Jewish Canadians were instrumental in building the Canadian labour movement and, by extension, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, which would go on to become the New Democratic Party.
Political scientists and others have observed that, as immigrant communities integrate into their new societies and become more economically secure, their voting patterns and ideological outlooks tend to move across the spectrum. While Canada has seen a small but steady growth of Jewish immigration in recent decades – with spikes during significant events like the end of the Soviet empire – the community, as a whole, is now firmly established.
Canadian Jews, like other groups that have deep roots in our relatively new country, have experienced economic and social success. Individual Jewish households, of course, face every range of economic and social challenge, issues that are addressed by a network of social service agencies guided by the principle Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Israel is responsible for one another. While there is a sacred instruction for Jews to care for our own, Jewish values have also played a role in the actions of Jewish Canadians in relation to the broader Canadian society. Through individual and collective activism, from individuals like David Lewis in the last century to groups like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs today, Canadian Jews have influenced public policy and made the country better and more welcoming for all.
Despite whatever economic advances Canadian Jews have made as a group, it is often noted that, as a community, Jews tend to remain politically progressive. In a practical sense, this has been complicated by positions taken by some on the left, including trade unions, the New Democrats and the Green party. Jewish Canadians are overwhelmingly Zionist and, over the past 50 years, picking up steam in the past two decades, the left has become less and less supportive of Israel and Jewish self-determination. The debate about where anti-Zionism ends and where antisemitism begins is for another day. Stated simply, many Canadian Jews are progressive voters who, due to foreign policy issues, find themselves politically homeless. (The pro-Israel stands of the Stephen Harper government also shook many Jews away from their traditional political allegiances.)
With this context in mind, the surprise announcement Tuesday that the federal Liberal government has signed a supply and confidence agreement with the New Democrats may allow some progressive Zionist voters to have their cake and eat it too.
Under this deal – the same kind of agreement that the NDP and Greens in British Columbia signed to topple the B.C. Liberals in 2017 – the parties have agreed to advance things that have long been on the NDP agenda, such as a national dental care program and national pharmacare. It will apparently enhance ongoing reconciliation work through investments in Indigenous housing and continuing to confront the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Changes to the tax system and reducing barriers to participation in elections are also among the points released Tuesday.
The thorny issue of affordable housing will also be part of the mix – although what any government can successfully and substantively do on this issue remains a big question mark.
The provision of affordable universal child care – a promise made repeatedly by the Liberals and still not realized – is another marquis issue, as is addressing climate change and supporting workers.
The deal hearkens back to a similar one between then-prime minister Paul Martin, a Liberal, and the New Democrats, under Jack Layton, which buoyed a minority Liberal government in exchange for a $4.6 billion injection of federal funds into social programs.
For Canadian Jews who remain committed to progressive political values, the rather sudden announcement this week could be very welcome. Canada will (presumably) get a raft of new legislation on issues from environmental protections to economic justice, without subjecting Canadian foreign policy to the whims of a party that has signaled disregard to Jewish Canadians’ familial, historical and emotional ties to the state of Israel.
For those Canadian Jews who do not subscribe to this agenda, well, there is an opportunity for shaping an alternative. The federal Conservative party is in the early stages of what will be, it appears, a fight for the ideological soul of the party. The response to the Liberal-NDP deal by interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen was predictably skeptical. She called it a “power grab” by Trudeau, though time will tell whether a three-year reprieve from a snap election will allow the new Tory leader to cement their role before facing voters.
In any event, the battle lines for the next several years are being drawn. A Liberal-NDP agenda on one side and a possible new approach at the head of the Conservative party on the other.
We hope that Canada avoids the level of polarized partisanship we see in the United States and some other countries. It is, in fact, Canada’s history of moderation and compromise that has made it a welcoming place for Jews and other minority communities. However, it is always healthy in a democracy to have clear, definable choices.
The NDP and Liberals will be laying out their apparently ambitious agenda for the coming years. Those vying for the Conservative party leadership will now have a plethora of fresh policy initiatives to sink their teeth into to define themselves in contrast with this unexpected new informal coalition.
On June 25, 2019, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, as part of Canada’s anti-racism strategy. Widely proposed around the world, the definition has evoked fierce debate.
In Canada, the NDP will consider a resolution against the definition at its national convention this month, one penned by B.C. former MPs Libby Davies and Svend Robinson. Meanwhile, a coalition of 100 Canadian Jewish organizations has objected to the NDP resolution.
Wherein lies the controversy with the IHRA definition?
The definition, though vague, is not, in itself, controversial: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” IHRA has promoted it as a “non-legally binding working definition.”
As is so often the case, the devil is in the details, and the details here are found in the 11 examples of what the definition considers actionable antisemitism: seven of them concern the state of Israel.
Those who defend the definition argue that Israel is treated unfairly in the media and in international political discourse and see antisemitism as the root of this discriminatory treatment. Yet Israel is a country whose founding wars and subsequent military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have meant displacement of millions of Palestinians followed by the occupation and policing of that same population. The circumstances of the displacement and occupation are such that even the most generous interpretation of Israeli actions should recognize that an ongoing critical scrutiny of the Israeli state is a moral duty. Voices within and without Israel – and especially the voices of Palestinians and their allies – must be free to speak their experience and, yes, their accusations.
This is exactly the freedom that the IHRA definition would curtail. The burden should not be on those who criticize the Israeli state to prove that their statements are not antisemitic. Rather, the Israeli state, like any other, should bear the burden of demonstrating that criticisms of it are discriminatory, made in bad faith and nonfactual.
The definition’s history
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was initiated in 1998. In 2016, it adopted a definition drafted by Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, to aid in the collection and sorting of possible instances of antisemitism. Stern has acknowledged that the definition has been misappropriated and is being “weaponized” against critics of Israel and has warned against the definition “being employed in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech.”
In Canada, the adoption of the definition has been opposed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Ontario Civil Liberties Association. More than 450 Canadian academics have signed on to an open letter opposing its adoption by governing bodies. In 2021, the New Israel Fund Canada, which had previously urged Ontario to adopt the definition, reversed its position, citing concerns over free speech and academic freedom.
There have already been unjust consequences. Lives, livelihoods and reputations have been damaged, particularly in universities where academics have been harassed, censured and dismissed for teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or scheduling speakers on that topic – instances where the definition is acknowledged to be in play. The definition also has created what some argue is a limiting of speech critical of the Israeli state on social media platforms like Zoom or Facebook.
In one example, law professor Faisal Bhabha was accused of antisemitism by B’nai Brith Canada for his remarks in a debate that was sponsored by the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. A petition was launched using the IHRA definition, calling for Bhabha to no longer teach human rights classes. The professor’s allegedly antisemitic act was to argue that Zionism as practised today in Israel amounts to “Jewish supremacy,” an opinion shared not only by many human rights organizations and Palestinian activists, but also by many Jews. Yet for those wielders of the definition the question cannot even be debated.
Similar incidents have been reported in the United States. To get a sense of the extreme rhetoric involved, consider that, in 2020, the U.S. State Department announced its intentions to declare the advocacy groups Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch antisemitic and to withdraw U.S. support for these groups. If only advocacy groups in Canada and the United States could find a way to declare criticism of the genocidal actions of the Burmese state to be merely anti-Asian prejudice, what a coup for Myanmar’s military junta that would be.
Not only is the speech of Jews not immune to these accusations, but even Jewish Holocaust survivors are not immune. When survivor Marika Sherwood attempted to give a talk at Manchester University called You’re Doing to the Palestinians What the Nazis Did to Me, Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, intervened. The embassy claimed the title breached the definition and accused the Holocaust survivor of hate speech towards Jews.
Incredibly, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre listed the European Union’s insistence that products made in Israeli settlements must be so labeled as the third most serious antisemitic incident in 2015.
