Dr. Mark Freiman: “Relations between Ukrainians and Jews in Canada are still challenging”

Why did the “melting pot” model not catch on in Canada; how does bilingualism function officially; and what is the relationship between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities in the Land of Maple Leaf? These and many other topics are raised in an interview with the attorney Dr. Mark Freiman, who is the former Deputy Attorney General of Ontario and ex-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Mark, when did the concept of titular nation disappear in Canada, and the Anglo-Saxons become only one of many national groups?

I arrived in Canada in 1952, and at the time, many people associated themselves with the British Commonwealth, feeling sentimental about the empire and some alienation from “new Canadians.” I would not call this xenophobia, but distance was maintained.

Everything changed in the late 1960s with the adoption of new immigration legislation. Society became much more diverse. Radical demographic changes led to the situation where today more than half of the residents of Toronto were born outside of Canada.

Why did Canada reject the American “melting pot” model, turning multiculturalism into a national brand and legislating the slogan “One nation, two languages, many cultures”?

This was a political decision. It should be kept in mind that the main wave of immigration to the U.S. occurred in an absolutely different era; the majority of immigrants arrived in the New World before 1924. In our country, immigration is more recent. That is why new citizens have retained their bond with their countries and ethnic groups. Without doubt, multiculturalism is connected with the political representation of people from various diasporas. New Canadians became influential state figures, and their opinions should be heeded.

The representation of ethnic groups is especially noticeable in the Liberal Party, and this is normal. In order to be a proud Canadian, it is not obligatory to forget one’s traditions.

Is the movement for the self-determination of Quebec the consequence of multiculturalism or, on the contrary, that the desire of the French minority to preserve its language and traditions spurred political changes?  

The phenomenon of French influence in North America is not connected with multiculturalism. The French settled here before the English, and Quebec’s identity was formed over hundreds of years, and this process continues.

Bilingualism in action: “Canada undivided”

Thirty or forty years ago, disputes between English and French Canadians nearly led to a split in the country. Tensions remain, but they are regulated by legislation. There is a large English-speaking minority in Quebec, and all these people are fluent in French. On the other hand, many people in Quebec do not know English, and outside its borders—French. Nevertheless, many Canadians speak both languages equally well.

In other words, after arriving in Toronto from Montreal, you can make do with your English.

Yes, completely.

Will French be sufficient for a Quebec resident who ends up in Toronto or Vancouver?

Absolutely not. English is an international language that allows one to survive in any part of the world. With French, it is not so simple, even in Canada.

How would you define the phenomenon of Canadian nationalism?

Officially, we are a bilingual, multicultural country that is not the United States (smiles). Any prime minister of Canada, speaking to the domestic audience, gives half of his/her speech in English and half in French—always. The majority of government officials are fluent in both languages and use them in their work because the government guarantees the provision of all services in both languages.

Do language quotas exist, which guarantee, for example, that 25 percent of airtime is allotted to broadcasting in French in English-speaking provinces?

Things work differently in our country. The government, as represented by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, provides two television channels in each province: an English-language one and a French-language one. This also applies to radio stations. Quotas exist only for Canadian products, regardless of which language it is produced in.

Unlike the majority of countries in the world where national cultures are simply not prevented from developing at the cost of private sponsors, Canada supports ethnic diversity financially on the official level. What is the main expression of this support?  

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage gives grants for historical research, support for theaters, music groups, and libraries—in other words, for everything that has no connection to politics and religion.

And if an Orthodox Jewish community wants to open a school, will the government help it?

No. This is the concern of a particular community. I am very familiar with this problem and participated in many court cases connected with it. According to one of the paragraphs in the Constitution of Canada, the government should provide assistance to Catholic education in the province of Ontario and to Protestant education in Quebec. Another paragraph states that the government generally should not interfere in the religious sphere.

Bialik Hebrew Day School, Toronto

There is a contradiction here. The thing is that the first law was adopted in the early days of Canada, when the main minorities in the two principal provinces, Ontario and Quebec, were Catholics and Protestants, respectively. Since education was religious, this provision protected the rights of minorities.

The second legislative act is much younger; it is only several decades old. When I was a young attorney, the Jewish community spoke out against injustice, saying that Christians (Catholics and Protestants) receive assistance, but we do not. We filed a lawsuit, won one court case, then one in a higher court, and finally, we reached the Supreme Court of Canada.

