and the West are under siege,” she said. “If that were the case we know groups in history who were under siege and what they usually do is they leave. I don’t see any American Muslim leaving and going back to any Muslim country.”

She also added this gem: “I don’t find myself in the same luxury as you do. You grew up in freedom and you can spit on freedom because you don’t know what it is not to have freedom.”

Touché.

There is a lot of knee-jerk reaction in the country today about Jews being under siege. Blacks being under siege. Muslims being under siege. What have you. Again, judging by the news, it seems everyone and his or her brother are under siege. Fine. First Nations citizens aside, we are all from somewhere else so if you really feel that way I suggest you compare Canada with where you came from.

But people don’t do that. They just like to complain. Of course, there was a time when anti-Semitism was a bigger problem in Canada than it is today. What’s different now? Two things. First, the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House made prejudice, and with that rampant ignorance, vogue and even celebrated.

Second, and this goes in tandem with number one, we have the ease with which nutbars get the word out and I point my finger at social media, the social-media giants who can’t police themselves, and the government that lets it happen. But then government rarely if ever leads. It follows and reacts, and even then you’re lucky. There wasn’t a January 6th storming of the Bastille—make that the U.S. Capitol in Washington—until technology made it possible.

Despite the benefits the internet and social media bring us, I think the net effect of this stuff is negative. Harry Rakowski wrote an excellent piece on the ills of social media for The Hub and mentioned how Facebook “prioritized profits over the safety of its users and facilitated misinformation, hate, and calls for violence on its platform.” He went on to say that misinformation was valuable to the company’s bottom line and that such misinformation “gets six times more views than the truth.”

It’s like Big Tobacco. We discovered cigarettes were bad for your health and caused lung cancer. But at one time society condoned smoking and even encouraged it. Just have a look at any old movie from the 1940s or 1950s. Finally, the science took over and we learned the truth, but only at great cost.

Still, there is a deeper problem with social media. We have a generation that doesn’t know how to socialize. What’s more, I have doubts about their ability to do serious research. It seems to me the more information readily available to the masses the more ignorant the mass becomes. Why? When information is easy people become lazy and complacent, and that is where real racism festers. Today we are in desperate need of those who speak the truth and aren’t afraid to say it, but this requires two commodities that appear to be in short supply.

Honesty and guts.

Joanna Baron: Justice Rouleau’s deferential report is not the final word on the Emergencies Act

Commentary

Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s report on the federal government’s invocation of a public order emergency is an extraordinary document. It was produced on an exceptionally tight timeline following six weeks of sittings and clocks in at over 2,000 pages, including exhibits.

The nub of the report sees the judge concluding that Cabinet was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act on February 14, 2022: “There was credible and compelling evidence supporting both a subjective and objective reasonable belief in the existence of a public order emergency. The decision to invoke the Act was appropriate.” Its tone is cautious and measured. It is an exercise in pointed diplomacy and balancing, but perhaps wanting for clarity.

First: for Rouleau to have arrived at his conclusion, given the posture of federal Cabinet witnesses at the hearings, implies an extraordinary amount of deference to assiduously shielded government decision-making. The entire basis of Cabinet’s concern that the protests had evolved into an unmanageable situation remained opaque to the Commission. Attorney-General Lametti claimed that Cabinet, in invoking the Act, was acting on the basis of a legal opinion that held that “threats […] to the security of Canada”, were met within the meaning of the Act. It was necessary to refer to this legal opinion because the overwhelming evidence from actors who were receiving on-the-ground intel from Ottawa was the contrary.

During the hearings, we heard that the director of CSIS had concluded the Act’s threshold of “threats to the security of Canada” was not met. We also heard leadership of the Ottawa Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the RCMP, state that existing criminal law tools were sufficient. No other threat assessment or assessment of the inadequacy of existing legal authorities was performed independently of the country’s law enforcement. There was virtually no substantive basis upon which Cabinet could have concluded that the circumstances in Ottawa met the threshold for invoking the Act.

This opaqueness led to one of the more memorable exchanges of the Commission, when Commission counsel Gordon Cameron demurred at the conclusion of Lametti’s evidence: “Commissioner Rouleau, commission counsel is in a conundrum. We have attempted to find a way to lift the veil that has created such a black box around what has turned out to be a central issue before the hearing.”

Indeed, the issue of assessing the reasonableness of Cabinet’s decision was the whole crux of the matter. Rouleau then addressed Attorney General Lametti directly: “I’m having a little trouble… how we assess reasonableness when we don’t know what [Cabinet decision-makers] were acting on. Do we just presume good faith?” 

Lametti was happy to affirm this, and judging by Rouleau’s conclusion, “presuming good faith” indeed turned out to be sufficient for his conclusion.

A requirement for invoking the Act is that it is a measure of last resort, specifying that “The emergency could not be effectively dealt with by any other federal law.” (Emphasis added.)

