I’m truly humbled and greatly honoured to receive the Saul Hayes Award. Saul Hayes devoted his life to championing human rights at home and abroad. He was instrumental in the development of formal legal protections for human rights in the post-war era, a period that as we all know was deeply permeated by the hope that nothing like the Holocaust would eve happen again. Saul Hayes was one of the giants of the Canadian Jewish Community, one of countless Jewish men and women who have contributed so much to our country.
Another was the legendary businessman and philanthropist Sam Bronfman. Mr. Sam, as he was called, led this organization, the CJC, through the war years and beyond when it helped Jews find sanctuary in Canada.
He was also the inspiration for the fictional Solomon Gersky, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian literature and the creation of Mordechai Richler, yet another giant of the Canadian Jewish Community.
These three men all contributed in different ways. Saul Hayes was a community builder. Few did as much as he to make Canada such a hospitable home for Jews. Sam Bronfman was a business builder, the founder of one of our country’s greatest corporate dynasties, and Mordechai Richler was a cultural builder whose stories resonated with Canadians from every part of the country and every walk of life, even those who felt the sting of his satire. WASP, Jews, French Canadian separatists, English Canadian nationalists, he skewered us all.
I should tell you a little known fact, that I actually met Mordechai Richler once. In fact, it was the night of the 1995 referendum in Montreal. We had a beer together in the Peel Pub that evening, and for all his reputation, he was remarkably amiable and also remarkably sanguine about all that was going around us that evening. I do miss him most days, although I have to admit that some nights I awake in a cold sweat, imagining that he is back at his typewriter taking aim at the current Prime Minister.
Yet, we loved him because he exposed our silly vanities, mocked our petty squabbles and reminded us just how privileged we all are to live in such a peaceful and prosperous country. Richler wore the outraged protests of his victims like badges of honour. Caustic, controversial and crude, they called him "un écrivain provocateur." I’m told one Quebec separatist I recall even called for one of his books to be banned, an attempt that I’m glad to say failed, because in Canada, one of the human rights we treasure most is the right to freedom of expression. Without it, there can be no democracy, no free press, no freedom of enterprise, no provocative polemicists like Mordechai Richler and no free exchange of ideas, the universal catalyst for human progress.
Saul Hayes also understood this. In the 1960s, he was a key member of the Cohen committee, which laid the groundwork for Canada’s first anti-hate law under the criminal code. It became an effective legal weapon against naked hatemongering without compromising the elemental right to freedom of expression, a fine balance that, quite frankly, we must work harder to maintain in this country.
So, as I say, it is a special honour to receive the Saul Hayes award, a special honour to meet his family members as well, and a special privilege to be the first sitting Prime Minister to receive it.
Now, I know that one set of policies, which has led you to confer this honour, is the more consistent balanced and principled stands that we have upheld on critical foreign policy issues like the Middle East since taking office more than three years ago. As you know, our government is not always of one mind with the government of Israel on the issues of the Middle East, but friends, I am very troubled, very troubled by the degree to which opposition to the government of Israel has become in some circles an intellectually respectable cover for anti-Semitic discourse.
It is all too common nowadays, friends, for politicians to claim to support Israel and the Jewish people in forums such as these. Yet, when Israel is attacked for the umpteenth time because its enemies refuse to accept the right of the Jewish state to exist – that is the reason – these same politicians are quick to condemn Israel, to accuse it of war crimes and to demand that it unilaterally suspend its right to self-defence. You will not hear that kind of doublespeak from our government ever.
That is why, as was already mentioned, under our government when the United Nations’ Durban process against racism became a forum for the promotion of hatred, Canada was first country in the world to withdraw from it.
When Hamas formed the government of the Palestinian Authority, refusing to drop its objective to eradicate Israel and its people, Canada was the first country in the world to suspend ties and assistance to that government.
When some at the Francophonie tried to impose a one-sided anti-Israeli resolution, Canada was the first to refuse to sign their declaration.
And of course, we remain among the world’s most vocal in opposition to not only the nuclear program of the government of Iran, but also to its malevolent anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish declarations.
In taking these positions, friends, it’s important for me to note the tremendous support that I have received from members of my own team.
For instance, when campus radicals viciously harassed Jewish students in Toronto, our minister Peter Kent was among the first to condemn them.
When those same campus radicals teamed up with some union firebrands as part of their unrelenting anti-Israeli campaigned, our minister Jason Kenney stood firm in defence of academic freedom.
When schools and synagogues faced increasing attacks from anti-Semitic vandals, our minister Stockwell Day created the security infrastructure pilot program to protect religious and cultural institutions from hate crimes.
And let me just mention one additional initiative we will be undertaking.
This week in Parliament we will introduce legislation that will give victims of terrorism the power to obtain just compensation from those responsible for their suffering. By amending the state immunity act, this bill will allow victims to sue perpetrators and sponsors of terrorist acts, including foreign states in Canadian courts. Now, of course our actions in defence of human rights are by no means restricted to matters of foreign policy.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m proud of what our government has done to protect human rights over the past three years. We’ve been inspired by tireless efforts of many members of the Jewish community in Canada, and we have also built upon the traditions of our own Conservative heritage, in particular on the values and visions of our late Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
The father of Canada’s first Bill of Rights not only enshrined our rights in law, he also enshrined them in practice. It was he who gave aboriginal people the right to vote in this country for the first time. He appointed the first female cabinet minister, the first aboriginal senator, the first Jewish governor of the Bank of Canada to name but a few of his pioneering efforts to tear down barriers to equality in Canadian life.
It is in this tradition of conservativism that we have placed a priority on advancing knowledge about the history of anti-Semitism and human rights abuses in Canada. We have, for example, provided support for the Taskforce for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. And we’ve also provided funds to recognise and remember the tragedies and travesties of the SS St-Louis, the Komagata Maru and the wartime internment policies. In some cases, we’ve been fortunate in being able to deal with historical wrongs through reconciliation; in other words, while some of the victims of those wrongs are still living. I speak of course of the redress of the Chinese Head Tax and the apology for the system of Indian residential schools, things which have been supported by all of my colleagues from all parties in the Parliament of Canada.
We do all these things not to decry the past but to learn from it and to build a better future for all of us, which is why we have given our aboriginal people living on reserve finally for the first time in Canadian history access to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and why we are trying to create matrimonial property rights for Aboriginal women today. One of the most lasting and tangible of all our actions is one in which the Jewish community has played a very large role, particularly the Asper family of Winnipeg, and that is of course the establishment of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. This will be not just the first national museum outside of the Ottawa-Gatineau region, but it will also be the first national museum funded by all three levels of government as well as the private sector. I cannot wait to see this open.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me just conclude by observing that the actions I’ve just enumerated on human rights have been among the most personally satisfying we have undertaken in my time as Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, a Prime Minister has to do a lot of difficult things, especially during the economic times in which we are now living. But these actions really are their own reward.
I am doubly honoured and overwhelmed by your kindness and generosity in giving to me the Saul Hayes Award as well.