The most interesting things happened here. One of the principles of the Constitution of Canada is equality of all citizens, but in the given case, religious discrimination turned out, in fact, to be fixed by law. The Supreme Court decided that support for Catholic education in Ontario is the cornerstone in the foundation of the state, a historic deal that became a special provision of the Constitution. In other words, excuse me, Jews, you cannot use the Constitution to obtain privileges that give you equal rights with the Catholic and Protestant minorities. It is true that a new law can be passed, but the Constitution will remain unchanged.

And was such a law eventually passed?

At the time, the Conservative Party was heading to the elections under the slogan of equal support for all religious schools, not just Catholic or Protestant ones, but also Jewish and Islamic ones, etc.

The elections took place in 2004, and the Conservatives lost miserably, and the draft legislation was simply forgotten. The problem is that even religious schools in Canada are part of the state system of education. People were afraid that the public education system would be destroyed if taxpayers’ money went to private religious schools. It is true that sometimes they receive assistance from the government for projects in the sphere of extracurricular education, holding sports and cultural events, extended-day groups, feeding schoolchildren, but not for the actual educational process.

Canada Day celebrations

In your view, does promoting ethnic diversity have an impact on the low level of assimilation of the Jewish population in comparison with the USA?

First and foremost, as was stated earlier, immigration to Canada took place much later than in the USA. Today we are at the stage of development of community life in which the American Jewish communities were thirty to forty years ago. Secondly, America, unlike our country, went the way of the “melting pot.” And thirdly, community organizations in Canada stand more firmly on their feet, being concentrated in several large cities with developed infrastructure.

Is the presence of representatives of ethnic minorities occupying high positions in the government an accident or a deliberate policy? The [former] heads of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labour are Ukrainian women; the Minister of Defense is a Sikh, like the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry;  the [former] Minister of [Natural] Resources is an Indian; the Minister for Women is an Afghan woman; the [former] Minister of Immigration was a refugee from Somalia; the Minister of Small Business was born in Hong Kong; the [former] minister of Fisheries is an Inuit; the [former] Minister of Veterans Affairs is a woman from the First Nations Kwagiulth; etc.

There are many representatives of national minorities in the Liberal Party, and they have done much for their communities. But this is only part of the answer. It is simply that when you are so diverse, others stop noticing this. When you go into the subway in the morning, you encounter people of all races, skin colors, and ethnic backgrounds. But you simply stop paying attention. A colleague with whom I worked for fifteen years is Chinese, but if not for your question, I would not have remembered this.

The fact that an organization like UJE (Ukrainian Jewish Encounter) appeared in Canada is probably not by accident. What is the overall relationship like between the Jewish and Ukrainian communities?

It is challenging to this day, although on the official level, everything is wonderful. When I was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, I had a wonderful relationship with Paul Grod, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. At the grassroots level, there are still many negative stereotypes.

The largest pysanka in the world, Vegreville, Alberta

We are trying to establish a dialogue, but there is a problem that must not be ignored: The majority of North American Jews do not feel their “Ukrainian” roots. If you ask an American or Canadian Jew where his/her grandfather and grandmother came from, in most cases, you will hear from Russia or Poland. When you specify exactly where in Poland, then you’re talking about Galicia, and if you ask where your interlocutor’s ancestors lived in Russia, s/he will recall Odesa or Zhytomyr. Both the former and latter are Ukraine today, but for him/her, it is still Poland or Russia. You end up having to explain, show a map … When I first went to my grandmothers’ homeland—to Sambir—my relatives asked me if I was going to Poland. No, Ukraine.

What lessons can our country learn from the Canadian experience?

It would be nice (if this is even feasible in principle) to arrive at an idea of a political nation and not remain in thrall to a concept of ethnic identity. Realizing that people of the most varied backgrounds—Jews, Hungarians, Roma—are all Ukrainians. In this sense, even the name of our organization, Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, seems problematic. What exactly does it mean—ethnic origins, confession? Are Jews living in Ukraine, not Ukrainians? It is essential to find a base unifying the people into a single whole.

During the first years of our life in Canada, my parents often asked about my relationships with my Canadian friends. I never asked my son the same question because he is a Canadian, just like the children of my Chinese colleague, and all the rest are our fellow citizens. So we live.

Interviewed by Maksim Sukhanov

Originally appeared in Russian @Hadashot

Translated from the Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.