Political Barricades to Political Welcome Mats

11 Apr

I’ve recently written in this corner that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could come down to the choices of voters in a couple of dozen ridings with large ethnic minority populations.

The political parties have devoted a disproportionate amount of their leaders’ time – and of their campaigns’ resources – to wooing the so-called “ethnic vote”.

The Conservative Party in particular has spent a number of years trying to engage with immigrant and minority communities in an attempt to reverse the Liberal Party’s generations-long hold on their votes. Conservatives argue that their values most closely match those of members of those communities. Liberals disagree and accuse the Conservatives of pandering for votes.

In the end, the relative success of the parties in winning the support of such voters could very well be the critical factor that determines the shape of the next government.

If members of Canada’s political class today demonstrate common cause with minority communities, recruit minority candidates, and make strong public pitches for the support of minority voters, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case in this country.

It wasn’t too many years ago – in the lifetimes of many Canadians – that overt racism and anti-Semitism were not only part of the culture, but also a reality of political life.

An episode of a recent critically acclaimed documentary series by Ottawa journalist Holly Doan shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by Canadian minority groups, particularly Jews, in the decade following the Second World War. Of particular note is the way that discrimination extended into the corridors of power.

Doan’s work, called “The Fifties”, is a sweeping nine-part series covering many different stories about a decade that transformed Canada. The series debuted last month on CPAC – the Cable Public Access Channel – and is now viewable in its entirety on the cpac.ca website. (Full disclosure: I produce a program for CPAC, although I was not involved in any way with the documentary in question).

In an episode of the series called “One Canada”, Doan introduces us to dubious characters such as Solon Low, the MP from Peace River Alberta, who led the Social Credit Party in the House of Commons from 1944 until 1958. Low believed that Jews were not only behind Communism, but also that they funded Adolf Hitler. One Social Credit MP of the era spoke of world dictatorship and “Zionist control of the press and radio” in a House of Commons debate. The party was charged with using Parliamentary mail to distribute anti-Semitic literature.

Although the Socreds were never a major force in national politics, the documentary shows how the attitudes of the era – a time when many properties and jobs were limited to white Christians – were reflected in the way governments operated.

A former journalist recalls how Jewish members of the Ontario legislature sat as independents because “parties didn’t want them.” On Parliament Hill, Jewish MPs had been elected to the House of Commons since 1871, but eight decades later, no Canadian Prime Minister had ever appointed a Jew into cabinet or to the Senate.

Liberal PM Louis St-Laurent finally made longtime Toronto MP David Croll the first Jewish senator in 1955. But the documentary makes clear that appointment only came about because St-Laurent – a man who publicly condemned bigotry – did not have the political courage to face down anti-Semites in his party and bring the talented and popular Croll into his cabinet. On top of a decade of experience as a backbench MP, Croll also had been a successful mayor in Windsor and a provincial cabinet minister. It was only his Jewish heritage that kept him out of federal cabinet.

Canada wouldn’t have its first Jewish cabinet minister until 1969, when Pierre Trudeau made Herb Gray a minister without portfolio. Interviewed in the documentary, Gray puts his accomplishment into historical perspective:

“I’m not saying there weren’t others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me to have that distinction (as the first Jewish cabinet minister).”

The hero of the “One Canada” episode of “The Fifties” is John Diefenbaker, the longtime civil liberties advocate who became Prime Minister in 1957, and introduced the first Canadian Bill of Rights three years later. Historian Desmond Morton says Diefenbaker’s bill helped make “all those hatreds that this country had in its belly… unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing.”

Only a few decades down the road, political barricades have turned into political welcome mats. It’s a history worth contemplating this election season.

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