Why Did Canada Nix Jewish Heritage Month?

It was a slap in the face to Canadian Jews by “anti-Semitic” legislators. Or maybe it was a procedural snafu in a ready-to-bolt-for-vacation Parliament.

In any case, the motion to designate November as Jewish Heritage Month in Canada is dead in the water after fellow lawmakers declined to support Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who floated the idea last week.

The proposal from Cotler — a former Justice Minister and attorney general of Canada who is retiring from politics this month — seems innocuous enough: “That the House recognize the month of November as Jewish heritage month in recognition of the important contributions of Jewish Canadians to the settlement, development and growth of Canada; the cultural diversity of the Canadian Jewish community; the present significance of the Canadian Jewish community to this country; and the importance of creating opportunities for Canadians to learn more about each other in order to foster greater awareness, cohesion and mutual respect.”

But with a “No” from the floor that indicated a lack of unanimous support, the proposal evaporated.

What’s the larger message here, the Forward asked Cotler, especially in a country where every ethnic group seems to earn some kind of “heritage” goodie from the federal government — and where the ruling Conservatives have, under Stephen Harper, made support for Israel a pillar of their political platform?

“I’m not sure there is one,” Cotler said from his home in Montreal. “It’s not easy to get unanimous consent for a motion. I had the consent of my party [the Liberals] and the NDP,” the left-leaning New Democratic Party. But, Cotler added, Conservative party House leader Peter Van Loan hadn’t agreed to the proposal, “and that’s a formality you need to get consent.”

The Forward asked Van Loan through his spokesperson why he didn’t support Cotler’s measure. Between mentioning Harper’s recent King David Award, the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, and Israel’s right to defend itself, Van Loan’s statement said the Canadian government “believes that motions to commemorate days and months should go through the proper legislative process.”

Cotler added that he was told too many “Heritage Month” proposals had been brought up for unanimous-consent votes. “I was associated with a number of them — Islamic, Asian, black,” he said. “The house leader’s reasoning this time had nothing to do with my motion in particular, but that we’d had too many similar motions, and we had to move this one forward by way of legislative initiative,” otherwise known as a private-member’s bill. But procedural complications made that option impossible, so Cotler went with what was essentially a Hail-Mary pass.

Whatever the gamesmanship behind it, the proposal’s defeat signals serious problems to Sue-Ann Levy.

“When you asked me about this, I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” said Levy, the Toronto Sun investigative columnist who’s made headlines herself for outspoken pro-Israel and pro-Jewish views. “Irwin Cotler’s a great champion for Jewish rights. But I believe there’s anti-Semitic sentiment among Liberals and other members of leftist parties like the NDP,” she told the Forward. “They’d never admit it, but it comes out, especially as anti-Israel rhetoric, which to me is the new anti-Semitism.”

The Forward noted that no one seemed to lend Cotler support when he tabled his motion. “Things like this need arm-twisting to move forward. I suspect that didn’t happen,” Levy said. “It’s very interesting when politicians sense there’s no groundswell of public support for something, and they don’t need to stick their necks out, they won’t, sad to say.”

Ontario already designates May as Jewish Heritage Month. It’s the only Canadian province to do so, which is another reason why a federal kudo is “far beyond” overdue, Levy said. “I know from covering the municipal legislature that they honor everything. Aboriginals are recognized. Asians are recognized. We tend to forget the tremendous value that Jewish immigrants have brought to this country,” she said. “Unfortunately, we Jews — and our organizations — are not good at promoting ourselves and our good work. We don’t want to make waves or seem pushy. But the tremendous, tremendous job we’ve done to build Canada is taken for granted.”

Dara Solomon, director of the Ontario Jewish Archives in Toronto, agreed — sort of. “Within the community, there’s a lot of celebration of achievements, and a lot of recognizing each other,” she said. “But it doesn’t move beyond that, unfortunately.”

It’s not that non-Jews don’t know about contributions of Jewish-Canadians, Solomon said. “It’s that Canadians aren’t well-versed in their history, and there’s not the same kind of storytelling around it as there is in the States. Canadians tend to shy away from patriotic expression. Within individual communities, there are rich celebrations of heritage. Outward celebrations, a bit less.” Even more reason the time has come for a Heritage Month, Solomon said. “It raises everybody up, and it’s an opportunity to show not only our contributions to Canadian culture and heritage, but to celebrate the multiculturalism of Canada.”

Solomon also mentioned the elephant in the room: Cotler’s a Liberal in a Conservative-dominated Parliament. “They’d rather this be a Conservative initiative,” she said. “It’s political. Not too many people oppose this.”

For his part, Cotler said the Jewish Heritage Month motion is far from finished. “It worked in the States,” where May is Jewish-American Heritage Month. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have it here. It’ll get done. My sense is that it will get passed by the new Parliament. The point is that I’ve asked the government to do it, and I said that I don’t care how it’s done. I’m not concerned whether it’s my motion or someone else’s. It’s a worthy initiative.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Why Did Canada Nix Jewish Heritage Month?

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