These examples, which are only a sample of many more, should be enough to convince anyone that there are few limits to the measures that Israel’s absolute defenders will take to use the IHRA definition to silence criticism of the Israeli state.
Opinions in Canada
Can the centuries-old hatred of Jews be redefined as criticism of the state of Israel or is this an unacceptable slippage of meaning? A recent (2020) poll indicated that a strong majority of Canadians believe that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Considering the importance of holding the state of Israel up to criticism, it must be demonstrated that said criticism is rooted in antisemitism, not assumed.
One of the examples in the IHRA definition states that referring to Israel as a “racist endeavour” is antisemitic, because it denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination. But surely there are methods of national self-determination that can be judged to be racist.
The definition claims that holding Israel to a higher moral standard than other countries is antisemitic. Considering the fact that every government on the planet receives vitriolic criticism, together with the previous claim that calling Israel a “racist endeavour” is antisemitic, one gets the sense that what is sought for Israel is a higher level of exemption from criticism than any other nation receives. We are perfectly free to call Canada a “racist endeavour,” after all. This happens frequently, often by the main victims of Canada’s very real history of racism, Indigenous peoples. Would we want to criminalize such speech in Canada as somehow a form of racism against Anglo-Saxons, or the French? Obviously not, yet our prime minister is willing to penalize the speech of Palestinians calling out Israel’s structural racism.
Most Jews live outside of Israel. Some are not Zionists or do not identify with the Israeli state as part of their Jewish identity. Yet, since Israel was founded as a reclamation of the ancient Jewish homeland and seeks to identify itself as “the Jewish state,” obviously those who hate Jews may hate the Israeli state and attempt to attack it. Yet states are prone, by their very nature, to all kinds of ethical challenges and must be held open to free and vociferous criticism. Again, the burden should be on the Israeli state to demonstrate that criticism of its actions is unfair and rooted in antisemitism. The claim that criticism of Israel is antisemitic should not be the first assumption but rather the last, after the criticisms – or, in the case of the recent investigation of Israel launched by the International Criminal Court, the legal allegations – have been fairly assessed.
Matthew Gindinis an independent journalist, writer and teacher of Jewish studies. You can follow his writing at matthewgindin.substack.com. Marty Roth is a retired professor of American literature and film studies, a freelance writer and member of Independent Jewish Voices.
Premier John Horgan sent Selina Robinson a message: “A mensch is a good thing, right?”
Robinson, the NDP government’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, is seeking reelection in the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville. She sees herself as the Jewish maven around the cabinet table.
“I said yes, who called you a mensch?” Robinson recalled. “He just wanted to double-check.”
As she and other New Democrats campaign toward the Oct. 24 provincial election, Robinson and fellow cabinet member George Heyman spoke with the Jewish Independent. (In this issue, we also speak with Jewish candidates and spokespeople for other parties.)
As minister of housing, Robinson takes pride in the development of a major initiative called Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability in British Columbia. Her ministry engaged with housing groups, renters, developers, economists, local government officials, planners and other thinkers. Then they convened people in a “World Café,” an engagement exercise in which people from different perspectives sit at a table and must come to agreed-upon recommendations on a topic.
“It was from that that we picked the best ideas and so it really came from all sides of the housing sector rather than pitting them against each other,” she said, acknowledging that she had to convince some to buy into the process because bureaucracy is not always amenable to novel approaches.
She cited two particular areas that she wants to “kvell about.” BC Housing, the agency that develops, manages and administers a range of subsidized housing in the province, is building housing on First Nations land.
“The feds, I don’t think, are building a lot of Indigenous housing and they’re supposed to,” she said. “No other province has stepped up to do that.… You’re a British Columbian and you need housing … if it’s land on reserve, it’s land on reserve – we’ll build housing.”
By providing housing in First Nations communities, it also helps people remain at home, rather than moving to the city, where housing is even more expensive and possibly precarious, she said.
“I’m very proud of that,” Robinson said.
The other point of pride is, Robinson admitted, “a geeky piece of legislation.” When she stepped into the role as the government’s lead on housing availability and affordability, she recognized that there is no data on what kind of housing exists and what’s needed.
“Local governments are responsible for land-use planning and deciding what kind of housing goes where – this is going to be multifamily, this is going to be single-family – but, if you were to ask them, how much do you have, how much more multifamily do you need, they couldn’t tell you, because nobody was collecting the data.”
She brought forward legislation that mandated local governments to do a housing needs assessment every five years to identify whether more housing options are needed for different age groups and types of families.
She also cited the government’s development of social housing, through the allocation of $7 billion over 10 years to build 39,000 units. So far, 25,000 units are either open, in construction or going through the municipal development process.
“My biggest worry is that the Liberals [if they are elected] will cancel all of those that are still in the development stage because they did that in 2001 when they formed government,” she said. “We’re so far behind the eight ball because they did that. I’m not saying it would have fixed everything, but, if there were another 5,000 units of housing out there, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is because there would be another 5,000 units.”
Every Friday, Robinson lights Shabbat candles and then shares a reflection on social media about her week.
“Lighting the Shabbat candles just grounds me in my identity,” she said. “I make myself take 10 minutes on a Friday at sundown to stop and to clear my head and to remind myself why I do the work. It’s not for the pay. It’s not for any of that; it’s not worth it. It’s who I am, what are my values and what’s important to me? What did I hear this week that reminds me of why this work is important?”
Robinson admitted she’s being partisan in saying that she believes NDP values are Jewish values.
“From my perspective, taking care of the world – whether it’s the environment, the people and all that’s within it – is our collective responsibility,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I think all Jews are New Democrats who just don’t know it yet.”
* * *
George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, is seeking reelection in the riding of Vancouver-Fairview. He is a son of Holocaust refugees, who escaped the Nazis with the help of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who illegally issued visas to about 6,000 Jews, many of whose descendants now live in Vancouver.
In 2019, Heyman took a family trip to Poland, which broadened his awareness of his family’s history and where he met family members he never knew he had. The Independent will run that story in an upcoming issue.
Speaking of his record in government, Heyman expressed pride in bringing in CleanBC, which he calls “a very detailed, independently modeled set of measures to get us to our 2030 target and beyond.”
He also said the government “completely revamped the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, incorporating the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Collaborating with the First Nations Leadership Council, the government adapted the legislation to bring in affected local communities at the beginning of a project, before a proponent spends millions of dollars then has to go back to the drawing board due to local concerns.
“We’ve been investing in clean technology, we’ve approved transit plans that were stalled for years that the mayors of Metro Vancouver thought were critically important,” Heyman added. “We’re going to see the Broadway [SkyTrain] line commence to relieve the tremendous congestion on the Broadway corridor, both on buses and on the roads. And we’ll be working on ultimately being able to work with UBC and the city and the federal government to extend that to UBC.”
The government, he said, updated the Residential Tenancy Act to address tenants who were being threatened with eviction for suspect renovations and that saw people getting notices of rent increases as high as 40% because of loopholes in the act.
“We closed those loopholes, we held rent increases to the cost of living unless there is a legitimate demonstrated need to do renovation and repair and it’s fair to receive some compensation rent to pay for that,” he said.
Like Robinson, Heyman cited the construction of affordable housing, as well as supportive housing, to get homeless people off the street and provide them with services they need. He said the government has created 20,000 childcare spaces in the province “with significant fee reductions for families as we work our way toward a $10-a-day program.” Increased staffing in schools, mandated by a Supreme Court decision during the previous regime, is also an accomplishment, he said, as well as adding more investments in new schools for seismic upgrades, fire safety and heating and ventilation systems.
On the opioid crisis, Heyman acknowledged a surge in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. “While there is much more to do, we managed to flatten the level of deaths up until COVID hit,” he said.
Also parallel to the pandemic was a realization of “the terrible state of many of our long-term-care homes.”
