While largely symbolic, the move will allow Canada to share the way its different jurisdictions teach students about the Holocaust, and take away lessons learned from the task force’s 25 other member countries.
When Jewish MP Irwin Cotler attended an international conference in Stockholm in 2000 commemorating the Holocaust, the Liberal parliamentarian was one of several country representatives to discuss the importance of teaching the world’s children about lessons learned from that dark event.
Upon returning to Ottawa, Mr. Cotler urged the Canadian government under prime minister Jean ChrÃ©tien to become a participating member of an organization set up by Swedish prime minister Goran Persson two years earlier with exactly that goal in mind.
But in Ottawa at the time, Mr. Cotler said, there was little recognition of the significance of the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research or the contributions Canada could make by joining.
Now, however, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly having a direct hand in signing on, and after years of lobbying from some of Canada’s influential Jewish organizations, Canada is just one year away from full-membership.
While largely symbolic, the move will allow Canada to share the way its different jurisdictions teach students about the Holocaust, and take away lessons learned from the task force’s 25 other member countries. That list includes the United States, France, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Germany.
The task force states its purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally. Member countries may apply for funding grants when undertaking remembrance projects, but these must be in accordance with task force guidelines and approval is not guaranteed.
“Projects from institutions and organizations located in regions or countries where Holocaust education, remembrance and research face severe resource constraints are eligible for consideration,” states a task force report. “While emphasis is given to Eastern and Central European countries, the Task Force will support meritorious projects in other regions.”
Canada first announced it would take up observer statusâ€”the first of three stages on the road to membershipâ€”in June 2007 when Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity Jason Kenney appeared before the task force at a summit in Prague.
“Prime Minister Harper has taken a direct personal interest in this matter, charging me with pursuing membership and active participation,” Mr. Kenney said in a prepared speech. “Last December in Budapest, Canada participated in the meeting of the task force, that time as a special guest. We believe that we have fulfilled the requirements for acceptance in the task force as an observer member.”
Membership requires that countries be committed to the implementation of national policies and programs in support of Holocaust education, remembrance and research and agree on the importance of encouraging all archives on the Holocaust to be more widely accessible. Canada attained the second level, liaison status, in June.
Alykhan Velshi, a spokesman for Mr. Kenney, said the Conservatives took steps to join the task force almost immediately after becoming the government.
“It’s important, first of all, to ensure the Holocaust is properly taught and commemorated within Canada, but also it is an opportunity for Canada to share its best practices with other countries,” Mr. Velshi said. “What it also does is it commits the government of Canada to build on its own record.”
As part of this commitment, the Canadian government has already undertaken plans to officially commemorate the “St. Louis incident,” when, in the summer of 1939 just before the Second World War broke out, a passenger liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees was turned away from Halifax’s Pier 21. An estimated one-third aboard would lose their lives in the Holocaust.
Mr. Velshi said funding for the commemoration of the St. Louis incident will come out of the Historical Recognition Program, a multi-million dollar program created by the Conservatives in early 2006.
Meanwhile, the majority of Canada’s schoolboards, curricula for which are provincial responsibilities, already teach students about the Holocaust.
Mr. Cotler, for whom commemorating the Holocaust is also a personal matter, said membership in the task force is long overdue.
“I think we should have joined sooner, but I gather it took longer for that whole process to materialize,” he said. “I’m glad it happened, I think it’s long overdue.”
Mr. Cotler said Canada’s efforts to remember the Holocaust will make a great contribution to the task force.
“We have a major scholarship that’s been done in Canada, we’ve also got Holocaust museums, and excellent scholarship that’s being done in this, and it’s also being taught in schools,” Mr. Cotler said. “It makes the importance of education as an antidote to that state-sanctioned violence.”
Kathrin Meyer, executive secretary of the Berlin-based International Task Force, said the organization is pleased Canada has decided to join, and that the entire idea is constantly evolving.
“I think it’s changing now, getting more and more to the aim that the Holocaust has universal meaning, and that’s why we also try to get in touch with countries further, not traditionally involved in Holocaust education anyway, like Australia,” Ms. Meyer said.
To advance from observer to liaison status, Canada was required to submit a detailed baseline study, prepared by the Department of Canadian Heritage, to outline current and planned educational activities regarding Holocaust remembrance and education.
“Canada submitted theirs this April, and it was highly appreciated, it was a very, very good baseline study Canada provided, and so they became liaison status, and they are aiming for becoming a full member,” Ms. Meyer said.
Frank Bialystok, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto and chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress’s Ontario region, said it is very significant that the government has finally moved forward on joining the task force.
“For whatever the reason happens to be, this particular government has decided to deal with this and I think several other aspects of human rights issues, as indicated in their pronouncements in the last few months on First Nations and on the Chinese grievances, and is now dealing with this,” Mr. Bialystok said.
“So there’s some sort of an appreciation that this is something that Canada should be involved in.”
A member of the Canadian delegation to the task force, Mr. Bialystok said the organization was started to deal with increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and to address a feeling at the time that young people were not well informed about Second World War.
“And they certainly did not know much about the Holocaust and implications in terms of modern racism and anti-Semitism.”
He said the Canadian Jewish Congress and other NGOs have long advocated that Canada should become a member of the international task force, and he said he doesn’t know why Canada didn’t join back in 2000.
“I think it reflected poorly on Canada because I would have to say, generally speaking, that after Israel and the United States, in terms of public education around the Holocaust and public commemoration… we were there,” Mr. Bialystok said.
As a representative at the original meeting in Sweden in 2000, David Matas, also a member of the Canadian delegation and legal counsel to B’Nai Brith, said that at the time he urged the government to join.
“There was no specific reason given,” he recalled. “The government never said ‘no we’re not going to join’, they just never did until now.”
While Mr. Matas said he was never informed as to why, he speculates there were people of the view that the task force was very particular and that it would be more appropriate to participate in more general forums than one focused solely on the Holocaust.
“I personally reject that because there’s something very significant about the Holocaust which is of value in getting into other tragedies and it’s only by focusing on the Holocaust do we take advantage of learning about its specific lessons and applying it to other tragedies… at least at some point the government came around to this point of view.”