The recent honouring in Parliament of a Ukrainian who served with the Nazis has shone a harsh but honest spotlight on Canada’s record of failure bringing alleged war criminals to justice and respecting the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as they relate to grave historical injustices and human rights violations of genocide and crimes against humanity.
To many Canadians, Canada’s disturbing record regarding the systematic failure for over 70 years to prosecute individuals who served with the Nazis in extermination campaigns and to welcome many to Canada while rejecting immigration applications of Jews who survived the Holocaust will come as a shocking surprise, and one greatly at odds with Canada’s collective self-conception as a country that deeply values and respects human rights.
The lack of political will to prosecute alleged participants in genocide was and remains an affront both to Canadian survivors of the Holocaust and to all Holocaust survivors, wherever they lived and live globally.
Today, Canada continues to fail to bring them to justice in violation of its legal commitments to the UN 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Irwin Cotler, the former minister of justice and attorney general, has characterized the Canadian government’s failures to prosecute likely Nazi war criminals as a “failure of inaction and indifference.”
As Cotler also stated, Canada should release the full Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals report of 1980s “so that we can secure the necessary justice that has been lacking, and that we can also correct the historical record, and that we can go forward in terms of pursuing justice.”
Indeed, this is essential for the truth to prevail and for some form of justice — however profoundly compromised and belated — to be envisioned and implemented.
While some of these participants in Nazi extermination campaigns and militia units can still be prosecuted — as they are today in Germany, much belatedly — and there is legal and moral responsibility to do so, the main area where the Canadian government can repair some of its legal and moral failures is through education, commemoration and investment in the communities of the individuals that survived the Holocaust and in their cultural sustainability and vitality.
Ontario has rightly recently moved to mandate Holocaust and human rights education to the Grade 6 curriculum.
All provinces can build on Ontario’s legislation, and take care to provide the pedagogical resources teachers need to situate Holocaust education in relation to Canadian history, democratic values and laws, and human rights commitments.
It is essential that these education efforts address Jewish and Roma life and culture before and after the Holocaust, so that Canadian students appreciate these individuals and communities targeted during the Nazi genocide and their cultures as living, creative and dynamic.
They were not primarily victims, but survivors of extraordinary resilience and renewal who built new lives in Canada despite widespread discrimination and prejudice against them and have contributed and continue to contribute enormously to Canada.
British Columbia and the federal government have commendably contributed to a new Jewish community centre in Vancouver, which also incorporates the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
This is a tangible expression of support for and solidarity with the Jewish community which benefits all Canadians — as Federal Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan has said — and is a model for other provinces, including Quebec, to follow.
Canada must also do a better job today of prosecuting other perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity, many of whom still shamefully find refuge in Canada and Quebec, including perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi.
Canada must be much more vigilant, transparent and rigorous in protecting survivors of genocide and prosecuting its perpetrators and preventing them from settling here. We must finally learn from our failure to do so in the context of the Holocaust and correct the policies stemming from it.
Noam Schimmel is an associate fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University’s faculty of law and a lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
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