George Heyman is the member of the B.C. legislative assembly for Vancouver-Fairview. (photo from George Heyman)
George Heyman is one of numerous British Columbia residents who owe their lives to the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Though born after the Second World War, Heyman is the son of a Polish Jewish couple who were among the estimated 6,000 Jews aided in fleeing Nazi Europe by the acts of Sugihara, who was the vice-consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania.
“That’s a story my parents didn’t spend a lot of time telling me about, which I’ve since found out is actually very common – parents don’t tell their story,” Heyman told the Independent. “But I learned much about it in recent years and it has been well-documented with a number of exhibits telling the story in Vancouver and the United States and other parts of Canada and in Japan.”
Sugihara risked his career – and his life – issuing transit visas to Jews. An estimated 40,000 descendants of “Sugihara Jews” are alive today because of his actions.
Once they had escaped Europe, Heyman’s parents were sponsored by family in Vancouver.
“Canada was certainly not falling over to welcome Jewish refugees,” said Heyman. “But they had distant relatives who were from Austria, who had already established here before the war started, seeing the writing on the wall. They sponsored them. My dad enlisted in the reserves, worked as a machinist in a boiler factory – even though he had an engineering degree – until he could get his credentials recognized in Canada, and eventually went on to work in the profession in which he had been trained.”
Heyman was born at Vancouver General Hospital, in the riding he now represents in the B.C. legislature, Vancouver-Fairview. The New Democrat says his family’s experience – and his own experience with casual antisemitism – helped shape his approach to the world and politics.
“I think, as a young child growing up in Canada, I just wanted to be what most children wanted, which was to be accepted,” he said. “I remember the normalization of what we would now recognize as clearly antisemitic jokes or comments or generalizations or characterizations. As a young boy, I had a hard time speaking up against it. It took a lot of courage to say, ‘you can’t talk about Jews that way’ or ‘why are you using the term Jew, my religion, in that way that is clearly not a good one?’”
These experiences, Heyman said, helped him recognize injustice and learn to value other people regardless of their economic class, ethnicity or religion, “to embrace people, not categorize them or shun them.”
“As part of that, I was also learning to stand up for who I was,” he said. “Like many young Jews, I was torn between looking for my identity and wanting to fit in. It’s been a lifelong journey.”
These experiences also helped lead him to careers in the labour movement and public office. Heyman served as head of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, then executive director of the Sierra Club of British Columbia, before being elected to the B.C. legislature in the 2013 election.
One of the reasons he has taken the opportunity over the years to speak up about his own experiences, Heyman said, has been “to try to deepen understanding and let people know what casual and thoughtless racist comments do to people who are the recipients of them.”
Antisemitic rhetoric and threats in North America and the murder of six Muslims in a Quebec mosque have had a range of unintended consequences, he said. They have ensured that people do not take security for granted and they have caused a coming together of disparate religious and ethnic groups.
“When Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Quebec are murdered, members of the Jewish community stood with Vancouver Muslims at the mosque and expressed their own solidarity as well as horror at the actions,” he said. “And Muslims have come to the [Vancouver Jewish Community] Centre for peace circles, to express their solidarity.… What makes us strong is when we work together, understand each other, support each other, build institutions together; not when we live in isolation or fear, because then we just give encouragement to those people who thrive on creating fear and hatred because it’s the only answer they have for what’s missing in their lives. I’d rather find a positive, constructive answer to those things that are missing in people’s lives, whether it’s spirituality, faith or some measure of economic equality, and build community solidarity that way.”
Heyman said he and the rest of the NDP caucus want to see the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report implemented, including educational components about the history of First Nations.
“The commission talked about ensuring that there is a healthy education component in schools, right from the earliest stages, about the history, what was wrong with it, how we can grow beyond it and heal,” he said. “The same is true of the racist laws that existed in Canada that impacted Chinese, South Asian, Japanese and other immigrants, who actually did the hard labour, in many cases, of building this country that other people weren’t willing to do. The same is true of understanding the history of the Holocaust that happened in Europe, which obviously was overwhelmingly targeted to Jews, but not only. How that connects to other aspects of racism, hatred and genocide, [and to] recognize the genocides that have happened in other parts of the world, as Jewish speakers at Holocaust memorials in the legislature have consistently done.
“We need to educate young people, both about the horror of the past and what it leads to, about the impact of thoughtless words or actions that promote or embody racist thought, but also about the benefits to us all when we live and work together and appreciate each other and embrace each other.… Government has the resources and the authority to both legislate against hatred and racism, but also to animate the actions that can ultimately, if not wipe it out, shrink it to the minimum amount that we would hope.”
On the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Heyman said he supports a two-state solution and does not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“I’ve never chosen to personally support or even quietly implement on my own behalf a boycott of Israeli products,” he said. “I also think it’s important in this context that we distinguish between tactics that some people choose to make a political point and whether or not that tactic is synonymous with antisemitism. I think, for instance, there are antisemites who express their views through a variety of mechanisms, and I also think there are Jews and other people who are legitimately concerned about government actions and want to find a two-state solution and peace that brings an end to the conflict and brings security to both Palestinians and Israelis who may support that tactic without being antisemitic. Personally, while I support a two-state solution, I very much want to see the hatred and conflict in the Middle East solved and that means, for me, opposing terrorism as well as opposing actions that block the road to peace.”
He added: “I think it’s important for people to recognize that those who call for a just peace and a two-state solution may be calling for justice for Palestinians and justice for Jews and Israelis, and they are not incompatible.”
As voters prepare for the May 9 election, Heyman said there are plenty of topics on the agenda.
“There are issues of affordability, issues of fairness and services for communities, for people needing healthcare, for seniors, for children, for working families, issues of housing and very important issues of, how do we build a modern, diversified economy that doesn’t threaten our children and grandchildren with an unliveable future due to climate change?” he said. “We can’t put off the choices of transitioning to a supportive society, a society that takes care of seniors and kids, as well as a society and economy that employs people productively while respecting and protecting the environment – those are the choices we need to make today.”
The Jewish Independent’s provincial election coverage continues with interviews with other candidates in future issues.