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Class Voices

I’m sitting in Paula Draper’s Ryerson course and usually I really don’t have much interest in listening to the voices of the other students after presentations as so often conjecture is boring and self-indulgent, but this is different today. Rather than their inward-looking ponderings, these are remembrances of lived experiences. The topic is Anti-Semitism in Canada between the wars. It appears the people in the class, largely Jewish, hail from Winnipeg, but some from Montreal. They are describing events that were motivated by antagonism towards Jews in years that are fogged with time. One man recalls a sign in a restaurant in St. Agathe that prohibited both dogs and Jews to the premise. I am reminded of Lita Rose Betcherman’s work on Centre Island here in Toronto, the same story with different words, echoing Goebbels films and slogans that Jews like vermin must be eradicated. And the book None is Too Many by Abella and Trooper, chronicling the refusal towards Jewish refuges to land on Canada’s shores during the 1930-40’s, most memorable the St. Louis, boat of desperation rejected by Cuba, then attempting sanctuary in Canada, but eventually forced to return to Europe with its human cargo destined for death.

In class, Draper has just mentioned McKenzie King’s personal attitude towards Jewish immigration; he even purchased land around his own home to avoid Jews from coming too personally close. Blair, his immigration minister openly rejected Corrine Wilson’s plea to allow 1000 Jewish families into Canada. He finally agrees to 100 orphans with only two actually permitted entry. Yet, Draper states that the newspaper was rift with Nazi barbarism and Jewish terror. Ironically Joseph Kennedy maintained he could trust Hitler; obviously Neville Chamberlain believed likewise.

In Canada again, I reflect on the exclusion of Jews from professions, quotas by universities such as McGill and U of T and shake my head. We have come a long way–maybe. Yet at my grandson’s school they have cancelled Multicultural Night where moms were to bring ethnic foods, a version of “Holidays and Heroes”: which even in my1996 thesis research I found to be stereotyping attempts at integrating diverse cultures. But I wonder why the reason for cancellation. Perhaps parents are too busy and cannot concoct delicatissies that reflect the origins of their families. Maybe there reasonably hides some latent resentment at being classified by food their grannies once prepared and are now too old to deliver to a night event at a nearby school. I know there is acceptance of all at this mid-Toronto school and do not for a second consider there is a link to discrimination or racism. My grandson studies Mandarin in a noontime program and the faces emerging from school at the end of the day provide wide evidence of Canada’s changed policies of immigration.

I  wonder what food would represent Jews from Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Lithuania. Bagels? Matzoh balls? Pierogi? Goulash? Strange for my grandsons whose first foods were edamame and pizza. They did not even taste fabled chicken soup until years later. I chuckle to consider that one grandchild’s favourite Saturday lunch at Pickle Barrel commences with chicken soup followed a hot plate of tomato and meatball spaghetti. He is not eating Ethnic. He is merely following the trajectory of his taste buds. Should we say he is combining the food predilections of several foreign countries, he might look quizzical and continue slurping his soup.

When my children were young, we were always expected at the Friday night supper at my parents. I recall my young son cease his eating to frown, look up at the assembled family and query, “ What if we are only a dream in G-d’s head?” Stunned by his utterance momentarily, my mother admonished, “ Just finish your soup”. And he returned to his bowl of hot chicken soup. Perhaps his philosophical questioning squashed forever!

We learned in school that Canada was a mosaic, tiny glittering squares, individual but separate,special and unique, showcasing the qualities of our immigrants, unlike the United States’ melting pot, the gooey non-descript sludge that results when all the ingredients become indistinct from too much chopping and cooking. I often thought of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Transition where upon entering kindergarten, her name was changed, anglicized to fit into a 1950’s world. From that point, she wrote that her early years growing up in Poland had become inaccessible to her because they had been lived in another language she was no longer permitted to speak in the land of milk and honey.

We here felt secure about our identity that looked to the past but was conjoined with the present to represent all of our realities, that mosaic thing, later to become the mantra of Post-modernism thought. But yesterday when the soldier guarding the war memorial on Parliament Hill was gunned down, I think everyone wondered. ( Remember I write my blogs to be edited much later) Of course anywhere where guns are available, there is no safety. Did the US smirk and think, you’re not so different Canada. Terrorists can also infiltrate your shores, blatantly walking into your home, spreading cloaks of evil and death. The National Post (November 7, 2014) wrote, “Was he ( the gunman) driven by mental illness and drugs? Was the attack a function of extreme religious beliefs, a reaction to the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham? Or was it a copycat crime possibly triggered by the killing of another Canadian soldier in Quebec two days earlier?”

I don’t know how to think about this horror. It is a wide leap to blame immigration, carding, identifying good people from bad. How do we know? Do we really want to try to read the faces of every person who jostles us on the street, scrutinizing by beards, sneers, limps, thick glasses, funny hats and outlandish clothes, or maybe the ones who look most normal like Paul Bernardo: wolves in sheep’s clothing. Ironically, the mother of the gunman (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau born in Canada in 1982), Susan Bibeau, worked as the deputy chairperson of the Immigration Committee at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Having just returned from visiting the 9/11 Museum in New York, and caught in the teeming continuous flow of people in the streets, I cannot know who possesses the madness to pull a trigger or grab my hand in friendship. How do we make judgments that will keep us safe in our home, in our country?

My Pilates instructor that morning suggested that watching the news of the gunman on the hill was like a film trailer of a new catastrophe films. When I worked at the College and rushed in to witness the Twin Towers pierced by the plane,s I thought the same: just rewind the tape and remove the catastrophe, I silently pleaded in my head.

This film’s events at Parliament hill shot by Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove were raw and brutal, revealing the bravery of the police/ RCMP that tailed the shooter, not hanging back. Maybe a bit like the Blair Witch documentary with the smudgy, dropped camera that tracks a murderer in small town America. Loose focus ,but mouth-dropping brave. And the story-our story of the Sergeant at arms who practices weekly with his gun, who was at the ready, and acted immediately. High, hideous, drama in deed.

We, the observers, stand outside the drama gawking, but truly we are inside in the heart of the violence, in our theoretical home, our head, our parliament that organizes our lives in this country. I never drive the Highway of Heroes without reflecting on Nathan Cirillo’s final ride and the people who stood at the edge of the road in freezing cold. His stepfather said, “We are not only mourning as a family, but also a country.”

When I taught my Post-colonial class at Northern, I instructed my classes, “ We all came from somewhere outside Canada; we are all immigrants to this country.”


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