The report emphasizes the word “effectively”, calling it an “important modifier”, and seems to confuse this requirement that all other avenues of action be exhausted with a sort of argument of convenience:

There may be situations where other federal laws could technically apply to a situation, but still fall short. Practical considerations must be taken into account, such as whether the resources exist to enforce existing authorities, whether they would be effective in resolving the situation in a timely way, and whether they would address the situation safely.

Evidence of law enforcement was that, at best, the boost provided by the Emergencies Act was helpfulI’ve yet to meet a cop who didn’t welcome enhanced enforcement powers. but did not substantively alter a plan to clear the protests that already was in place by February 13, 2022, in advance of the invocation of the Act to clear the protest using existing policing powers.

Laws under the Criminal Code gave law enforcement the tools it needed—and ultimately used—to clear disruptive protests, compel tow truck operators to remove illegally parked trucks, and call in reinforcement police forces from across the country.The Ontario Civilian Police Commission could have directed the OPS Board to cede control of policing in Ottawa to the OPP. Under the RCMP Act, the RCMP commissioner could have deployed the RCMP to Ottawa to enforce the federal Criminal Code. Furthermore, Ontario itself could have invoked its own provincial Emergency Management Act to order the evacuation of Wellington Street and Rideau/Sussex. The report both acknowledges and dismisses this: “Although there continued to be laws such as the Criminal Code that, if effectively used, could bring the protests under control, it was apparent that law enforcement had serious reservations.”

Really? Not a single law enforcement witness testified that they requested the invocation of the Act, nor that they needed more tools than those already at their disposal.

Rouleau is harshly critical of the Ottawa Police Service in general and of former Chief Peter Sloly in particular, citing breakdowns in communication, incident command, and even a system to ensure its own intelligence reports were disseminated.On Sloly, he is casually devastating: “It seemed to some people, with some justification, that Chief Sloly was too willing to attribute blame to others, while avoiding any blame himself.” Ouch. All of this appears to be justified criticism. But using his findings about chaos amongst law enforcement, and a type of insufficiency of state capacity to effectively respond to crisis, to bootstrap the invocation of emergency powers sets a lamentable, even dangerous, precedent.

Finally, the report wholly accepts the federal government’s coup de grâce legal argument—that although the Emergencies Act definition of “threats to the security of Canada” incorporates the meaning within the CSIS Act, “two different decision-makers, each interpreting the same words in the context of different statutes, can reasonably come to different conclusions as to whether the threshold is met.”Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security and intelligence advisor, first presented this theory in the Ottawa hearings, stating that the CSIS Act’s definition of a threat to national security was “narrow” and did not apply to the Emergencies Act and that the convoy posed a threat to national security, but steadfastly refused to define what a threat to national security is. 

This argument is dangerously misguided. It clearly strains the well-documented intention of Minister Perrin Beatty and the drafters of the Act in specifying that the definition of “threats to the security of Canada” is the same as that of the CSIS Act, right in the text of the statute. The standard was intended to be, in Beatty’s words, “very stringent, indeed.” But this argument truly goes from misguided to entirely untenable when one considers that we heard evidence from each of the relevant inputs who would have been aware of the on-the-ground situations—and not a single one testified that a threat to national security existed.Perhaps because of all of the hand-wringing surrounding the incorporation of the CSIS Act definition of threats to the security of Canada” into the Emergencies Act, Rouleau proposes that the Act be amended to eliminate this link because “the adoption of the CSIS definition “accords outsized importance to CSIS’ determination.” This acknowledgment seems to undermine his own finding that the two determinations are separate. Moreover, the link to the CSIS Act was deliberate in demanding more than merely the subjective opinion of the Governor in Council. As Beatty explains in the Act’s parliamentary debates, “[…] a step of such far-reaching implications as a national emergency should be based on a more objective foundation than the opinion of the Governor in Council.”

The report accords Cabinet a wide ambit of reasonableness in invoking the Act that is thoroughly unsupported by the statute’s strict definition. The justice doesn’t quite find that an actual situation presenting threats to national security had crystallized: in his conclusion, he writes that “the situation [Cabinet] was facing was worsening and at risk of becoming dangerous and unmanageable.” In other words, there was a whiff of danger in the air—Rouleau makes a great deal out of the Diagolon paraphernalia recovered at Coutts, Alberta, inferring that it might suggest similar ideologically motivated extremist actors might materialize in Ottawa (no policing witness testified that there was any evidence of such a presence, and Rouleau acknowledges no such links were found)—and, fearful of that whiff of danger, Cabinet was reasonable in invoking emergency powers.

This scope of latitude and deference is the appropriate standard for assessing on-the-ground, contingent actions of police—who, indeed, we rightly accord wide operating bandwidth. However, the same standard is wholly inappropriate for a sitting, properly briefed Cabinet’s sober deliberations in the face of a well-established and rightfully high legal threshold for invoking extraordinary powers to detain peaceful protestors, freeze bank accounts without due process, and suspend insurance throughout all of Canada. 

A federal court judicial review, brought independently (unlike the Commission, which was convened and appointed by government), of the invocation of the Act remains pending. That decision will carry the binding force of law, unlike the Commission report. The matter is not yet finished, and there may yet be consequences for the government’s actions.