ARCHIVED – Speaking notes for The Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism

At a Reception to Celebrate the Accomplishments of the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) 2008 – 2013

Toronto, Ontario
February 18, 2013

As delivered

The great champion of human dignity, Elie Wiesel, wrote that: “For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received and the evil we have suffered… An immoral society betrays humanity because it betrays the basis for humanity, which is memory… A moral society is committed to memory. I believe in memory.

And I do believe in memory. It is memory that gathers us here today because our society, Canada, is a moral society — not a perfect society, but a society animated by the highest ideals, a belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person, in a tradition of ordered liberty, in the idea that all men and women are created equal, and – in the words of the preamble of the Charter of Rights – living together in a country “founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

And yet it is true that we have not always lived up to the best of those ideals; that we have, throughout our history, sometimes fallen short. As a moral society, we have a choice to make. We can either seek to forget those moments of imperfection, of injustice, of discrimination, of persecution, of xenophobia, or we can seek to recognize them and to learn from them and to be impelled by them to do better now and in the future.

That is why the Government of Canada created the Community Historical Recognition Program – to create a platform, a basis, upon which to remember and to recognize these periods in our history when we fell short.

Prior to the Community Historical Recognition Program, we must acknowledge the groundbreaking initiative of the Right Honourable Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in his government’s redress to Canadians of Japanese origin for their dislocation during the Second World War, and indeed for his apology on behalf of the people and Government of Canada for the internment of Canadians of Italian origin during the Second World War.

And that created a framework to continue this very important work of identifying the reasons for these xenophobic ideas that certainly influenced the policies of previous governments. It is why this government, Prime Minister Harper’s government, decided to launch a project to work with the communities that were affected by the exclusion of immigrants or the internment of Canadians during the two world wars. And it is also why this project was announced.

This was not an easy or obvious thing to do. Previous governments, for whatever reasons, said – as did former Prime Minister Trudeau – that we cannot take responsibility for the sins of our fathers. And indeed, we cannot. Canadians today are not directly and personally culpable for mistakes that were made in the past. But that is not an excuse for collective amnesia. That is a reason to be very intentional about collective memory.

Some said that for us to launch a project like this would be to engage in what people call “black-arm-band history”, to dwell only on the negative and to allow stories of exclusion to become so central to our identity that we forget what an inclusive society we are. And I say I reject “black-arm-band history”. I do not agree with those in academia and elsewhere who believe that Canadian society is, and always has been, deeply tainted by racism or xenophobia.

But the best way to address that is by telling the truth about our history. If we want to celebrate what’s best about our history, if we want to propose Canada as a model for inclusion, and pluralism, and dignity of the human person, and respect for fundamental human rights, and inclusivity, then we must be honest with ourselves about those times in our past when we fell short.

And that is why we launched this project that has funded, through community engagement at the grassroots level, dozens of brilliant works of art, documentary research, films, plays, books, monuments, online resources, teaching and educational and curricular resources – so that we can be honest with ourselves, we can seek in some symbolic ways to heal scars from the past, but most importantly, so that we can learn from these experiences to prevent them in the future.

The first redress project on which I worked intensively – shortly after Prime Minister Harper’s government took office in 2006 – was redress to the Canadian-Chinese community for the injustice of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act. As you know, and as this short video clip reminds us, it was Canadians of Chinese origin who literally helped to unite this country with a ribbon of steel from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Canada would not exist as it does today were it not for their sacrifices; because many of them did the most difficult and dangerous work in creating the national dream in the construction of the CPR.

And yet, when the railway was completed in 1885, Canada said, “we have enough Chinese already, we don’t want any more,” and imposed the Head Tax – a discriminatory and prejudicial tax imposed on people of one particular ethnicity. The tax was raised over time to make it prohibitive, dividing families. And when that wasn’t adequate, when some still came, the government, on July the 1st, 1923, imposed the Exclusion Act, a statute specifically barring people of Chinese origin from immigrating to Canada, except in very limited circumstances.

So imagine a young Chinese labourer coming to Canada in 1922, with the hope and expectation of saving up and eventually inviting his wife and children, only to find the door closed and locked. And many terrible stories emerged from that experience. For example, families whose wives and children were in Manchuria, while the husband continued to work in Canada, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded. There are wives and children of Canadian-Chinese who were killed during the Rape of Nanking because they could not immigrate to Canada.