“We saw that deteriorate under the previous government,” he said. “With COVID, we saw the results of that. We saw people dying because workers were having to go to two or three different care homes, increasing the risk of infection, simply to cobble together a living. We took measures to allow our healthcare workers to work in one institution without suffering the loss of pay and we’re also investing in more beds and more equipment for long-term-care homes.”
New Democrats have been governing in a minority situation with the support of the Green party since 2017. Horgan called the snap election on Sept. 21, facing criticism for breaking fixed election date legislation and going to the polls during a state of emergency.
Portrait of Dave Barrett by photographer Fred Schiffer, June 9, 1975. (photo from Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia)
More than four decades after he led British Columbia through one of the most tumultuous and consequential epochs in the province’s political history, British Columbia’s first – and, to date, only – Jewish premier is being remembered for an extraordinary life.
Dave Barrett died Feb. 2, several years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He served as premier for a comparatively short period, from 1972 to 1975, but his policies continue to affect everyday life for British Columbians.
In 39 months – 1,200 days – Barrett’s New Democratic Party government passed 357 diverse and sometimes radical pieces of legislation, more than any single government before or since. The landmark initiatives included the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, a provincial ambulance service and air ambulances, Pharmacare for seniors, neighbourhood pubs, British Columbia’s first ministry of housing, rent controls, the most expansive human rights code in Canada, mandatory kindergarten, reduced teacher-student ratios and the Seabus.
Barrett’s government also proclaimed B.C. Day as a statutory holiday. It established Whistler as Canada’s first “resort municipality” and saved Cypress Bowl from logging, turning it into a provincial park. His government ended logging and mining in provincial parks and banned the export of raw logs, funded the City of Vancouver’s purchase of the historic Orpheum Theatre, raised the minimum wage from $1.50 to $2.50 an hour and created “Mincome,” which guaranteed a minimum income of $200 per month for people over 60. The Barrett record includes the expansion of community colleges, new daycare facilities, French immersion in public schools, and Robson Square, among many other things that we now take for granted.
At a celebration of life in Vancouver March 4, and in interviews with the Jewish Independent, people close to Barrett shared their reflections of the man who led the first socialist government in the province and who was a dominant figure in the life of B.C. politics from 1960 until 1993.
* * *
In his memoir, Barrett: A Passionate Political Life, the former premier recalls growing up on McSpadden Avenue, a one-block spur off Commercial Drive on Vancouver’s East Side, in a house “crammed with books and brimming with lively political discussion.”
His father, Sam, was born in Winnipeg, his mother, Rose, north of Odessa. She was brought to Canada by a Jewish refugee agency after pogroms that followed the Russian Revolution. (In his political life, Barrett would be a strong voice for Soviet Jewry.)
David Barrett was born in Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, the youngest of three – his brother Isador was 4 and sister Pearl, 2.
Barrett attended Laura Second elementary and Britannia high school. On weekends, he worked with his father selling fruit and vegetables from a truck and, later, in a retail-wholesale store on Powell Street. After graduating from Britannia, he went, in 1948, to Seattle University, a Jesuit institution that helped cement Barrett’s social justice orientation.
“I had a wonderful time at university, but I was on academic probation muc
h of the time,” Barrett wrote in his book.
Returning to Vancouver in summer and during winter breaks, Barrett continued to help out in the family business. One year, to make money, he sold Christmas trees across the street from his dad’s store. He also worked on a CNR train between Vancouver and Edmonton and for the City of Vancouver, pouring hot tar on cracks in the road.
In 1953, he came home with a bachelor’s in sociology and a minor in philosophy.
In his memoirs, Barrett notes that education was deeply important to his family. One day, he recalls, he received a call from his mother to say that his brother Issy, “already an internationally recognized researcher in ocean sciences, had just earned a PhD with distinction.
“There was a pause and she asked if I got the message. I said, ‘No, Mom, what’s the message?’ And she replied, ‘When are you going to return to school and make something of yourself?’”
Barrett was speaking to his mother from the premier’s office in the B.C. legislature.
* * *
When he and Shirley Hackman decided to get married, when Barrett was 22, his parents did not react positively.
“He thought I was too young to get married,” Barrett recalled of his father’s response. “My mother reverted to her traditional role: she went right up the wall. This progressive mother of mine wanted me to marry a Jewish girl, and Shirley was Anglican.”
The marriage went ahead nevertheless. The couple spent $300 on the reception and scraped coins together to make ends meet in subsequent weeks. Rose’s reservations about Shirley dissolved.
“This woman, who hadn’t wanted her Jewish son to marry a gentile girl, did a complete reversal.” Barrett wrote in his memoir. “Now I was no good. I didn’t deserve this wonderful woman. They had an incredible relationship.”
Barrett got a job at the Children’s Aid Society and later worked with young offenders at Oakalla, an overcrowded provincial prison in Burnaby. But he realized he would have to continue his education to advance in the field.
After he was turned down by the social work school at the University of British Columbia, he visited an older mentor in Seattle, who advised him to apply to St. Louis University, another Jesuit institution, in Missouri. While his grades weren’t good, and he had repeated run-ins with authority figures, Barrett had apparently impressed the priests at Seattle University, whom he credited with facilitating his admission to graduate school.
In St. Louis, with a wife and newborn son, Barrett took a side job at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, working with teenagers. When he graduated, he was offered a job back home in British Columbia, at the Haney Correctional Institute, for $355 a month. There, he created programs including sports, drama, occupational training and rehabilitation for the inmates.
But he was disenchanted with the correctional system and decided the only way to make systemic change was through politics. So, he announced his intention to run for the legislature, on behalf of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF, which, in 1961, became the NDP). As a provincial employee engaging in politics, Barrett was already poking the bear. He was eventually fired from his job for criticizing the corrections and social services system during his campaign for the nomination.
The Vancouver Sun ran the story big and Barrett was thrust into the spotlight, losing his livelihood but becoming a political sensation before even winning the party’s nomination – which he did, in a first-ballot landslide.
Because the general election was still some time away – and because being a member of the legislative assembly at that time was a part-time job that paid $12,500 a year – Barrett secured a position at the John Howard Society, an organization that works with people in, or at risk of entering, the criminal justice system. It was there that he met Norm Levi, who would also become an MLA and play a central role in Barrett’s government, as the one responsible for welfare policy, including “Mincome.”
Elected to the legislature in 1960 in the constituency of Dewdney, Barrett remained a fixture in Vancouver’s Jewish community through the decade. He attended the relatively short annual sittings of the legislature and spent the rest of the year balancing constituency responsibilities and working at the Jewish Family Services Agency, where his mentor was Jessie Allman, and as director of the Jewish Community Centre, even as he rose in the ranks of provincial politics and was recognized as an emerging star.
* * *
Gloria Levi worked at the JCC when Barrett was director.
“It was a riot,” she told the Independent. Gloria and her husband, Norm, had returned from a two-year stint in Israel at the end of the 1950s and the couple became fast friends with Shirley and Dave Barrett.
As Barrett’s career progressed, he would become Norm Levi’s supervisor at the John Howard Society. Gloria Levi recalled something that drew the two couples together.
“[Barrett] was very respectful and very admiring of Norm and me because we wore our Judaism on our sleeve and he didn’t,” she said. “But it meant a lot to him. I think his whole social ethic came from feeling Jewish. I think his sense of justice was definitely influenced from being Jewish. He was always the one who was seen as different because he was Jewish. He was an East Side kid and he had to fight his way a lot of times.”
The Levi and Barrett daughters, as well as the daughter of another (non-Jewish) NDP stalwart, Stu Leggett, attended Camp Miriam and remain friends today. The parents also hung out in the 1960s and ’70s, playing cards at the Barrett home in Coquitlam.
“Many a Saturday night we would go over to their house – this was when we were all elected – and we’d play poker,” Levi said. “I have to say, the person with the best poker face, who could win, was Shirley Barrett.”
