Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, October 19, 2006

October 19, 2006

Are Quebec’s political elites too sensitive to criticism? A personal recollection

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

Journalist Jan Wong of the Globe and Mail recently felt the wrath of Quebec’s media and political elites for her suggestion that the marginalization of ethnic minorities in Quebec might have contributed to the shootings at Montreal’s Dawson College in September.

The gunman was a young Montreal-born son of Indo-Canadian immigrants and his rampage resulted in the death of one student and the perpetrator himself. Many others were injured.

Wong, herself also originally a Montreal “allophone” (someone of neither English nor French background), saw the roots of this tragedy in Quebec’s politics of polarization.

“What many outsiders don't realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn't just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it's affected immigrants, too,” she wrote in “Get Under the Desk,” published in the September 16, 2006 Globe and Mail.

The response was immediate and apoplectic: denunciations from all directions. A vast number of journalists, both federalist and sovereigntist, attacked Wong’s article, in the pages of the Journal de Québec, Journal de Montréal, La Presse, Le Devoir, and Le Soleil, among other periodicals.

There was even a rebuke from Quebec premier Jean Charest himself, who called her analysis “narrow-minded” and disgraceful. Her article “betrays an ignorance of Canadian values and a profound misunderstanding of Quebec,” he asserted in a letter to the Globe and Mail published September 20. That same day, incredibly, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously passed a motion requesting an apology “to the Quebec people” for the column.

Wong’s analysis was controversial. It may also have been exaggerated, offensive or, for that matter, incorrect. That is certainly open to debate.

But one thing is certain: she is the most recent in a long line of commentators, including the late novelist Mordecai Richler, academic Esther Delisle, and former columnist Bill Johnson, who have been subjected to the same form of vilification and “mobbing” for having dared to question various political sacred cows in Quebec.

Might I, without seeming too presumptuous, add my own name to the list?

On January 22, 1982, a colleague and I published an article, “Signs of the Times,” in the Jerusalem Post. It summarized the anxiety then being experienced by the Montreal Jewish community as a result of the various political and social developments in the province following the election in November 1976 of the Parti Québécois.

Of especial concern was the passage of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language. That law declared, at the time, that French was to be the only language allowed on commercial signs in the province. With few exceptions, the use of English was banned. For many, this smacked of a narrow, triumphalist form of nationalism.

On February 17, the newspaper Le Devoir attacked our Post article, under the sensationalist headline “La diaspora de Montréal est menacée par l’anti-sémitisme.” Our own article was reproduced on the op-ed page in a French translation that changed many verbs from past to present tense, inserted new words, and otherwise transformed the tone and sense of the original.

A day later a vitriolic editorial, “Le Québec discrédité en Israël,” appeared in the paper, suggesting that we had defamed Quebec and had “run off” to publish the story in Israel. The editorial also called on Jewish community leaders to refute our views – which some, shamefully, did.

In the weeks that followed, numerous letters appeared in the media, attacking us personally. We were also denounced on radio and television talk shows. Even our member of the Quebec National Assembly, though a Liberal, joined in the condemnation.

The whole story was picked up by other newspapers across Canada. We became, as one newspaper put it, “the eye of a storm.”

As Le Devoir refused to apologize for having defamed us, we engaged the services of the noted civil liberties lawyer Julius Grey, and filed a suit in Quebec Superior Court, charging that we had been the victims of a hate campaign. Le Devoir finally settled out of court and printed an apology on its op-ed page on December 17, 1985.

This whole episode has been documented in a number of articles and books, including Michael Brown’s Jew or Juif?: Jews, French Canadians, and Anglo-Canadians, 1759-1914, published in 1987. So, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the PQ election victory in Quebec, might I say about l’affaire Wong, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October 18, 2006

The Liberals, Israel and the issue of war crimes.

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has enraged many in the Liberal Party by referring to some of the party’s leadership candidates as having “anti-Israel” tendencies.

This followed upon Michael Ignatieff’s remark that Israel had committed a war crime in bombing the southern Lebanese village of Qana during the war against Hezbollah last summer.

Ironically, the man who levelled that charge against Israel is often described as a “neocon” by his opponents, and is probably a better friend of Israel than are most of the other Liberal hopefuls. But Harper is on to something: the Liberal Party has a significant number of rank-and-file members who, at best, find Israel distasteful.

It is now reflected in party policies, which have become “NDP lite” when it comes to the Middle East. Indeed, it may be the reason Ignatieff, despite his attempt to woo this anti-Israel constituency, might fail in his attempt to win the party’s leadership.

Ignatieff’s remarks prompted Liberal MP Susan Kadis, who represents the Thornhill riding in suburban Toronto, with its very large Jewish population, to step down as co-chair of his Toronto-area campaign.

It also caused Ariela Cotler, wife of the former justice minister in Paul Martin’s Liberal government, Montreal-area MP Irwin Cotler, to quit the party altogether. Cotler’s riding, Mount Royal, is home to the majority of Montreal’s Jews.

The various ethnic constituencies that the Liberal party has managed to keep onside as part of its political coalition all these many decades now seems to be falling apart. The contradictions can no longer be papered over by bromides about multiculturalism and diversity.

Of course some of the confusion over what constitutes a war crime lies with our own political class, whose views on the right of states to defend their territorial integrity have come back to “bite” them.

Back in the spring of 1999, the Chrétien government joined the NATO campaign against Serbia when Slobodan Milosevic tried to suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army’s attempt to wrest that province away from rule by Belgrade. Many prominent Liberals, including Irwin Cotler, gave it their wholehearted support.

There were exaggerated stories of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo and, as we know, the Serbian president was eventually arrested and charged with war crimes. He would no doubt have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague had he not died earlier this year.

A few months after the Kosovo war, I published an article in which I noted that under the new international regime of human rights it is conceivable that some international tribunal might some day indict an Israeli leader for war crimes.

“The newly expanded definition of what constitutes war crimes and human rights violations puts the leader of any country defending itself in the same category as an Idi Amin or Augusto Pinochet,” I wrote. “Could people who avidly supported the war against Serbia, for instance, suddenly develop a double standard when it came to Israel?”

In Ignatieff’s case, the answer is no, even though Israel has made far greater efforts to minimize death and injury to civilians than did the Serbs in Kosovo. The chickens are coming home to roost.