And the Head Tax and Exclusion Act symbolized an entire framework of laws and practices at all levels of government, and in our civil society, that treated people of Chinese origin as second-class people.

While we want to avoid “black-arm-band history,” we also need to avoid a Pollyannaish gloss of our history. When we look at the United States, we’re often so critical — and rightly so — of the history of discrimination in post-Civil War Reconstruction of the United States, about the civil rights struggle for equality for Black Americans. But did you know that there was a time in many parts of Canada when people of Chinese origin could not go into certain public facilities and buildings?

Think of Douglas Jung, born in Victoria in 1921, son of Chinese immigrants, who grew up in a Canada where he could not vote. Based on municipal bylaws in Vancouver, he could not go into public swimming pools. Imagine – in Canada.

But the beauty of this country is that Douglas Jung, and others of his generation, did not give up on this place. They did not see that exclusion as a reason to opt out. They saw it as a compulsion to be even more Canadian than they were allowed to be by the laws. And that’s why, in 1939, when hostilities broke out, he sought to enlist with dozens of other brave young Canadians of Chinese origin to join His Majesty’s Canadian Forces to fight fascism in Europe and Asia. And because of prejudice, they weren’t allowed to do so. But as Wesley Lowe has documented in his beautiful film about Douglas Jung, they kept coming back, week after week, to the army enlistment office, kept being sent away and they kept coming back, and finally in 1944, when the Pacific theatre was heating up, Canada realized the British military said, “we need the talents of these Canadians of Chinese origin, enlist them.” And we finally did, sent them overseas behind enemy lines where they served with great distinction. Douglas Jung came back with hundreds of other brave Canadians of Chinese origin who had worn our country’s uniform, and thanks to their patriotism, their willingness to die for a country in which they did not have citizenship, in which they could not vote, they won those rights. And only ten years later, he was elected the first Member of Parliament of non-European origin.

That’s the story that we’re seeking to tell with the Community Historical Recognition Program: Yes, the prejudice that Douglas Jung encountered in the first 20 years of his life, but also the redemption of Canada so beautifully personified in his act of patriotism. And indeed, Wesley’s introduction to me of this story is part of what motivated our Government to create this program.

I worked very closely on this issue with a wide range of people in the Canadian-Chinese community. One common story I hear from all of these different communities and experiences is that those who were most directly affected wanted to put it behind them. They didn’t want to be burdened. They felt shame about what had happened. And they just wanted to move forward, and in so many cases, buried the memories. And yet their children and their children’s children believed it was important, when they began to find out about these stories, to reclaim this memory.

That is what we did working with the Chinese community. I see my friend Susan Eng. I spent many late-hour phone calls with her and others in the community trying to sort out, calibrate, how do you do this redress? This work of redress is not easy and it is not obvious. Every experience is different. You cannot go back and heal people who are no longer with us. You can’t undo the wrongs that were done. And every one of the communal experiences is different. And we had to sort out how do you do this without becoming completely submerged in a kind of irredeemably negative view of Canadian history? How do you do this in a way that is uplifting, while at the same time honest?

We worked our way through all of these issues. I have to tell you one of the most remarkable privileges of my life was to sit down with many of those directly affected in the consultations for what we did in each of these projects. So for example, in working toward the redress of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, I had a chance to sit down with pioneers of the community of over 90 or 100 years of age. I remember meeting with one lady in Vancouver who was 103 years old — lively as could be, razor sharp wit. And she described for me the stories of discrimination and adversity that her generation went through.

I think of all everything that I’ve learned from James Pon, who is with us here. James and his wife Vera have joined us. James is one of the last surviving actual Canadians who paid the Chinese Head Tax. And James, like Douglas Jung, did not carry on with the rest of his Canadian life with a chip on his shoulder. Instead, he wanted to teach young Canadians of all backgrounds about the experience of the railway workers, and simply wanted some dignified recognition of what happened. James, please stand up and let us acknowledge you for your great work.

And so we had the Prime Minister’s apology in the House of Commons for the injustice of the Chinese Head Tax, and the ex gratia payments for the surviving Head Tax payers and their surviving spouses, and several million dollars of funding for fantastic projects, some of which we have heard about here today.

