Nobel prize-winner Eli Wiesel has become the latest high-profile Jewish figure to appeal to the Canadian government to repeal controversial legislation which denies healthcare to refugees from “safe” countries.
The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor issued a letter to Canadian daily Globe and Mail newspaper last week, in which he appealed to the Canadian authorities “as a former refugee” himself.
Aligning with the Toronto Broad of Rabbis, that has made uncharacteristic political appeals on the subject, Wiesel wrote “I feel morally compelled to remain on the side of other uprooted men and women everywhere,” adding that “today, a yesterday, a nation is judged by its attitude to refugees”.
The changes to Canadian law that came into effect on June 30 deny refugees from declared “safe” countries the right to benefits and healthcare payments formerly paid for by the federal government. Whilst the list of these countries has yet to be revealed, it is thought to include Wiesel’s birth country of Hungary, which has seen a recent surge of anti-Semitic activity, as well as being the birthplace of many Holocaust survivors.
In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Toronto Board of Rabbis appealed to the government to drop the bill. Last month, the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre called on parliament “to apply these new reforms with extreme caution, given the resurgence of racist and anti-Semitic threat in certain European countries”.
Last month, Liberal opposition MP Justin Trudeau apparently referenced appeals by three high-profile Canadian Jewish activists, when he tweeted his concerns about the healthcare reform bill, accusing Harper’s Conservative party of not believing in “Tikun Olam”, using the Hebrew term for “repairing the world”.
It is thought he was referring to an article written by campaigners Philip Berger, high-profile defence lawyer Clayton Ruby and former Canadian Jewish Congress head and Liberal candidate for Ontario Bernie Faber in The Globe and Mail, in which they reminded readers of Canada’s dubious role in closing its doors to Holocaust victims seeking escape from Nazi Europe.
“Bearing the scars of the Holocaust, most Jews fled Europe to countries like Canada, which finally opened its doors with a new immigration policy”, they wrote.
“However,” they continued, “the Roma mostly stayed behind, and there has been an enormous escalation of discrimination and bigotry against them, especially in Hungary… Many have tried to flee to Canada, where doors have once again become hard to pry open”.
Canada is renowned for having restricted its immigrant quotas with the rise of Hitler to power in Europe. In 1930, the Canadian government began by banning all immigration from Europe, with the exception of those immigrants with sufficient funds to support themselves, or those with family already in Canada. The following year, further legislation introduced restricted this to British and American citizens with independent means or who worked in the farming, mining, lumbering or logging industries.
Along with these anti-immigration policies, which reflected the economic depression, came a surge in anti-Semitism, as the media protested the influx of Jewish refugees into the country and the subsequent strain on resources. Canadian inter-war Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King declared the massacre of Jews in Nazi Europe was not a “Canadian problem”, as the authorities refused entry to Europe’s refuge-seeking Jews. Canada accepted only 8,000 Jews, constituting 1% of the 811, 000 Jewish refugees taken in by countries across the world.
The post-war Canadian government instituted anti-discrimination laws and relaxed immigration criteria and from 1946-1960, it is estimated that 46,000 Jew migrated to Canada, and that by 1990, approximately 30-40% of the Canadian Jewish community was made up of Holocaust survivors and their children.