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Michael Geist: We need more than empty words to combat growing antisemitism

Commentary

The Jewish holiday of Purim over the weekend sparked the usual array of political tweets featuring some odd interpretations of the meaning of the holiday and expressing varying degrees of support for the Jewish community. But coming off one of the worst weeks in memory—cancelled Jewish events due to security concerns, antisemitism in the mainstream media, deeply troubling comments on the floor of the House of Commons, and the marginalization of some Jewish MPs in government —the time for generic statements of support does not cut it.

The Globe and Mail has noted the “dangerous slide into antisemitism” and called for a House motion unequivocally condemning antisemitism. This post provides further context to that piece, arguing that such a motion is necessary but insufficient since it is leadership and real action from our politicians, university presidents, and community groups that is desperately needed. 

The relentless antisemitism in Canada has left many in the community numb, creating a new normal that has obvious echoes of prior generations who faced pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and the Holocaust. Some point to events in Israel and Gaza to explain the antisemitic surge, yet Canadian Jews are no more responsible for the actions of the Israeli government than Canadian Muslims are to blame for last week’s ISIS terrorist attack in Russia.

Since October 7th, there have been terrorism charges in Ottawa involving plans to target the Jewish community, firebombsshots, and vandalism targeted at Jewish schools and community centres in Montreal, Toronto, and Fredericton, vandalism, and threats at Jewish-owned businesses, as well as protests outside synagogues, Jewish institutions, and Jewish neighbourhoods. In addition, there is the antisemitism in the cultural world including the cancellation of a Jewish film festival in Hamilton (since relocated) and plays with Jewish or Israeli themes cancelled in British Columbia. Meanwhile, Jewish politicians have been targeted with threats or pressured out of office altogether.

The situation on university campuses merits special mention. The congressional testimony in the U.S. from three presidents seemingly unable to articulate a clear position on the implications of calling for the genocide of Jews captured headlines last year, but here in Canada being openly Jewish on campus carries real risk, including efforts to evict Jewish organizations from campus. Universities have policies in place designed to promote safety and inclusivity, but Jews know that outward expressions of their religion runs the risk of verbal or physical abuse and that death threats or antisemitic graffiti can be found on campus walls. Indeed, buildings carrying Jewish names, reflecting a commitment from the community to give back to these institutions are now specifically targeted by protesters. Universities react quickly to incidents targeting other groups, but rarely to Jewish students or faculty. In contrast to other external signals of inclusivity, there are no signs on faculty doors that say “kippas welcome here” and EDI officers often don’t think of the wellbeing of Jewish students as part of their mandate. Further, the situation is little better in secondary schools, where school boards are often missing in action as Jewish teachers hide their religion and live in fear of being targeted.

This is simply the reality of being Jewish in Canada in 2024, where antisemitic incidents represent the majority of reported hate crimes in our largest cities. Going to synagogues or Jewish schools often involves a police presence and speaking about your concerns in public requires hushed tones. In work environment after work environment—doctorspublic servantslabour unions, and more—one hears about a steady stream of antisemitism that has led to resignations and lawsuits. Some now choose to hide their religion in the hope of being ignored or remain silent for fear of the terrifying antisemitic backlash that speaking out invariably sparks.

For a country that prides itself on rights of equality, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, these rights and freedoms do not apply in equal measure right now for the Canadian Jewish community.

The government has made inclusivity its brand and one would have hoped that it would be vocally supportive of the Jewish community in words and deeds. Yet the silence from the majority of MPs and misleading comments from government ministers in 2022 when it was revealed that Canadian Heritage had funded an antisemite as part of its anti-hate program was a warning sign of the cowardice that exists when it comes to antisemitism.

A counter-demonstrator carries an Israeli flag as protesters gather outside an Indigo store in Toronto, on Thursday November 30, 2023. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

That cowardice was repeated last week when Pascale St-Onge, the new Canadian Heritage minister, was unwilling to forcefully call out an antisemitic cartoon published in a major French newspaper or when MPs avoid referencing antisemitism by relying on more generic anti-hate messages. Domestic political calculations appear to trump principle and after the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust and a Canadian immigration policy that was once premised on “none is too many”, the Jewish community is seemingly too small today to matter to governments.