One of the most complex issues I had to work on was the internment of Canadians who had arrived in this country as subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. Speaking of unknown stories, this one is still too little known. In fact, it was so unknown that even the children and grandchildren of those who had been interned knew nothing about it. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that Lubomyr Luciuk and others started to run into archival material about this, and started to unpack the fact that over 8,000 Canadians were interned, some for as long as five years, during the First World War. Some were kept in the internment camps until 18 months after the end of hostilities. And they came from different backgrounds, because the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course, incorporated dozens of ethnicities. But I have to acknowledge the Ukrainian community took the lead in recognizing this. We worked with the community to ensure that the Croatian, Serbian, Austrian and other communities affected were included in an advisory committee that now advises the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko and the administration of an endowment that we provided through the CHRP, so that the memory of those who were affected can be consecrated for the future.

And I can tell you some of the projects we are doing are phenomenal. I was in Northern Quebec and went to a museum that’s been created next to one of the largest camps of First World War internment. And this is an endowment that will be able to fund projects, in principle, in perpetuity. And so we thank the communities involved for their partnership.

The Komagata Maru – you saw the brief clip of one of the documentaries that we funded – is another little known moment that just symbolizes a broader policy adopted in 1905, the Continuous Journey Policy, which was analogous to the Chinese Head Tax. It was a little more ingenious, though. The Dominion government wanted to prevent a wave of South Asian immigration to Canada, but in the context of the British Empire, there was an expectation that Canada would receive the British subjects of India as though they were Canadians, that we were all subjects of the same Crown. So the Dominion government couldn’t adopt a law explicitly excluding migrants who were British subjects in India. And so what they did was to say you can only come to Canada from South Asia in one continuous journey, which was technically impossible at the time.

And so these people from Punjab – who were Muslim, Sikh and Hindu altogether in the same boat – hired a vessel to go to Japan, where they then boarded a Japanese vessel, the Komagata Maru. It arrived in Burrard Inlet in the spring of 1914, and for two months, they were stuck in the harbour, not permitted to disembark. Finally, the Dominion government allowed those who had previously been resident in Canada to disembark but the others were told they could not — in clear violation of the understanding of what a British subject was.

This was the beginning of the institutional civil society within the Indo-Canadian community, particularly the Sikh community, through which the Khalsa Diwan Society was created around 1914 specifically to bring supplies — fresh water and food — to the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, and to advocate for them. But the response from the Dominion government was an absolute no. And as you see, in May of 1914, the vessel was forced out of the Burrard Inlet, returned back to India, and tragically, when it returned in the Port of Calcutta, a riot ensued and many people were killed.

This is a very complex issue and story, but I want to pay a special homage to the pioneers in the Indo-Canadian community who have kept hold of this memory and, again, the longer history of discrimination that it represents, for all that they’ve done – particularly Mr. Jack Uppal, who was on our Indo-Canadian Komagata Maru Advisory Committee. He can’t be with us tonight — his health is not well — but he is a man of great dignity. And indeed, again, to reflect the kind of pluralism of that whole Komagata Maru project – with Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims all together in the boat – we ensured that the Advisory Committee included a Canadian Sikh, a Canadian Hindu and a Canadian Muslim, all of Indian origin.

Last summer, I had the great honour of unveiling a monument to the passengers of the Komagata Maru right there on Burrard Inlet. And now we have a museum at the Khalsa Diwan Society, which was created to help the passengers of that vessel, and many other marvellous projects.

And then, of course, there was 1938 and the St. Louis. I will – I think next week – be attending the anniversary of the publication of the seminal historical work by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many, which, through archival research, uncovered evidence that the refusal to allow the MS St. Louis to disembark at Halifax was part of a very deliberate policy of exclusion of European Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War.

And, you know, one of the things in reading that book that you learn is that politicians like Mackenzie King told representatives from the Jewish community that if we allow Jewish refugees to come to Canada, it may only inflame popular anti-Semitic sentiment, which is just below the surface, they said. And so basically, they said for us to help the Jews in Canada, we can’t accept the Jews from Europe. So the more than 800 passengers of the St. Louis were refused. After having gone to Cuba and then Miami, and been refused, they were also refused permission to dock at Pier 21 in Halifax. Had they done so, those are 800-and-some people who would have had amazing lives, and would have had descendants here in Canada. One cannot even begin to calculate the contributions that they would have made. They were returned to Europe, some of them to perish in the Shoah.

And so we consecrated part of the CHRP resources to learning about, researching, and remembering wartime immigration restriction measures on the Jewish community.