The anecdote is telling not only because of what it says about the poker skills of the wife of the future premier, but because, for whatever else one might discern about Dave Barrett, he rarely would or could conceal his feelings.
* * *
Barrett became leader of the British Columbia NDP in 1969, shortly after the party lost its 12th consecutive election.
Premier W.A.C. Bennett, the Social Credit leader who had led the province since 1952, declared Barrett “the most dangerous leader the socialists have ever had in B.C.”
From the perspective of a premier who had triumphed over opponents in seven provincial elections, Barrett was indeed dangerous.
Barrett had seen how Tommy Douglas, the federal NDP leader, used humour to deflect the electorate’s fear of the left, and Barrett used his natural jocularity to his political benefit. In his memoir, Barrett claims people just laughed at Bennett’s assertions.
“Nobody saw me as a threat,” he wrote. “I was just a social worker, a little overweight, maybe, but quite jolly. A funny little guy.”
In 1972, Barrett led the NDP to victory, taking 38 seats to the Socreds’ 10. While Bennett was reelected in South Okanagan, most of his cabinet was wiped out.
The emotions on election night were overwhelming on both sides. For Social Credit, the Bennett family and their supporters, the era that had seen British Columbia’s most expansive economic growth under a seemingly invincible leader was at an end.
Among New Democrats, for whom losing elections had seemed a congenital disorder, there was disbelief and jubilation. Speaking at the celebration of life for Barrett at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Commercial Drive on March 4, former premier Dan Miller recalled the power of the moment.
“When we won in 1972, the euphoria I experienced that night has never been duplicated,” said Miller, who was premier for six months after Glen Clark resigned in 1999. “Not when I ran myself in 1986, not when we formed a government in 1991, not even when Glen Clark outsmarted and out-campaigned Gordon Campbell to give him a back-to-back victory for the first time for the NDP. And not even when John Horgan formed the government last year.”
Miller compared Barrett to Jean Lesage, the premier of Quebec who, in 1960, ended more than three decades of rule by the Union Nationale and ushered in what came to be known as the Quiet Revolution.
“I think he was transformational,” Miller said of Barrett. “He brought B.C. into the modern era – and I guess you might be able to describe his revolution as a noisy one.”
When Barrett ended the 20 years of Bennett’s premiership, the legislature had no question period, there was no Hansard (the written record of house proceedings), the entire NDP caucus was forced to share a single office with no support staff, and members of the legislative press gallery were earning pocket money writing news releases and speeches for members of Bennett’s cabinet.
Even as resource revenues were filling government coffers in the 1950s and ’60s, Bennett’s parsimony was so legendary that government travel outside the province was banned – to the extent that the premier himself (who preferred the title “Prime Minister of British Columbia”) avoided federal-provincial conferences. Even long-distance telephone calls by cabinet ministers had to be pre-approved by the premier’s office.
Among Barrett’s first acts in office was to improve conditions and funding for opposition MLAs and institute question period.
* * *
Marc Eliesen served as Barrett’s deputy minister and remained one of the premier’s closest friends and confidants to the end.
“I think, in part, the reason why the two of us connected was that we both came from Jewish working-class backgrounds,” Eliesen told the Independent. “While both of us were not religious – we were secular in belief – we had a very proud and conscious recognition historically of what our particular people had done through history in fighting for social justice and economic equality and I think that dominates basically the orientation of where he was going and what he stood for. He never detracted from that. The upbringing by his folks reflected that particular orientation, for lack of a better description, of being for the little guy and wanting to make life a little bit better.”
Eliesen knew Barrett’s parents and described Rose Barrett’s affinity for communism – and for a time, Stalin – as like a religion.
“Dave very clearly saw the extremes, which were not for him,” Eliesen said. Sam Barrett was a Fabian socialist, a gradualist, and that was the ideology that affected young Dave the most, he said. While the younger Barrett was no revolutionary – seeking change through democratic, parliamentary processes, like his father’s approach would dictate – the record of his fairly short time in the highest office was, if not revolutionary, certainly unprecedented and groundbreaking.
* * *
At the end of the emotional, laughter-filled celebration of life, local band Trooper’s 1977 hit “We’re Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time)” blasted through the house.
While the Barrett administration predated the song by at least two years, legend has Barrett, at his first cabinet meeting, taking off his shoes, getting up on the polished cabinet table and sliding from one end to the other, demanding of his ministers: “Are we here for a good time, or a long time?”
The veracity of this story is ambiguous but, in his memoir, Barrett acknowledges that the choice was made to go for broke. The stars that aligned in 1972 – including a tired incumbent premier, who had served two decades, and a four-way split in the popular vote – might not align again in the subsequent election. (The party would, in fact, lose again four successive times, three of them under Barrett’s continued leadership, before sitting around that cabinet table again.)
“We discussed whether we were really going to make fundamental changes in British Columbia, or whether we would try to hang on for another term, rationalizing that we’d get the job done next time around. We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot,” he wrote.
No government before or since has passed so much legislation or brought so much change to Victoria in so short a time.
The new government doubled the pay of MLAs to $25,000 and made the role more full-time, significantly increased welfare rates and nearly doubled human resources spending as a percentage of the budget (to 15.1% from 8.5%). The new government provided collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike, to government employees. It introduced a new labour code, established the Islands Trust to thwart uncontrolled development on the Gulf Islands, purchased the Princess Marguerite, which maintained ferry service between Victoria and Seattle, refurbished the Royal Hudson steam locomotive and made it a rail tourism attraction, created a police commission to determine policing standards in British Columbia and set out provisions for dealing with complaints against the police from members of the public.
For the first time, legislation required elected and appointed officials to disclose their financial holdings so that the public could see real or potential conflicts of interest. The government increased funding for the arts and legal aid, initiated the province’s first consumer services ministry and introduced Canada’s strongest, at the time, consumer protection legislation. Legislation eliminated succession duties on farms transferring from parents to children.
The Barrett government launched a range of self-determination initiatives for First Nations. It created a provincial Status of Women office and funded women’s shelters and health facilities, including agencies for victims of rape. It overhauled the province’s family court apparatus.
The NDP had condemned the Social Credit regime for what Barrett viewed as allowing the resources of the province to enrich the wealthy, without benefiting the general population. To address this, the government created the B.C. Energy Commission to regulate utilities and monitor oil and gas prices, upped mineral royalties and increased government royalties on coal 600%.
Alarming many in the business sector, the new government became very directly involved in the economy. The NDP government purchased two pulp mills, two sawmills and a poultry operation to prevent them from going out of business. (With the exception of the chicken business, all became profitable.) The government acquired Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, which would be transformed into B.C. Children’s Hospital. And pay toilets were outlawed.
* * *
Barrett’s Jewishness was not a factor, apparently, one way or another in his election. But the fact that British Columbia – and Canada – elected its first Jewish premier was not overlooked by those with negative biases.
Marc Eliesen was raised in Montreal and served as deputy minister to Manitoba’s first NDP premier, Ed Schreyer, before being coaxed to take the same role in Barrett’s Victoria administration.
“When I was there, there was no question that antisemitism was still around,” he told the Independent. “I saw all the letters that would come in. Being the first Jewish premier … Dave never shied away from the fact of who he was. He was very conscious of people criticizing him not necessarily for the policies he was doing but for his ethnic background. I saw that front and centre and it was much more extensive than a lot of people would want to believe. It was reflected also in death threats that came through.”
Eliesen remembers the words of the mayor of Victoria at the time, Peter Pollen, who would go on to become leader of the B.C. Conservative party.
“There is the mayor of Victoria, when I was hired, making comments saying, ‘Dave Barrett could think nothing more of putting us Christians down and surrounding himself with a Jewish coterie.’ That was the kind of thing that was taking place at the time,” said Eliesen. He thought the words would spark outrage, but they didn’t.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It’s one of those things that shocks you at the time.”
* * *
Bernie Simpson, who later became an MLA in the government of Mike Harcourt, met Barrett in Jewish communal activities and was persuaded by him to join the NDP.
“From a political point of view, he was my mentor,” Simpson said. “I was with him from the very beginning.”
Under Barrett’s tutelage, Simpson became advertising director of the Democrat, the party’s official organ. Advertising sales is a notoriously tough business and that experience would lead Simpson to become one of the party’s leading fundraisers in years to come.
Simpson takes exception to suggestions from some quarters that Barrett was not connected to his Jewishness or to the community.
“There is a perception out there that he didn’t consider himself that Jewish,” Simpson told the Independent. “It’s actually the contrary. I remember distinctly how proud he was of being the first Jewish premier.”
Simpson went on to say that a core group of leaders attempted to convince Barrett to abandon politics and remain at the helm of the JCC, but, Simpson said, Barrett had determined early in the 1960s that he wanted to be premier.
Simpson recounted another memorable incident in Barrett’s time in politics.
Barrett met Shimon Peres at the Vancouver airport. The man who would become the eighth prime minister and, later, the ninth president of Israel, was tired. But the Hadassah Bazaar was on at the time, at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, and Barrett thought Peres should see it.
Simpson recalled Peres’s initial response, “Hadassah, Shmadassah. I want to go to the Bayshore to rest.”
But Barrett convinced the Israeli leader to go to the then-annual spectacle. The former premier was mobbed. The future Nobel laureate, who had not yet reached the heights of Israeli politics but was already legendary, was largely disregarded.
“He was kind of ignored, Shimon Peres,” Simpson recalled with a laugh. “It’s not all Jews there at the forum at the PNE and Peres was pissed off. But, 15 years later, I see Peres. The first thing he says it is, ‘How is Dave Barrett?’ Remember, this is 15 years later, after we picked him up at the airport. Which goes to show you two things: one is the prodigious memory of Shimon Peres, and the second thing is the charismatic personality of Dave Barrett, that he would leave such an impression on Shimon Peres.”
Peres and Barrett actually did cross paths in Israel shortly after the Hadassah incident, when Barrett was opposition leader. In his book,
Barrett recalls an invitation to a conference in Jerusalem on international terrorism. The confab included Peres, Israel’s then-prime minister Menachem Begin, George Bush, who was then the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other world leaders.
For Dave and Shirley Barrett, it was the first trip to the region and, while there was plenty to see outside of business hours, it was also an opportunity to connect with mishpachah. While Barrett’s mother, Rose, had migrated to Canada, her brother had fled to Palestine. On this trip, Barrett finally met his uncle, as well as cousins and second cousins he had never known.
* * *
For all the new government’s ambitious undertakings, there was not only the domestic political situation to consider, but global realities to be faced.
The early 1970s saw a period of steep inflation, caused in part by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose embargoes were sending global fuel prices through the roof. With oil prices spiking the cost of everything, wage demands naturally responded.
British Columbia was, at the time, among the most highly unionized workforces in North America. During Barrett’s term, inflation led to increasing expectations from private and public employees and, eventually, to the most intense period of labour unrest in the province’s history, with major parts of the B.C. economy halted by strikes.
Barrett brought in back-to-work legislation, an extraordinary act for an avowedly socialist government, and one from which he would not recover. The legislation was seen as an attack on collective bargaining rights and drove a wedge between the NDP and its crucial union supporters.
At the celebration of life, Jim Sinclair, a past president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, joked about the often-strained relations between Barrett’s NDP and the trade union movement.
“I would like to say that the relationship with the labour movement during that time was just rock solid,” he said. “But I think it was more rocky than solid.”
While Barrett’s government frequently clashed with union leaders, Sinclair said, “There was nothing wrong with the relationship between Dave Barrett, the premier of this province, and ordinary working people in this province.”
Meanwhile, the opposition was uniting, with three of five Liberal MLAs and one of the two Conservatives in the legislature defecting to the Social Credit caucus, now led by W.A.C. Bennett’s son, Bill Bennett.
In 1975, just over three years into his mandate, Barrett made a gut decision to go to the polls. Though he had introduced scads of popular initiatives – Mincome among them – he had disrupted every aspect of the status quo. There was probably not a sector, policy area or demographic that had not been affected by his government’s legislation. Many voters were supportive. Plenty were outraged.
Barrett jumped the gun, hoping that he might catch the strengthening opposition before they were sufficiently unified and ready. It was a miscalculation.
“There was reluctance on the part of some members, followed by a fatalistic acceptance,” Barrett writes in his memoir, acknowledging that few in his government thought the gambit would work.
If it was true that Barrett flung himself down the cabinet table at that first meeting asking if they were there for a good time or a long time, the answer came on Dec. 11, 1975. His government was defeated in a landslide and Barrett lost his home riding of Coquitlam.
* * *
Dawn Black was a young mother volunteering to reelect Barrett in Coquitlam in 1975.
She would later follow him into the legislature and to Parliament in Ottawa, where she viewed him as “den father” of the B.C. NDP caucus.
At the celebration of life, Black spoke about a contentious policy decision of the Barrett government from a personal perspective.
“As premier, Dave Barrett named Eileen Dailly as education minister and she was [also] the first woman deputy premier,” Black told the audience. “She banned corporal punishment in the schools, making us the first jurisdiction in Canada [to do so]. And not till a full 30 years later did the Supreme Court of Canada take action on that issue.”
The public blowback to Dailly’s decision, Black said, was enormous and unanticipated.
“You’d have thought they were banning blackboards and textbooks,” she recalled. “The pundits were screaming, they were hysterical that the kids would be running the schools, they’d be running roughshod over the teachers and every school in B.C. would be like a scene out of Lord of the Flies.”
But Black had a different reaction.
“I remember when I was strapped,” she said. “I remember the fury, the humiliation. And I can still feel that sting half a century later. I remember feeling so powerless in the face of the physical force of an adult.”
Banning the strap, she said, forced teachers to find better, more effective ways to keep order in the classroom and ensured that children did not come home traumatized.
“In fact, they learned a whole new lesson. There are better options – there are always better options than violence – to resolve conflict,” Black said to an enormous ovation.
Black also credited the Barrett government’s creation of the B.C. Cancer Agency.
“You are never more powerless than when one of your kids is diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “I’ve gone through that with two of my kids. I can tell you firsthand: going to the cancer agency in B.C. and knowing that your family is going to be treated to the highest standard of care in the world, that meant everything to me and it means everything to all of the other people who go through that door.”
* * *
Marc Eliesen believes part of Barrett’s success was that some people underestimated him.
“Because of his fantastic performance as an orator and an individual who was very funny and [had a] quick wit, there was often the impression that he was an off-the-cuff kind of guy and instantaneous kinds of observations would be made on contemporary political developments,” Eliesen said. “In fact, he was systematic, he was deliberate and he was rigourous. He thought very clearly as to what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.
“That government accomplished more than any other government in Canadian history in so little time,” Eliesen said. “I think there were a number of factors responsible for it. Number one was the overall leadership provided by Dave. He had chutzpah. He had political will. He was quite different than what you see in the contemporary political scene where politicians, regardless of their parties, tend to shift positions depending on the political winds.
“The second thing is that he had a cabinet and a caucus that wanted to do things, that wanted to deliver. He allowed a wide scope for them to initiate the kinds of things that they had collectively decided on. It wasn’t what you see today in political affairs, where things at the centre are micromanaged.”
Hindsight suggests Barrett knew he only had one shot.
“Not that there was a kind of a death wish associated with a one-term government,” Eliesen said, laughing. “But they knew the vagaries of political life and they said, look, we’ve got a majority government. We have a mandate from the people. We went out and talked about all these things. Let’s deliver. And they did it with great gusto.”
After the 1975 defeat, the Barretts and the Eliesens went to Manzanillo, Mexico, for a couple of weeks to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.
“Dave decided that, if there was support, he would go back and be the leader of the opposition, and there was support,” said Eliesen, who went on to head Ontario Hydro, Manitoba Hydro and, eventually, B.C. Hydro.
Barrett led his party to two more defeats before retiring as leader. In each of his three defeats, the share of the NDP vote was significantly higher than his winning tally in 1972, but it always came up short against the unified centre-right.
* * *
Joy MacPhail, who served in many senior cabinet portfolios in the 1990s, represented a part of East Vancouver that Barrett had also served after returning to the house in a by-election following his 1975 Coquitlam defeat.
After the NDP was routed by Gordon Campbell’s Liberals in 2001, MacPhail was leader of the opposition from 2001 to 2005, heading a caucus of two that included fellow East Van MLA Jenny Kwan. MacPhail thought she would get some sympathy from Barrett when he visited them at the legislature. Instead, she got tough love.
“He leaned across the desk,” said MacPhail, “and he said to me, ‘Listen, two of you and 77 of those sons of bitches seems like a fair match. Now get in there and do it.’ We went in there, we did it, and we never won a thing, but we felt we could, because of Dave.”
She recalled meeting with the Barretts when Dave was considering a run for federal Parliament, in 1988.
“We were sitting around, the four of us, there was lots of talk about logistics, tactics, strategy, is it good for the province, what would it be like being in Ottawa, and the three of us were talking and Shirley wasn’t saying anything. So I knew that this was not right and I turned to Shirley after a half-hour of the rest of us BSing and I said, ‘Well, Shirley, what do you think?’ And she said, ‘Listen, anything to get the clown out of the house.’”
MacPhail added: “And I want to say, it wasn’t ‘clown.’ But … we’re not allowed to say what she really said.”
MacPhail, who was appointed last year by the new NDP government to head the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, recalled the history before the provincial auto insurer was in place.
“Working people couldn’t afford to insure their cars, so they were driving around without insurance and there were huge consequences for families in terms of when crashes occurred, and lives were destroyed,” she said. “People who survived but had no ability to heal, get healthcare and pay for the damage they’d done to other lives, as well.… To know that that was done within the first few months of the Barrett government and survives to this day … I can only hope that – and I do see it as my mandate – to bring it back to the great corporation that it once was.”
* * *
B.C. Premier John Horgan credits Barrett for his own attraction to a political career. During the Solidarity movement opposing premier Bill Bennett’s “restraint” program, Horgan went with a friend to a rally on the lawn of the legislature.
“I was not overly political at that time. Two years earlier, I had met Tommy Douglas and I had wanted to be a social worker, but transferred into political science after hearing Tommy Douglas speak,” Horgan told the Croatian centre audience. “Dave would start a little bit low, you had to lean in to hear what he had to say. Then he would start to build and the people in the audience would start to move with him, this way, that way.… That was the power of his delivery. But, more importantly, it was the power of his message. I left the legislature, I walked up Blanshard Street in Victoria, I went into the local NDP office and said, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Glen Clark, another former NDP premier, said that Barrett’s demeanour should be a model for today and he added a quip that brought down the room.
“Social injustice is worse than ever,” Clark said. “Inequality is greater than ever. There is an opioid crisis of immeasurable proportions, with record overdose deaths every year. And perhaps the greatest challenge of our time is solving climate change. In an age of unprecedented cynicism toward government, Dave Barrett taught us that it doesn’t have to be that way. These problems are man-made and, as such, they can be solved … by women.”
* * *
The support Barrett had from his family – his wife Shirley and their three kids – was brought up repeatedly during the celebration of life.
Marc Eliesen said: “Dave would often ask Shirley, ‘Shirley why do you stick around?’ And Shirley would say, ‘Dave, I just want to see what happens next.’”
Gerry Scott, who has run countless campaigns for the NDP, said: “At school, when the kids were asked, ‘What does your dad do?’ The only answer that could be consistent was, ‘He raises hell.’ And they were proud of this.”
All three adult children spoke at the event.
Daughter Jane offered a different answer to the question, “What does your father do?”
“I often told people … he was a plumber. I told him he was up to his neck in…” she said, trailing off. “My friends would say, ‘But aren’t you proud?’ Of course I was. But not for the reason people thought. Plumber, politician, didn’t matter. He was just my dad.”
Son Joe said that Barrett was the same guy at home as he was publicly.
“There was no difference. He was funny, cheerful, always supportive of us. Of course, you’re going to make mistakes in life and he would say, ‘It’s easy not to make mistakes. Just do nothing.’”
Joe Barrett said his father faced Alzheimer’s matter-of-factly.
“He accepted it, he was peaceful, he was courageous and he stoically faced that last challenge right to the end,” he said. “Dad, he celebrated life, he loved life. As the Jews say, ‘To life! L’chaim!’”
Son Dan recalled a light moment in a dark time. One of Barrett’s closest confidants and advisors was Harvey Beech. At a time when death threats against the premier were too common, the two were walking to lunch in Victoria.
“And, one day, walking up Government Street … Harvey was lagging behind and so my dad lays into him: ‘Harvey, what are you doing back there? You gotta get up in front of me. You’re protecting me. This is the premier of the province. Some guys are going to get out and shoot me.’
“Harvey said, without skipping a beat, ‘Dave, they can kill a man but they can’t kill an idea.’ This did not give my dad a whole lot of comfort.”
After the ceremony, Joe Barrett told the Independent that his dad was very proud of his Jewish heritage.
“It was a fundamental, deep part of who he was,” he said. “I was reminded yesterday, one of the very first things that the government did was remove the covenants on property titles. Up until 1972, landowners – I guess in the British Properties in particular – could write ‘no Jews, no Sikhs, no blacks.’ The very first thing they did. He knew who he was and where he came from and he was proud.”
There have not been a great number of Jewish people in B.C. politics, but there are two Jewish cabinet ministers in the current government.
“Dave Barrett, when I was a young man, made tremendous change in British Columbia,” George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, told the Independent. “The legacies that he left – the [agricultural] land reserve, ICBC, the ambulance service, things we take for granted now, recording proceedings in the legislature, question period – all of them go back to the brief period of ’72 to ’75. He was a warm, funny man. He could rouse a crowd like no one else and it’s an honour to me to have been able to have sat down with him on a couple of occasions and just have a quiet conversation.”
Selena Robinson, B.C. minister of municipal affairs and housing, is proud to note that she represents the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville, the third Jewish MLA, after Barrett and Levi, to be elected in the area, which would not, by any demographic measure, be termed a “Jewish riding.”
“Unfortunately, I never got a chance to meet him,” Robinson told the Independent, “but I really feel connected to him.” Of Barrett’s legacy, Robinson said, “It really was about tikkun olam, it was about how to heal the world. It was what motivated him and I felt a kindred spirit.”
In a telephone interview, Shirley Barrett recalled Passover seders at her mother-in-law’s home and said her husband was “basically a humanist, but he was a secular Jew.”
“He always was proud to be a Jew,” she said. “He grew up with the values of his parents and he never relented on his heritage. He was an insatiable reader and one of the topics he returned to repeatedly was trying to understand the history of his people.
“He was a reader of everything that he could get his hands on as far as trying to understand why the Holocaust happened and why there was antisemitism,” she said. “He just was so interested in trying to figure out the human psyche.”
* * *
Barrett returned to politics as a member of Parliament from 1988 to 1993. He ran for the federal party leadership in 1989, coming a close second to Audrey McLaughlin on the final ballot.
He hosted a hotline radio program on CJOR, did stints as a lecturer at Harvard and McGill universities, and continued campaigning for New Democrats as long as his health allowed.
