Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Name Changes in Montreal Should Work Both Ways

Henry Srebrnik , [Toronto] Jewish-Tribune

Québécois nationalists in Montreal have been into “name cleansing” for decades, trying to erase street and place names that are English, in particular those associated with the British conquest of New France.

Thus, Dorchester Boulevard, a main downtown artery, was renamed Boulevard René-Lévesque following the death of Quebec’s first Parti Québécois premier. Guy Carleton, First Baron Dorchester, had served as Governor of the Province of Quebec from 1768 to 1778.

More recently, one city councillor has been lobbying to get rid of Amherst Street because it was named after an English officer, Jeffery Amherst, who was commander-in-chief of the British army in North America at the time Quebec fell to the British. Amherst also held the position of military governor of Canada from 1760 to 1763.

Many years ago, Western Avenue became Boulevard de Maisonneuve, named after the founder of Montreal, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve.

There was a failed attempt to change the name of another major street, Park Avenue (already called Avenue du Parc) to honour former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa.

Even innocuous names such as Maplewood Avenue have been erased – it is now Boulevard Édouard-Montpetit, named for an influential Quebec nationalist scholar.

But obviously these same “cleansers” have no problem with names that remind us of the legacy of antisemitism, in Quebec and elsewhere.

Montreal’s Snowdon district, for example, has an important thoroughfare named Isabella Avenue, named for Queen Isabella of Spain. Indeed, there is a monument dedicated to her in MacDonald Park, which fronts Isabella Avenue between Clanranald and Earnscliffe Avenues. Isabella’s memorial, placed there in 1958, can be found at the southeast corner of the park.

I lived on Coolbrook Avenue, which is nearby, until 1982, but for some reason never looked closely at the memorial. When I was in Montreal earlier this summer, however, I took note of it.

This is a completely inappropriate monument, particularly in a neighbourhood with many Jewish residents, as Isabella and her husband, King Ferdinand, in 1492 ordered the expulsion of all Jews in the country who refused to convert to Catholicism. Approximately 200,000 Jews left Spain.

Others converted, but often came under scrutiny by the Inquisition investigating relapsed conversos (the so-called Marranos). Many of these people were then burnt at the stake. As a result, no Jews lived in Spain until the 20th century.

Should Montreal really pay tribute to a monarch responsible for ethnic cleansing, torture, and murder? It’s long past time to remove this memorial stone and replace it with something more appropriate – perhaps in recognition of a Montreal Jewish figure from the past such as Reuben Brainin, H. M. Caiserman, Yehuda Kaufman, A.M. Klein, Ida Maze, or Yaacov Zipper?

And by the way, while we’re looking at some “name cleansing,” shouldn’t Montreal also rename the Metro station honoring the notorious antisemite Lionel Groulx? Thousands of people use this Metro transfer stop daily and probably assume this was a great man. They should be disabused of this idea.

In the 1930s, Abbé Groulx was an avowed admirer of fascist dictators António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal and Benito Mussolini of Italy. He asserted that Jews were a negative influence on French Canadian society. His impact on Quebec’s intellectual elite was immense and Quebec’s politicians in turn pressured Ottawa to deny Jews entry into Canada in the decade before the Holocaust.

It was because of people like Groulx, who created the cultural climate that kept Jewish refugees out of this country, that millions of Jews perished in Hitler’s death camps.

If Quebec is really trying to break with its “tarnished” past, then Groulx should go down the same memory hole as Amherst and Dorchester.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Troubled America

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Earlier this summer, I travelled through eight American states, entering the United States at Detroit in Michigan and leaving at Calais, Maine.

The trip included longer stops in Columbus and Boston.

From what I observed, Americans seemed more politically polarized than ever. Many on the right of the political spectrum condemned everything President Barack Obama stood for, and indeed some questioned his very legitimacy as America’s chief executive.

The radio and television programs, and the newspaper columns, were full of anti-Obama tirades, attacking his efforts to bring some measure of sanity to the country’s private, expensive, and inadequate health-care system, one where insurance premiums have risen three times faster than wages in recent years.

Overhauling the $2.5 trillion U.S. health care system, by cutting costs and expanding coverage to the estimated 46 million Americans without health insurance, has been Obama’s top domestic initiative.

Yet the way some Republicans attacked the “socialist” attempts by “big government in Washington” to introduce a medical system that would serve the many millions of uninsured Americans, including not just the poor but those in the middle class who have recently lost their jobs, someone arriving from another planet would assume that the current federal government was a regime imposed by a foreign power, not one Americans had voted for just last November.

Backed by the private insurance companies, a massive propaganda campaign has been unleashed against Obama’s reform proposals. Boisterous “town hall” meetings held across the country over the summer turned into shouting matches. The onslaught of attacks have taken their toll on his popularity.

Opponents claimed that, with cost-conscious bureaucrats in control, medical treatments for the elderly would be curtailed by “death squads,” which would result in doctors “pulling the plug on grannny!” Some pro-life groups also objected to abortion becoming a publically-funded program. (Actually, under Obama’s plan, no federal dollars would be used to fund abortions.)

Clearly, this propaganda has been effective. Though the Democrats control both the presidency and both houses of Congress, they have been backpedaling in recent weeks.

Senate Democrats support some insurance reforms, such as protecting those with pre-existing medical conditions and preventing insurance companies from capping coverage. But many of their plans do not include the so-called “public option” – a government-run health insurance option to compete with private companies – that health care advocates insist is critical for reform to be effective.

In an address to Congress on Sept. 8, Obama tried to regain the initiative.“Our collective failure to meet this challenge – year after year, decade after decade – has led us to a breaking point,” he stated.

I have in the past criticized Canada’s own medical system, but compared to the situation in the U.S., it is something in which we can take pride.

Finally, there are extremists who deny Obama’s very right to sit in the White House. These “birthers,” as they call themselves, insist that Obama was born in Kenya, rather than in Hawaii, and is thus not even eligible to be president, since the U.S. Constitution requires that the occupant of the office be “a natural born citizen” of the United States.

Others conspiracy theorists assert that he is secretly a Muslim who has set out to ruin the country. (I heard this opinion expressed in a small town in Ohio.)

Much of this relates, of course, to the fact that Obama is an African American and hence, to such people, simply unacceptable as president.

The vicious tone of the backlash against the administration is troubling. It implies an ideological rejection of the democratic process through which Obama received a mandate to govern the country. These are clearly not easy times for Americans.