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Board of Rabbis slams Harper government over Bill C-31

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It is rather late in the day, but some prominent members of Canada's Jewish community are now vigorously protesting the government's refugee reform bill, C-31 - just as it has passed both the House and the Senate!

On Wednesday, the Toronto Board of Rabbis released a letter it sent to the Prime Minister, in which the Rabbis say they are "deeply concerned about proposed changes to the law that will affect refugees."

The letter enumerates many dangers the Rabbis see in the Bill, but places great emphasis on the safe designated country of origin provision.

Minister Kenny has stated quite openly, on many occasions, that the chief targets of that safe country provision are Roma ("Gypsies") from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and other former Communist European countries.

The Board of Rabbis' letter states: "[W]e are alarmed at the idea of designating specific countries as safe for all people. As Jews, we know that countries where the majority lives in safety can be dangerous for minority groups. Roma people living in Hungary, for example, face persecution that has been documented by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and other human rights groups."

The rabbis also object to the changes to refugee health care, not part of C-31 but announced as a regulatory change to come into effect on July 1.

"We have heard clearly from physicians across the country that people will face illness and even death if their access to lifesaving medication through the Interim Federal Health Program is cut off," the Rabbis' letter argues, "We also understand that people from 'designated' countries will no longer have access to even basic health care - including emergency care. Surely, it is not the government's intention to deliberately, and with certainty, cause harm to human lives."

The letter is signed by Rabbis Howard Morrison and Michal Shekel. They close by asking for a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the serious issues they raise as soon as possible. They then wish the Prime Minister and his "loved ones" a "peaceful summer."

Other voices in Jewish community as well

This letter follows a number of other recent efforts by Canadian Jews to draw attention to serious flaws in the refugee reform bill.

Three prominent members of Toronto's Jewish community, including Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, signed an op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail objecting to C-31 on a number of grounds, including the fact that the bill would, in effect, bar Roma asylum seekers from Europe.

Judy Young Drache, a former senior federal public servant and an active member of the Canadian Hungarian and Jewish communities, sent a long and detailed letter to a number of Senators and MPs, in which she focuses for the most part on what she see as the pernicious aspects of the safe county provisions.

"Now is not the time to confer on Hungary the status of safe country," Young Drache pleads. 

"By designating Hungary safe," she continues, "Canada... would be putting a stamp of approval on... systemic discrimination against Roma and widespread racism and anti-Semitism... The government of PM Viktor Orban has  been unable or unwilling to curtail such activity, even while it has curtailed a lot of democratic freedoms. Recently [Orban's government] has been rehabilitating former Hungarian Nazi sympathizers and activists." 

Young Drache goes on to point out that the "safe" designation will inevitably receive widespread coverage and attention in Hungary. She explains that such a designation will almost certainly be taken as a form of Canadian approval by Hungarian extremist groups.

"This is already happening," Young Drache says, "Just one example from the extremist, xenophobic media, of which there are many in Hungary.  The 'Holy Crown Radio' website recently wrote: 'They don't like parasitic gypsy criminals in Canada either!'" 

"Holy Crown" is an extreme right media outlet, sympathetic to the neo-Nazi Jobbik party.

Young Drache cites a letter made public a few days ago from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in which Wiesel angrily returns an award Hungary bestowed on him in 2004. Wiesel was protesting Hungary's current practice of honoring collaborators with the Nazis and of including anti-Semitic authors in the school curriculum. 

Finally, Young Drache worries that "the 'safe' designation would further encourage extremists and racists, and may shut out refugees who have a real and desperate need to escape abuse." 

Two 'observations' to guide choice of safe countries

Although the Senate Committee considering C-31 did not propose amendments, at the behest of Senators Mobina Jaffer and Jane Marie Cordy it did add "observations" designed to mitigate the potential impact of the reforms on Roma and gender-based and LGBT asylum seekers. The two observations enjoin the Minister to take into account the situation of minority groups (such as the Roma), and of gays, lesbians and women, in making safe country determinations.

Those "observations" are not much one's hat on, admittedly.

However, they do at least show that Senators in all parties agree that some people, such as the Roma, face significant and systemic discrimination and threats of persecution in countries that are formally democratic.

C-31 supporter and retired diplomat Martin Collacott also recognized, in his remarks to the Committee, that Roma are subject to significant discrimination in Europe. Despite that, Collacott argued, the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees was only designed to protect people from persecution not discrimination.

That may well be so - and it is job of the Immigration and Refugee Board (the IRB) to make the very difficult decision as to who is a genuine refugee and who is merely the victim of prejudice and discrimination.

What Collacott and other C-31 supporters have never addressed is the question of how reasonable it would be for Canada to claim that a country such as Hungary - in which there is such a high degree of discrimination and openly expressed hate toward minority groups - is safe.

The definition of a 'safe country'

The question that has been before Parliament for the past few months is not who is or is not a refugee. That is the IRB's job, and the IRB must be guided by international law.

The question before Parliament has been how to determine which countries might be legitimately designated as safe.

Many who have watched this process unfold point out that no objective process would result in a safe designation for Hungary in 2012, to cite just one example. And yet the Minister has announced that he wishes to make that designation as soon as he can.

As long as the only objections to these aspects of C-31 came from the Roma community and human rights oriented groups, the government seemed to believe there would be no price to pay for its tough stance.

The intervention of the Toronto Board of Rabbis marks the first time that a major and official Jewish institution has taken on the Harper government.

This government has worked very hard to cultivate Jewish support, mostly by taking an almost over-the-top Israel-can-never-do-any-wrong stance.

Arguably, Conservative MPs Peter Kent, Mark Adler and Joe Oliver owe their Toronto area seats to Jewish votes.

In fact, some pollsters' analyses show that about 50 per cent of Canadian Jews voted for the Conservatives last time, the Conservatives' best ever showing with that community. The Jewish vote was a factor that helped Harper's Conservatives win urban seats, last time, after they had been largely shut out from urban Canada for the previous three elections.

The Senate was scheduled to have its final vote on C-31 on Wednesday afternoon. It passed and receives Royal Assent on Thursday.

The ball is now in the government's court. The Minister of Immigration now has the responsibility to officially designate safe countries. 

If Harper and his colleagues can afford to ignore the politically powerless Roma and academics and human rights advocates who are not on their best friends list, can they afford to ignore the Toronto Board of Rabbis?


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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