Moe Sihota, a former cabinet minister who emceed the celebration of life, remembered what the diversity of Barrett’s cabinet meant to a young Indo-Canadian person. In addition to the first female deputy premier, the Barrett government included two black MLAs and the first indigenous cabinet minister in B.C. history.
“We grew up as kids in Lake Cowichan, a small sawmill community … we always saw colour as a barrier,” Sihota said. “Dave Barrett came along and he never thought that colour was a barrier. Dave, together with the late Emery Barnes, Rosemary Brown and Frank Calder, made all of us kids in the Cowichan Valley believe we could make a change in society.”
* * *
On Cypress Mountain, at one of the most scenic views in this scenic province, looking down across Burrard Inlet at the city of Vancouver and beyond, is a plaque that reads:
“Throughout the 1960s, the future of Cypress Bowl was hotly debated. In 1964, a member of the Legislative Assembly [MLA] by the name of Dave Barrett pressed the minister of forests to honour a commitment to preserve forest lands and Cypress Bowl. What followed was an eight-year effort by MLA Barrett to save Cypress Bowl from chainsaws and residential development. Elected British Columbia’s premier in 1972, his dream was finally realized when his government established Cypress Park as a ‘Class A’ Provincial Park in 1975.
“Dave Barrett was elected to serve as an MLA in British Columbia from 1960 to 1975, and from 1976 to 1983. He was elected as a federal member of Parliament serving from 1988 to 1993. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2005.”
Selina Robinson, current MLA and NDP candidate for Coquitlam-Maillardville. (photo from Selina Robinson)
Coquitlam is not known as a hotbed of Jewish life, yet Selina Robinson notes that the area has been represented by three Jewish members of the legislature over the past few decades.
Riding boundaries frequently change, but the area was represented by Dave Barrett, when he was premier of the province, later by Norm Levi and, since 2013, by Robinson, in the riding now called Coquitlam-Maillardville. She appeared initially to lose last time around, but won by 41 votes in a recount. She’s not counting on a landslide this time, she said – she’ll be happy just to win on election night.
Robinson’s roots run deep in the Jewish community. Moving from Montreal to Richmond as a teen (she was Selina Dardick then), she remembers standing in the school hallway with a boy in a turban – two non-Christians excused every morning while their classmates recited the Lord’s Prayer. After high school, she went to Israel for a year, where she did an ulpan and Livnot U’Lehibanot, a program exploring Israel and Jewish heritage through hiking, community service, seminars and interactions with Israelis.
Returning to British Columbia, she was an administrator for Habonim Camp Miriam and later ran Lubavitch’s Camp Gan Israel. Meanwhile, she was studying at Simon Fraser University, obtaining a master’s degree and beginning a career in family therapy. She was headhunted to become director of counseling at the Jewish Family Service Agency and later served as associate executive director there. Her political career began on Coquitlam city council. In the legislature, she has been the New Democratic Party spokesperson for local government, sports and seniors.
She understands issues of affordability, she said, because she and her husband were on the Jewish cutting-edge putting down stakes in Coquitlam when they married 30 years ago. Part of the solution to affordability, she said, is providing more diversity of housing. Now that her kids are grown, they do not require the single-family suburban family home and could free it up for a larger family. They want to stay in the neighbourhood, where they are longtime active members of the Burquest Jewish community, but there are no townhouses or other appropriate options for them.
Different kinds of housing, such as the co-op model that is more secure than rental and not as expensive as individual homeownership, could improve the situation, she said. “We need to look at purpose-built rental and how to influence and encourage market-built rental.”
Affordable, accessible daycare in the province is also a pillar of affordability, according to Robinson, who calls daycare expenses “another mortgage payment every month.”
Another issue where Robinson has a personal perspective is her party’s promise to reinstate the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which the B.C. Liberals disbanded more than a decade ago.
“It speaks volumes that we take this seriously and there is a place for you to go to if you believe you’ve been discriminated against,” Robinson said. She was a surrogate mother for a friend’s baby and, in 2001, went to the Human Rights Commission over the legal definition of who was the baby’s mother.
“I had to register the birth under my name as the mother,” she said, even though she was not genetically related, as the baby she carried was conceived from the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm.
“Fatherhood is determined based on genetics but motherhood is based on from whom the baby was ‘expelled or extracted.’ That’s discriminatory. It should be based on genetics. So we took the government to court and the Human Rights Commission accepted the claim and then the government caved.”
Without the commission, someone who feels discriminated against would be required to go to court at their own expense, she said.
Robinson commends the provincial government for providing $100,000 to the Jewish community for increased security, and she recently signed a letter of support for a mosque in her area that is also seeking security funding.
“I think we have to address immediate risk,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot of work for us to do around making sure that people understand that this isn’t tolerated and to challenge discriminatory practices that do exist.”
Cuts to education over the past 16 years, she said, have led to reductions in things that might be considered “extras,” like taking opportunities to explore other cultures. Combined with these reductions, there are more families in which both parents are working, so few can get involved in providing extracurricular activities, as Robinson did when her kids were young, inviting classes to their sukkah and visiting to discuss Jewish topics with their public school classes.
“Those are the things that went by the wayside,” she said. “It allows for ‘others’ to be unfamiliar and, therefore, to be not trusted. And, therefore, hate can grow because of that gap.”
As NDP spokesperson for seniors, Robinson visits facilities and appreciates the role ethnocultural communities play in the delivery of social services.
“The fact that we have the Louis Brier and that it’s so established, and the Weinberg [Residence] … it’s so important,” she said, “for this community and not all communities have that.… I think government should support that, in helping ethnic groups make sure that their seniors have the comforts that they need and they can live their lives as the people that they are and how they’ve lived their entire lives.”
On the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, Robinson said she has “real problems with it.”
“My understanding of the BDS movement is to destroy the state of Israel,” she said. “I think that’s not OK. I support the state of Israel. I think the idea of not having a state of Israel is destructive and I do think that’s antisemitic.”
While she opposes BDS, she emphasized that people are free to make choices about where they invest or spend, and she defended the right of people to criticize any government.
“I didn’t like what [Stephen] Harper was doing. It doesn’t make me anti-Canadian, it just makes me an engaged person, an engaged Jew who is paying attention to what’s going on in the world around me.”
As British Columbia addresses economic development issues, Robinson urges them to look to Israel.
“When people talk about resource development here in Canada, particularly here in British Columbia, and they say, ‘Well, what else would we do?’ I say, ‘Well, take a look at Israel.’ They have no resources except people and they invest in their people and their people are amazing.… I want to see British Columbia take parts of that model – yes, we have resources and we should develop them wisely – but we have people and, when we invest in people, anything and everything is possible, and I think Israel’s an excellent example of that. I think we have a lot to learn from Israel. I would like to see a lot more of that.”
As Jewish voters ponder their options for the May 9 election, Robinson insists the NDP is the natural choice.
“I think that, in our hearts, our Jewish hearts, in our kishkes, we are New Democrats,” she said. “Jewish values are New Democrat values.”
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.
From left to right: Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; Jason Z. Murray, chair, Local Partner Council, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs; Penny Gurstein, volunteer leader, JFGV; Candace Kwinter, member of the CIJA LPC; Stephen Gaerber, chair of the board, JFGV; John Horgan, MLA, leader of the Official Opposition; Yael Levin, manager of partnerships, CIJA Pacific Region; David Berson, member of the CIJA LPC; Shelley Rivkin, vice-president, allocations and community relations, JFGV; and Nico Slobinsky, director. (photo CIJA Pacific Region)
On Nov. 28, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV) hosted discussions with Jewish community leaders and British Columbia Leader of the Official Opposition John Horgan and Selina Robinson, member of the Legislative Assembly for Coquitlam-Maillardville.
