B.C. NDP leader John Horgan (photo from B.C. NDP)
Horgan says he likes how British Columbians have come together across racial and religious differences during recent times of strife. In a wide-ranging interview with the Independent, the New Democratic party leader also promised to restore the B.C. Human Rights Commission, said he would like to see religious studies in the school curriculum, expressed opposition to boycotts against Israel and said ethnocultural groups play an important role in the delivery of social services.
Horgan, the provincial opposition leader who hopes to be premier of British Columbia after the May 9 election, said that public reactions to antisemitic and anti-Muslim incidents recently have been encouraging.
“What I’ve been seeing … is an unprecedented coming together of diverse groups – ethnic and people of faith – to support each other, whether it be [after] the horrific shootings in Quebec City or the threats of bombings here in the Lower Mainland,” he said. “I’ve seen people crossing traditional faith boundaries to embrace one another and that gives me great hope and optimism for the future here in B.C. When I look south of the border to the rise of hatred, antisemitism, Islamophobia – and without it being brought into check by the leadership, at least the executive branch of the United States – I’m absolutely concerned about that. But I think the advantage for us here in Canada and in B.C. is it gives us an opportunity to reaffirm our tolerance. I’ve been quite moved by it.”
Leaders, he said, have a role not only in legislating but in expressing attitudes that should exemplify the values of the community they serve. “The broader public often criticize politicians for participating in ethnic celebrations or ceremonies,” he said. But he believes it sends a crucial message about respect for multicultural and faith communities, so he attends Chanukah menorah lightings at the legislature and Kristallnacht commemorations, as well as events of many other communities.
Horgan said there must be a means for people who believe their human rights have been violated to seek redress and a body to spearhead education about human rights. An NDP government, he said, would re-establish the Human Rights Commission that the B.C. Liberals dismantled in 2002.
“Every other jurisdiction in the country has a commission for educational purposes, for bringing forward examples of human rights abuses, and I don’t know why British Columbia wouldn’t have that opportunity,” he said.
Also on the education front, Horgan said he would like to discuss with stakeholders the potential for adding religious studies to the B.C. school curriculum.
“I’m a student of history, I have a master’s degree in history and I look back as much as I look forward in terms of shaping my personal views,” he said. “I would see some benefit to having part of the curriculum have a religious studies component in the middle school or high school curriculum.” It might not be a mandatory course and he would seek consultation with school boards, teachers, parent advisory committees and others, but, he said, the idea has come up repeatedly in conversations with members of different religious communities.
Governments partner with community agencies to ensure culturally sensitive and appropriate delivery of services such as addiction, settlement and immigration and seniors’ programs, and this is something Horgan strongly favours.
“It’s not just ethnocultural and faith-based organizations,” he said, “it’s community organizations. In my world, the role of government is to try to unite and bring people together whenever possible and foster understanding and tolerance. You don’t do that by not having discussions or relationships with various organizations, you do that by stimulating that participation.”
Providing culturally appropriate foods for patients in the medical system is a small example of accommodation, Horgan said, but one that has been made more difficult by the outsourcing of food services in the health-care system.
On the security front, Horgan supports the $100,000 the province recently announced in funding for Jewish community security, though he would have done it differently had he been premier, he said.
“Anytime we can improve security for any community, I would support that,” he said. “I don’t want to take shots of the government in this interview but, for me, I would have reached across the floor and said to my counterparts, were I in the premier’s office, this is something that we’re going to do, can we have a resolution of the legislature to make this cross partisan lines, rather than making it a statement of, ‘the Liberals are doing this and the NDP or Greens or Conservatives are not.’ But, beyond that, I support it, absolutely.”
Horgan said he personally opposes the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, but he’ll let party members have their own opinions.
“On these issues, as a provincial leader, what I try to do is allow people to have their point of view. I don’t necessarily have to agree with them,” he said, adding that foreign affairs is a federal matter. “I hold fast to the hope that our federal government, which has diplomatic responsibility for these issues, will show leadership that divestment and sanctions are not a solution.”
He added: “I believe in a two-state solution to the challenges in the Middle East and that’s a personal view and I’ll share that with anyone who asks me. But I try in my interactions with various community members to focus on how do we provide unity here in British Columbia. I look at, just as an example, the sanctions on Cuba. They’re not comparable, I appreciate that, but it is an attempt to have a state outcome in another jurisdiction based on economic pressure, and all that’s happened as a result of that is increased poverty and a lack of understanding. I think we want to reduce poverty wherever possible and increase understanding and, by cutting ties, severing relationships, you’re never going to achieve that. My approach, personally, is always to engage rather than disengage, so I think the BDS movement is not something I support, but people have their own personal will. They can choose to invest their resources wherever they want to.… My own personal view … is that reducing interactions never leads to a better understanding, it leads to less understanding.”
Horgan noted he has met with several organizations in the Jewish community on issues around economic cooperation and trade with Israel.
“I’m excited about the prospects of increasing our ability in British Columbia to take advantage of the cultural linkages we have to grow stronger economic linkages,” he said.
As British Columbians ponder their electoral choices, Horgan said he wants Jewish voters to know that “what they want for themselves and their community I want for them as well.”
“That’s a tenet of social democracy,” he said, paraphrasing J.S. Woodsworth, an early leader of the Canadian left, who said, “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”
“That is a tenet of the Jewish faith and that is something that I think those who have not looked to the NDP in the past may want to do so in the coming election campaign,” he said. “I want growth and prosperity for our communities, I want tolerance and peace and understanding – and those are the issues that I think most British Columbians want, regardless of their faith. I believe that if we focus on the mainstream values that unite us, rather than the issues that divide us, we’ll all be better off here.… My answer is to lead by example and to highlight always tolerance and welcoming and cooperation over intolerance, hate and division.”
The Jewish Independent’s provincial election coverage continues with interviews with other candidates in future issues.
Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the B.C. government allocated $100,000 for security measures in the Jewish community.