Michael Barkusky, Green candidate for Vancouver-Quilchena. (photo from Michael Barkusky)
Michael Barkusky was a teenager when he canvassed for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party in South Africa’s 1970 election. Now, he is the Green party candidate in Vancouver-Quilchena. An old friend told him, “You were always good at spotting trends ahead of time.”
“I thought that was a great compliment,” Barkusky told the Independent. “I’m kind of used to being with small parties that everybody writes off as not really relevant yet that, over time, become very relevant.”
He has given a great deal of thought to the ethical behaviour of governments.
“If you were a morally aware individual, you kind of knew that there was this huge moral question about how the whole society ran in South Africa,” he said.
Barkusky left South Africa in 1980 and came to Vancouver to do a master’s in business administration at the University of British Columbia. He obtained a certified general accountant designation in 1985, the same year he became a Canadian citizen. He has run an accounting practice since then, while also at times working for nongovernmental organizations like the Rainforest Solutions Project and the Coastal First Nations alliance.
While he said the Green party is seeing a surge in the campaign – a recent poll showed the party in first place on Vancouver Island – Barkusky admitted his bid is a longshot. He is running in one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. Vote-splitting may result in interesting upsets in some ridings, but Quilchena would be a shocker.
“I’ve taken on a very tough riding,” said Barkusky, who served with incumbent Liberal MLA Andrew Wilkinson on the board of the B.C. Mountaineering Club. “What I want to do is have a very issue-oriented, respectful-of-my-opponents contest in which we talk about ideas and we talk about where the province is heading.”
He wants British Columbians to see the environment and the economy as inextricably related.
“People often tend to think of the environment as a side issue, a minor issue in politics, and tend to say, well, the Green party is mostly for that, so it’s not really concerned about the economy,” he said. “In my view, these things are all very closely interconnected. We believe in an economic strategy that will give us prosperity but not at the expense of our future, and my worry is that the B.C. Liberals, in particular, with their focus on traditional economic indicators – particularly what will make the GDP go up the most – give up a tremendous amount in terms of stewardship of our natural capital, or the innate riches that make British Columbia such a spectacular place to live.”
Addressing recent incidents in Canada and elsewhere, in which Muslims and Jews have been targeted, Barkusky said there are opportunities for intercultural solidarity, adding that it is important that communities stand together at times like these.
“Some of those who are threatening both vulnerable groups are the same people with the same racist attitudes,” he said.
Confronting prejudice is a matter of education, but it can also be a matter of modeling behaviour, he suggested.
“We should look to what we can do through education because dealing with it through criminal law is really the last resort. It’s what you do when all else has failed,” he said. “The education area is where we should be most active. I think we’re doing quite well, really, in teaching tolerance in the schools in a jurisdiction like B.C. I think we can perhaps model it a bit better in our public life and the way we conduct politics. A slightly less sneering, adversarial style of politics would be helpful. In the Jewish community, we can do that, too, in the way that we have our own internal debate as Jews about Israel.”
Barkusky is well versed in the diversity of discourse in the Jewish community.
“I went to a Jewish high school in Cape Town, Herzlia High School, and our headmaster was probably more of a Likudnik than a labour Zionist, but my mother was more of a labour Zionist. So, there were always debates … about South Africa, about Israel, about other things that were going on in the world.”
Growing up in the apartheid era caused ambivalent feelings, he said, because Jews “had to deal with our role in a society in which we were actually legally classified with the privileged.
“It was a complex history because Jews were very prominent in the struggle against apartheid, but there were plenty of Jews who thought, ‘thank God they’re persecuting someone except us.’ They were maybe not enthusiastically participating in making the lives of black people miserable, but they weren’t too concerned about it and were more concerned about whether the establishment of the time might dislike them if they were too strong in their opposition. Those tensions ran through the Jewish community of South Africa the whole time that I lived there.”
Barkusky has a nuanced perspective on the use of the apartheid label against Israel.
“To me, apartheid wasn’t just a monstrous system that I read about in a book,” he said. “It’s a system that I saw in action.”
Even so, he rejects the idea that comparisons can’t be made.
“You can compare anything to anything,” he said. “The point is, what conclusions do you draw when you compare it?… I don’t like a simpleminded comparison because the situation is different in a number of ways, the history is different, but I don’t think it’s something that should be silenced.”
There may, in fact, be something to be learned, he said. The way the current constitution in South Africa was arrived at may have some lessons for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he suggested.
On the issue of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, Barkusky said he doesn’t agree, but avoids getting on a moral high horse about it.
“I personally think it’s not the greatest way to conduct politics,” he said. “Persuasion, discussion and education, thinking things through, looking at the evidence, makes much more sense.”
Boycotts can also harm the people they are intended to help, he warned.
“I continued to buy South African wines after I moved here from South Africa, not because I particularly wanted to support the government but because I thought that boycotting the wines would put farm workers out of work and the farm workers were mostly not white,” he said.
Barkusky blames the Israeli government for some of the criticism aimed at the country.
“I do find the current government in Israel so far to the right that it’s very hard to not see them as, in some sense, the author of their own misfortune,” he said, but added: “I think a situation in which Israel is treated as the worst example of human rights abuses on the planet is really just ridiculous. It’s just not in keeping with the evidence.”