This is not an easy post to write. But after the Globe and Mail last week called for a House motion unequivocally condemning antisemitism, I felt it necessary to endorse the proposal and supplement it by arguing that supportive words alone are insufficient. The motion must be accompanied by action. That could start with ensuring that public dollars for education and cultural institutions do not go to institutions that maintain a hostile environment by failing to address antisemitism, narrowing Bill C-63 to online harms rules that hold platforms accountable for failing to abide by their own policies, providing financial support for the security of Jewish schools and community institutions, promoting antisemitism education within the public service, and implementing Holocaust education in our schools. There needs to be similar motions and commitments to act from provincial and local governments since many of the issues fall within their jurisdiction.

The story of Purim isn’t about the “triumph of inclusion, love, and resilience” as one MP suggested. It is about the personal and political courage summoned by leaders such as Queen Esther to speak out and act against evil. That is the lesson for modern times as we need more of that courage today if we are to confront antisemitism in Canada.

This column originally appeared at michaelgeist.ca.

Aaron Pete: I am a First Nations politician. Our chiefs and leaders must be held more accountable

Commentary

Growing up I often heard about the challenges with chief and council leadership. It’s not difficult to find stories on social media, including countless TikToks shared by First Nations people, about leadership problems. As a First Nations person with a keen interest in politics, I’ve always admired good leadership when I saw it. Leaders like Chief Derek Epp, Chief David Jimmie, Chief Clarence Louie, and Chief Willie Sellars stood out to me as excellent examples of true community leaders. Sadly they are the exception rather than the rule.

My upbringing has been shaped by my single mother born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, a consequence of her mother using alcohol to cope with the traumas of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario. This personal history has given me a deep understanding of what “intergenerational trauma” actually means. Growing up, we lived near the poverty line, often running out of money a week before the next social assistance cheque. School was tough too. Teachers doubted my potential, suggesting to my mother during parent-teacher conferences that I was more likely to drop out and join a gang than graduate.

However, I used these challenges as motivation. I graduated from the University of the Fraser Valley with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. I then worked to help Indigenous people navigate the criminal justice system and earned a law degree from the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Not long after that, I ran for a position in chief and council for my community in British Columbia at 26 years of age. Today I am a councillor for Chawathil First Nation, a place my family has called home since before Canada became a country. 

Effective governance is critical for our communities, where overcoming challenges like addiction, poverty, housing shortages, crime, and unemployment hinges on strong leadership and administrative integrity. Yet, many First Nation communities face serious issues of corruption, nepotism, and collusion.

In 2022, the chief of Westbank First Nation stepped down over corruption concerns within his band. At Seabird Island First Nation, a finance department employee was sent to jail after embezzling $2.3 million between 2005 and 2013. In Peters First Nation, an investigation into leadership revealed nepotism and prompted an RCMP inquiry into the misappropriation of funds. Similarly, concerns arose in Frog Lake First Nation when $120 million in net assets went missing.

First Nation struggles are complex, with roots in historical injustices. Yet, as leaders, we must also look within and recognize our role. We are not just caretakers of the land but agents of change, tasked with the sacred duty of uplifting our people. Unfortunately, the silence around the fulfillment of our own electoral promises is deafening. As leaders, we should be starting conversations about our progress and actively seeking feedback.

Our Indigenous community members work hard to provide for their families. They deserve leaders who are relentless in their pursuit of providing better education, community supports, and job opportunities. They need us to form alliances that reflect our values. They need us to secure funding for crucial infrastructure like housing.

The often sad realities of chief and council

I’ve now served as a council member for my community Chawathil First Nation (about 10 minutes outside of Hope, B.C.) for more than 18 months, and I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of accountable governance. Chief and council are often compared to a municipal government’s mayor and councillors. Similarly, we are responsible for ensuring the management of our administration office, sitting on various subcommittees, representing the community in forums and meetings, and advocating for change. But these First Nation leaders are unique because we are also responsible for managing reserve land, housing projects, and economic development opportunities, as well as meetings about our traditional territory (land that is not on the reserve but is where our nation was traditionally located). We’re also tasked with encouraging our members to pursue higher education, find gainful employment, and then bring that knowledge and experience back to the community. 

