This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for Canada’s refusal to grant asylum to more than 900 refugees escaping Nazi Germany aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939.
When announcing the apology last May, Trudeau said that, “An apology in the House of Commons will not rewrite this shameful chapter of our history …but it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth (and) learn from this story.”
The question is: Have we learned from this story? If another MS St. Louis were to appear on our shores, would we welcome the refugees with open arms?
Unfortunately, I think not.
Look at the criticism Trudeau’s government has received from many Canadians, including many Jews, for allowing refugees from Syria and elsewhere – including irregular migrants from the U.S. – to come here.
Just last month, a fire was set at a Toronto hotel where more than 570 irregular migrants from the United States were staying. The fire came on the heels of an online anti-refugee campaign on right-wing websites and videos claiming the refugees were vandalizing the hotel. A columnist at the Toronto Sun was among those raising the alarm, pointing to disparaging reviews of the hotel on various travel websites.
A three-year-old meme, which falsely claims that Canada is spending more on refugees than on pensioners, is again proliferating on social media.
And an alarming situation is developing south of our border, where over the last few years, nationalist anti-immigrant sentiment has risen to dangerous levels.
Last month, a group of several thousand people left Guatemala and is trekking thousands of kilometres, in a desperate attempt to reach the U.S. border.
U.S. President Donald Trump made the highly dubious claim that there are “unknown Middle Easterners” and criminals in their midst. Yet there are far easier, and quicker, ways for would-be terrorists and criminals to enter the U.S. than to travel with such a caravan. The migrants who are making the long and perilous journey from Central America are simply trying to escape extreme poverty and danger.
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said the caravan is financed by left-wing elements in Venezuela. Again, there is no evidence that this is true.
And while some may say that comparisons with Jews leaving prewar Europe might be exaggerated, there is one key similarity: desperation.
Would mothers and fathers drag their young children, toddlers even, through terrible conditions, without food and water, to reach what they know will be a hostile reception, if they were not desperate?
Many say they should apply to immigrate like others do. But for these people, there is no fast path to immigration. All that awaits them back at home is poverty, death and zero hope for their children’s future. The only other way for them to emigrate is to pay a “coyote,” a cartel member, thousands of dollars to smuggle them in.
The caravan is a cheaper option, and because of the size of the group, it’s much safer, as well.
Even the horrific anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 appears to have been instigated by the assailant’s belief that the synagogue was supporting HIAS, a Jewish group that provides support for refugees.
On social media, the attacker claimed that HIAS was part of a Jewish conspiracy to bring a refugee “invasion” to the U.S. That seemed to be the trigger that launched his deadly assault.
But this is all happening in Trump’s America, you say. Canadians are not like that.
Yet a recent Toronto Star series reported a 20-25 per cent increase in right-wing extremist groups across the country between 2015 and 2018. And an Angus Reid poll conducted in July showed that around two-thirds of Canadians feel we are taking in “too much” refugees.
This is alarming.
If an apology is to be sincere, it needs to be backed by remorse. If we are really remorseful about the MS St. Louis, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask: are we going to do the same thing next time around?
For more in our St. Louis apology series, please click here.