The discussion underscored the Jewish community’s relationship with the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) and provided Horgan with details regarding issues faced by the approximately 30,000 members of British Columbia’s Jewish community.
Lay leaders and professional staff representing a wide range of perspectives discussed such priorities as antisemitism, community security, affordable housing, elder care, Jewish education, ethno-cultural cooperation and the centrality of the state of Israel to the Jewish community.
Horgan expressed his appreciation for the Jewish community and recognized the importance of working with them to confront hatred and intolerance wherever it exists.
“British Columbia’s Jewish community cherishes the historic, enduring and constructive relationships existing with both the B.C. NDP and B.C. Liberal parties,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s Pacific Region director. “CIJA is committed to strengthening our relationship with all provincial parties to affirm our shared values and work together on the challenges facing B.C.’s Jewish community and other ethnic and religious minorities.”
In the last federal election, Mira Oreck was the NDP candidate for the riding of Vancouver Granville. (photo from Mira Oreck)
Nearly one year after the Canadian federal election, I had a chance to sit down with Mira Oreck (by phone), the NDP candidate for the riding of Vancouver Granville. I had knocked on doors with Mira during the early days of the campaign while I was visiting Vancouver that summer and I was eager to hear her reflections, particularly from a Jewish community standpoint.
Mira’s Jewish community affiliations run deep. She attended Beth Israel Hebrew School and Camp Ramah, she was president of her United Synagogue Youth region and served on the USY international board. She later went on to serve as regional director of Canadian Jewish Congress. Today, she is a member of Or Shalom Synagogue. Mira recalled being “overwhelmed” by how “members of the Jewish community connected with the campaign. People were genuinely curious and excited by the idea that someone from our community could be in Parliament.”
Unlike many other Canadian ridings, Mira said, the riding of Vancouver Granville was “primed for the conversation” around Jewish and Israel issues. And, since she already knew many Jewish community members and leaders personally, she said didn’t need to make cold calls to introduce herself. So, she was intrigued by a snippet of advice she heard someone give to one of her opponents who would indeed be making those rounds. The advice? The candidate should never mention the word “peace.” Apparently, to more conservative Jewish ears, “peace” is code word for being anti-Israel.
It’s a fascinating tidbit to me, since my reference point in academic circles is the reverse: many on the “far left” of the Israel-Palestine debate understand peace to be problematically “pro-Israel,” which is to say representing a complacent adherence to the status quo, without the hard work needed to challenge injustice. Whatever the correct referent is, this suggests how loaded is the discourse around Israel. It’s hard for candidates to speak their mind, knowing that every phrase could be a landmine.
But, on Israel, Mira insisted she kept her message consistent: against BDS, pro two-state solution. Her goal, as she put it to voters, was to “see peace in my lifetime … and not try to perpetuate ingrained ideas of the ‘other.’”
As much as she didn’t shy away from using the term “Zionist” to describe herself – despite some on her campaign preferring she not – Mira tried to emphasize that single-issue voting (for example, on Israel) has its limits. “I would say to voters that we are having an election in Canada and, first and foremost, my role as MP is to be concerned with the country we are governing.” For that matter, Mira said there were not “distinguishable differences on party platforms regarding Israel and Palestine. I wanted to know from [voters] what they thought the significant differences were; often people couldn’t name any.” Still, the topic of Israel came up “a lot less” than she expected. Instead, people in the Jewish community, she said, talked “about Bill C-51, refugees, climate change, child care … overwhelmingly more than I heard them talk about Israel.” The campaign, she said, “was a really good reminder” that “our community is not at all homogeneous.”
Sometimes, aspects of how politics played out as she engaged with members of the community saddened her. She recalled talking to a group of Jewish seniors, some of whom had been her Hebrew school teachers. They were Conservative party backers. “There was no amount of knowing me, coming from the Beth Israel synagogue and my connections to Israel, that enabled them to give me a fair hearing.” It was hard, she said. “I felt like they weren’t willing to know me for who I was, or the values that I hold.”
And there were times in the campaign where Mira had conversations that alarmed her but left her feeling hopeful. When she met with students at King David High School, she was shocked by some inflammatory descriptions of Palestinians. These students said things “that didn’t make sense, but were clearly coming from a very fear-based place,” she said.
Mira stood her ground. “I was really tough with the kids; really challenging them. I wasn’t trying to win over their votes; I was trying to have a real conversation with them about issues.” Later that afternoon, Mira recounted, two kids showed up to volunteer on her campaign. “It was a reminder,” she said, “that, while there were a few loud kids with strong opinions, others were thinking critically.”
Currently on maternity leave from being director of public engagement at the Broadbent Institute, a non-partisan think tank that describes itself as “championing progressive change through the promotion of democracy, equality and sustainability,” Mira – to me – represents the best our community has to offer when it comes to the sort of critical thinking she describes, and trying to make a difference, even if the nature of the electoral game means that one doesn’t always come out on top.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications.
Britain’s Labor Party is going through a crisis as successive low-level and, more recently, senior members of the party express antisemitic attitudes.
Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a Laborite familiarly known as “Red Ken,” told television audiences last week that Hitler was a Zionist, repeating a common and despicable theory usually limited to musty corners of the internet, implying that the Holocaust was all a ploy to engender sympathy that would lead to the creation of the state of Israel. Livingstone apologized if people had taken offence to his words but did not apologize for what he said.
Around the same time as Livingstone – a stalwart of the party’s left for decades – was getting in hot water, so was Naz Shah, a party rising star. The MP accused Israel of behaving like Nazis and suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States, an explicit call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the last refuge of the Middle East where they have not yet been eliminated.
The conflict broke into the open, at least in the international media, in February, when one of the co-chairs of the Labor club at Oxford University resigned, declaring that a large proportion of club members have “some kind of problem with Jews.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor Party leader whose own record of allegiances leans more toward Hamas and Hezbollah than it does toward democratic, Jewish Israel, has called an inquiry into antisemitism in his party. Yet, this did not stop one of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet members and closest allies from dismissing allegations that the Labor Party has a problem with Jews as a “smear.” And some have declared the condemnations of antisemitism in the party a “new McCarthyism.”
While all of this sounds like bad news – and it’s hard to argue that the presence of antisemitism in one of the Western world’s major political parties is anything but – there is a silver lining.
The fact is that ideas like these have been percolating on the left and elsewhere for years. They are expressed daily in certain forums on the internet and pop up in private conversation even among people who are respected and trusted on other topics.
In recent years, we have seen individual eruptions of outlandish accusations against Israel – indeed, “apartheid,” “genocide” and accusations of Nazism and the perpetration of a holocaust are accusations thrown routinely at the tiny outpost of democracy. That antisemitic outbursts in Britain’s Labor Party have reached a critical mass that could no longer be dismissed as the unrelated rantings of misguided individuals has led to a much-needed confrontation over the topic. Now, the party must confront and address the problems in its ranks.
From a Canadian perspective, this has particular interest, because our New Democratic Party, in some ways a child of the British parent party, is entering into a period of reflection and reinvention. Its last two leaders, the late Jack Layton and the recently defenestrated Thomas Mulcair, tried to eradicate from their party not-uncommon expressions of anti-Zionism that sometimes relied on anti-Jewish prejudice as an accelerant. The spectacular failure of the Mulcair-led NDP in the last election is leading some to say that a turn to the more extreme left is, if not an electorally advantageous move, at least an ideologically pure way forward. Such recidivism would almost certainly involve some rehabilitation of old anti-Israel fixations.
Yet, it is always better to shine light under these rocks than to allow these ideas to mutate. In Britain right now, we are seeing the predictable illogical extremes to which unchecked anti-Zionism can lead. It will be informative to watch the public discussion that transpires. Though differences are vast, the political cultures of Canada and Britain still have some strong parallels. Perhaps, if Britain confronts in this matter now, Canada will not need to later.