Did you know that Canada, shamefully, during the entire course of the War, received only a few hundred Jewish refugees, when much smaller jurisdictions like the Dominican Republic received tens of thousands?

But again, this is a story of injustice followed by redemption, because after the War, Canada opened its doors of hospitality and protection. And we ended up receiving, after the United States and Israel, the largest number of Holocaust survivors, who found new homes here in Canada, many of them within a few blocks of us here in Toronto. Indeed, we will be honouring them here in November when Toronto hosts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance conference.

Through this project, we have funded some remarkable work. Thank you very much to Sara for that lovely children’s book. And thank you for your presentation. Thank you, Toni, to you and members of the Advisory Committee for your great work. We funded important academic work at the University of Toronto through B’nai Brith, an international conference on Jewish wartime immigration restrictions, and a permanent memorial designed by the world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind – organized through the good work of the Canadian Jewish Congress – to remember the experience of the MS St. Louis at what is now, by the way, our new National Museum of Immigration History at Pier 21, where the passengers would have disembarked. And I think I see Bernie Farber in the back – Bernie, thank you for your leadership at the Canadian Jewish Congress at that time. And thanks to anyone from the community here who facilitated those important projects.

The Italian community’s Second World War internment experience was also a difficult piece to work on, because proposals of redress had begun under the Mulroney government, circa 1989 and 1990, but not entirely completed. And there were different views. My goodness, I have to tell you folks, this whole project has been both the most difficult and most rewarding thing that I have done in government — and I’ve done a lot of difficult things — because we wanted in each case to work with the communities to develop a consensus on the best form of redress. And I’ll tell you, when you’re working with Canada’s wonderful ethno-cultural communities, you may be able to find consensus, after a lot of hard work, but you’ll never find unanimity. There will always be differences – let a thousand flowers bloom. But in each community, there are different views about how these things should be done, and that was the case in the Italian, as in the other, communities.

But I think we worked together. We demonstrated good faith — thank you, Con, for your help on this, and to all the leaders of the Canadian-Italian community — that with some patience and perseverance and flexibility on the part of me and my department, we were able to fund several million dollars worth of marvellous, marvellous projects. I’ve been to the wonderful new museum up in Ottawa. I saw the projects, the documentary and the play that we staged, and the exhibition out in Vancouver with the community. There’s a monument that’s being erected with the Winnipeg Italian community. And I was blown away a couple of weeks ago to visit Casa Italia in Montreal, and to see what they have done in what was really the symbolic heart of the Italian community in Canada for so long.

And I met there children of internees, who were deeply emotional about how the CHRP project had allowed their parents to finally tell their stories to someone.

And really, maybe that’s where I want to close, by saying that this program is the best investment of public funds that I’ve been involved with, because in the grand scheme of things it was a relatively modest amount of money — certainly compared to the magnitude of these historical experiences. But these investments were like a key that unlocked memories and gave people permission to tell us about their experiences, to tell them to videographers, and to documentary makers, and to researchers, and to playwrights, and to children’s books authors, and to take those memories and to transmit them forever into the future. What could possibly constitute a better investment?

So let me thank my officials at CIC — don’t do that often enough — for their great patience. Let me thank and acknowledge the Prime Minister for taking the risk to do this. It would have been much easier, politically, to do what his predecessors had done and to say, “That’s the past. We’re not going to get stuck into a quagmire of retrospection on the past. It’s too difficult, it’s too dangerous, we will avoid it.” His predecessors did that. And I want to thank him for the courage to give me the license to work with the communities to seek a way forward on redress and remembrance.

Thank you to everyone involved, including Immigration Canada employees, members of the committees that gave advice to my department, the leaders and members of all the communities involved, and the artists, researchers and academics – everyone who helped to make this program a success.

And while these memories will be transmitted in perpetuity for the future, ultimately of course the greatest way of recognizing what has happened is to rededicate ourselves as a society never to repeat these mistakes. And in that respect I can say that maintaining the world’s highest sustained level of immigration, highest per capita level of immigration in the developed world, receiving more resettled refugees per capita than any other country in the world, and being a champion, although imperfect, of human rights and human dignity, is the single most important monument that we can leave.

To again close where I began – with Elie Wiesel: “Forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act… An immoral society betrays humanity because it betrays the basis for humanity, which is memory… A moral society is committed to memory. I believe in memory.”

We believe in memory.

Thank you.


Subscribe to news

Page details

Date modified: