History is a great teacher. It includes important lessons that are relevant to many of Canada’s big political discussions today.
For example, in my home province of Saskatchewan, it was 84 years ago this summer (July, 1934) when the Hon. James G. Gardiner was sworn in as Premier of the province for the second time. Why does that matter? The answer flows from the results of the two provincial elections immediately before.
Mr. Gardiner first assumed office following a decisive victory in the 1925 provincial election. But in the vote of 1929, while he again won the largest number of seats, he was reduced to a minority and lost the premiership to J.T.M. Anderson, a right-wing populist who came to power with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s an ugly scar on Saskatchewan’s history that this insidious foreign organization built on hate, fear, intolerance and prejudice once infiltrated our province and occupied a place of apparent respectability. One W.D. Cowan, the provincial treasurer of the Saskatchewan Chapter of the KKK, even won re-election in 1930 as a federal Member of Parliament.
In the United States, African-Americans were the main victims of the Klan’s racism; in Canada they directed their vile mentality against Catholics and waves of non-British immigrants. The good news is that Jimmy Gardiner chose to fight them hammer-and-tong. His core message was about diversity, inclusion and pluralism. And he won. That’s why his second swearing-in was so significant. Imagine the damage if the Klan’s preferred candidates had been re-elected.
Gardiner (and the Depression) drove the KKK out of Saskatchewan. In that 1934 campaign, Anderson lost every seat.
The troubling thing about this episode, as brief as it was, is that the ascendancy of the Klan in Saskatchewan all happened in an overt and democratic manner. And this is not the only example in our nation’s history when simplistic, fear-filled populism has diminished us.
Think of the Chinese head tax, or the internment of Ukrainian Canadians in the First World War and Japanese Canadians in World War Two, or the rejection of south Asians on the Komagata Maru, or the turning away of desperate Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis.
More recently, think of the torrents of abuse on social media directed against newcomers – especially refugees. Listen to the rants of shock-jocks, trolls and bots, the alt-right, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Witness the graffiti and vandalism, even fire-bombs, in places of worship. Assaults and hate crimes. Misogynistic attacks. And the murder of six Canadian citizens because they were at prayer in a mosque.
Think of Indian residential schools and more than a hundred years without reconciliation.
Our history records some serious failures. They serve as tough reminders that our pluralism is far from perfect. It cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, it is fragile and demands our constant vigilance and hard work.
That sentiment does not imply for one second that we are at all naive about public safety or national security. Our police, security and intelligence services are among the best in the world. They must have the legal and constitutional tools, and the physical resources necessary, to protect Canadians and our country in a troubled world. We work to ensure that, every day. But we also need the clear-eyed recognition that violence and hate don’t just emanate from Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They can come from any form of extremism or intolerance.
Hand-in-hand with public safety, our security framework must ensure the scrutiny, transparency and accountability required to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Canadians and our open, diverse and inclusive society.
But most importantly, it’s incumbent on each of us, in the way we live our lives and treat one another, to uphold the principled values which have shaped Canada – despite our lapses – as a global example of successful pluralism.
Our sense of fairness and justice. A spirit of generosity. Compassion. Caring and sharing. Open hearts and open minds. Pride in our vast diversity.
We have practiced the creative arts of inclusion and accommodation – to make room for one another. To reach out. To listen to each other. To bridge differences. To try very hard to understand one another.
And then, having listened and understood, we Canadians are typically prepared to act with and for each other, together. Not because it’s in the narrow self-interest of a comfortable majority. Not because we HAVE to. But because we WANT to. Because the action we take together is right for the fair and decent and wonderful country we aspire to be.
And thus, Canada is a triumph of the human spirit – built and held together, not by the force of laws, or the force of arms, or force of any kind, not by a single language or culture, but by our common will. And that kind of nation-building – the Canadian way – is a never-ending process.
Canada is now and ever will be a precious work-in-progress. And every day, it depends on us, on ALL of us, always, respectfully and with relentless determination, together.