Holocaust Education Month launch event keynote speaker Bernie Farber describes Canada’s treatment of First Nations peoples as “genocide” and asks, “Is our conscience clear?” Louise Rachlis reports.
“Tonight my own thoughts are laced with tears, confusion and questions about human kind,” said Bernie Farber as he spoke about Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. “There have been things in Jewish history too horrible to be believed, but not too horrible to have happened.”
Farber was the keynote speaker, November 9 at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, for the official launch of Holocaust Education Month in Ottawa.
Farber, who grew up in Ottawa, is the son of a Polish Jew who lost his first wife, two children and other family members in the Holocaust.
He said up to one-and-a-half million Armenians were murdered in the first genocide of the modern era, and Hitler said, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
The “book on the Holocaust of the 20th Century that should have closed, is still open,” he said, mentioning later genocides in Cambodia, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, and “casting our eyes to the present day,” massacres in Africa and Syria. “‘Never again’ has, sadly, become ‘again and again.’ While we have a tendency to look over there, it is here as well.”
He said, “The question for tonight is ‘Is our conscience clear?’”
Farber, the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is now senior vice-president for government and external relations at Gemini Power Corporation, which helps First Nations reserves in Northern and Northwestern Ontario build sustainable industries.
He said it’s time for Canadians to “accept the sad truth” that the Canadian government engaged in genocide of First Nations people during the 19th and 20th centuries. What has been done in Canada fits the definition of genocide, he said, citing nutrition experiments, residential schools, adoption by non-aboriginal families and being allowed to die from tuberculosis.
Canada recognizes five genocides, he said, citing the Holocaust and the Ukrainian, Armenian, Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides.
“The time has come for Canada to recognize the sixth genocide, in search of a name but not of historical facts,” he said, referring to Canada’s First Nations. “A national conversation is now engaged.”
CBC Ottawa radio news anchor Laurence Wall was the evening’s MC.
“What do we do about the short attention span of the world?” Wall asked Farber during the question period.
“We are living in a time of outrage after outrage,” Farber said. “We have done as Jews an exceptionally good job of educating about the Shoah. This is what has to be done. There is only one antidote, and it is remembering history. Education is paramount … We are teachers and we have long, long memories. We will continue to teach those lessons, and it’s the only way forward.”
To a question on anti-Semitism in France, he replied, “Despite how you feel about the French government or the U.K. government, they do take this seriously. It is not Hitler … We are certainly not turning our backs. Democratic nations will protect their citizens.”
To another question on Iran’s nuclear capability, he said, “I believe one thing: the State of Israel is very focussed on this. The Jews fully understand the lessons of ‘never again.’”
Mina Cohn, chair of the Shoah Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, and Karen Palayew, Ottawa chair of March of the Living, presented Queen’s University student Nathan Cantor with special recognition for Outstanding Student Leadership in Holocaust Education and Remembrance.
Cohn said Cantor returned from the March of the Living and organized two events for Jewish and non-Jewish students: a screening of the film Paperclips, which uses individual paper clips to represent each of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust; and a student assembly on the Holocaust at Sir Robert Borden High School.
Seven March of the Living alumni – Madeleine Burke, Jordan Geist, Abby Greenberg, Rachel Kardish, Joshua Kofsky, Jacob Melamed and Matthew Silverman – presented a timeline of some of the hundreds of little steps leading up to the Holocaust and compared them to events like the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe this past summer.
“We feel it is our duty to make sure ‘never again’ doesn’t become ‘again and again,’” they said.
In attendance were many Holocaust survivors as well as dignitaries, including community rabbis, Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak, MPPs Yasir Naqvi and John Fraser, and MP Royal Galipeau.