When I campaigned for council, there were no candidate forums, debates, or policy discussions; leadership choices were often reduced to familiar surnames on a ballot. I chose to run on a platform of increased economic development and a commitment to raise more money for community services. I hosted two all-candidate meetings with the one other council member who agreed to attend. I spoke with our local reporter and explained my vision of a bid for chief. While I was unsuccessful in my run for chief, losing by only 18 votes, I was elected as a council member. Without a clear presentation of goals and platforms, how can Indigenous community members make informed decisions about their leadership?

The role a chief or council member can play in our communities is significant. Prior to my arrival all 89 of our homes had significant health and safety issues. There was overcrowding and no plan for home repairs. There wasn’t even a housing manager or targets for new developments.

Once I took on the housing portfolio we turned a corner. To date, we’ve appointed a housing manager, completed extensive repairs in 20 units, and are in the process of renovating another 15 in the next six months. It is my goal that by the end of my term in September 2025, every home in our community will be repaired.  We’ve laid out a five-year strategy and are gearing up to apply for 30 new housing units.

The house that Louis Okimaw and his son live which has been deemed not fit for human habitation in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.
Journalists must hold our elected officials to account

The role of the media is vital in our communities. Investigative journalism must celebrate our wins, but also scrutinize our governance and constructively critique our failures. It is a catalyst for discussion and accountability. I’ve experienced the benefits of such scrutiny and understand its power to spark progress.

We all know the critical role journalism plays in local government. In one well-known Brookings study, researchers found newspaper closures had a direct causal impact on local government public finance. A loss of local newspapers meant a loss of accountability. The study showed that when newspapers folded, it led to an increase in government waste, corruption, and less informed voters. With 630 First Nation communities in Canada and journalism on the decline, one wonders how many investigative stories are simply being missed.

Canadian journalism is facing major financial hurdles. But it is crucial for the pursuit of reconciliation and addressing poverty in vulnerable communities. Supporting organizations such as IndigiNews, Overstory Media Group, and local journalists with increased funding is essential for covering local stories. We also need entities like the Assembly of First Nations to push for enhanced financial backing for these and other organizations dedicated to local investigative journalism, including coverage of chief and council meetings.

Ensuring a brighter future

Our communities grapple with significant challenges, including high rates of poverty, crime, and addiction, alongside lower levels of educational attainment and employment. 

In 2019, a study showed that 53 percent of First Nation children on reserve live in poverty. A 2020 report found that crime in Indigenous communities was six times higher than in non-Indigenous communities. Violent crime was almost nine times higher. Sixty-eight percent of non-Indigenous people have completed postsecondary education. But only 45.3 percent of First Nations people have.

First Nation communities are responsible for their own infrastructure like housing, water and sewage systems, and infrastructure. While the chief and council can’t single-handedly fix these issues, they can advocate for increased funding for educational opportunities, addiction services, and cultural support. Further, they can meet with stakeholders from Indigenous Services Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and others to develop a plan to improve conditions.

I am certain First Nation communities are being held back from succeeding by leaders without a clear vision for improvement. This stagnation must be brought to light. As a community, we need to understand our leaders’ plans—or lack thereof—and hold them accountable.

I hear from members of other First Nation communities in my region who say their political leaders are not doing enough to address staffing issues or improve housing conditions. They add that some leaders are merely acting in their family’s own best interest. First Nations’ socio-economic success stories are celebrated because they are still the exception rather than the norm.

An Indigenous cultural shift is overdue. We need an environment where media scrutiny is routine, where community engagement is vigorous, and where stakeholders are held accountable. Leaders should welcome this shift, as it strengthens our strategies and reinforces our commitment.

I envision a culture of accountability, where leaders don’t just lead but also answer to the community. Where success is not just celebrated but also measured. Where every community member feels empowered to question and demand answers. 

Increased accountability and community engagement can lay the groundwork for First Nation communities to share their wisdom and culture, enriching Canadian society. 

As I advocate for this change, I extend an invitation to journalists, community members, and my fellow leaders to join in this newfound commitment to transparency and progress. It is crucial to remember that chief and council meetings are public forums. Despite some exceptions, there is ample opportunity for increased journalistic presence to shed light on decision-making and accountability.

We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and commit to identifying and improving our weakest links. Only by holding our leaders accountable for their actions—or inactions—can we enact meaningful progress.

Together, let’s build a future where every First Nation community flourishes, guided by values of transparency, accountability, and continued progress.