Friday, July 12, 2024

Tolerating intolerance

It was heartening a few weeks ago to see the prime minister meeting with Tamil refugees who have made their way to Canada, and expressing his appreciation for the contribution they have made to this country. But one wonders if, in making his congratulatory comments, he has any knowledge of the backstory of how they were propelled to flee for their lives from their Sri Lankan homeland.
The Tamils, an ethnic minority in their island nation just south of India, had been the subjects of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority for decades. In the 1980s, tensions erupted into violence, with rape, mass murder and the burning of villages in what history recalls as the Black July genocide.
Where do such things start?
Where did they start in Rwanda before it descended into conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis resulting in a brutal massacre?
Or in former Yugoslavia where, soon after hosting the world at the peace-promoting Olympics in Sarajevo, civilization was reduced to civil war between the Serbs and Croats, when we learned the term ethnic cleansing, when NATO intervened with aerial bombing and a ground force of 60,000 soldiers, and when Canada’s Louise Arbour indicted sitting Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes.
Or in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur where, in the latest chapter of long-standing ethnic hostilities, women of the minority Kuki community were recently assaulted by men of the Meitei majority, all of which was ignored by the country’s Prime Minister Modi until video drew worldwide attention to the incident?
We could go on and inquire about the sources of the troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Or between Israelis and Palestinians. Or the oppression of the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Tragically, making political hay out of the differences between peoples in the name of protecting the purity of the majority culture is an all too common occurrence in our world.
And it always ends in catastrophe.
You will hear it said that the holocaust did not begin with trains and gas chambers. It started with a government that was able to convince enough of the population that it was acceptable to treat a minority segment of society as second-class citizens, that built its popularity and power by scapegoating that minority as the cause of all the problems of the majority, and that made it publicly acceptable to discriminate openly and eventually violently, murderously and ruthlessly against the minority.
Of course, none of these atrocities are happening here. Not that they couldn’t. One need only look back a few pages in our history book to see how, even in good old Canada, we pushed Japanese Canadians out of their homes and businesses and locked them in concentration camps entirely because of their ethnicity. Or just a little further back to see how government-sponsored programs to assimilate Indigenous populations involved brutal theft of lands and identity, genocide and a legacy of intergenerational trauma.
These are cautionary tales about the subtle seeds of discontent that can be sewn by political leaders and lead to a harvest of horrors for which subsequent prime ministers will one day issue public apologies.
It is particularly concerning in a global political climate where hate endorsed and encouraged by political leaders has become commonplace. We need look no further than south of our own border to see that hate sells, that it is a marketable commodity that some politicians are using, shockingly, to their advantage.
Right now, we are acknowledging the absurdity that in the name of promoting the French language within Quebec, the provincial government is not willing to recognize the validity of a death certificate issued in English by the same government. It would seem laughably trivial if it were not the latest example of a pattern of policies and impulses that consign non-Francophones to second-class citizenship. We may all be equal as tax-paying, voting, law-abiding citizens, but the law says that we are not equal if we wish to speak a different language or celebrate different religious traditions than the majority.
This should be of concern not just to the English-speaking population of Quebec. This should be of concern not only to Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus or anyone wanting the freedom to wear the clothing of their faith at will. This should be alarming to anyone who knows anything about modern history or even current affairs.
One wonders whether this includes our prime minister or if he, like Prime Minister Modi, is looking the other way.

Charles Dickson


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