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Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor who came of age in the first part of the 20th Century and who, when it first came to power, supported Hitler’s regime. 

At that time, Niemöller was, in the words of one historian, a “typical Christian anti-semite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had ‘brought the Christ of God to the cross.'”

His views evolved and he started opposing Hitler a few years into the Nazi era. 

The Pastor paid for his dissidence. He spent about seven years in prison and concentration camp, and only barely missed the fate that befell other dissident clerics such as Dietrich Bonheoffer: the gallows.

After the war Niemöller’s views continued to evolve. 

He abandoned his earlier tenacious attachment to German nationalism and advocated that the German people had to accept some measure of collective guilt for the crimes of the Nazi period.

Niemöller’s mature views are encapsulated in a famous bit of prose-poetry, of which there are many versions.

Here is how many historians say the original version went:

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the disabled, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t disabled.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

For me, that oft-quoted and misquoted passage could explain why I have chosen to write so much about Canada’s current refugee and immigration policy, especially as it applies to one group of people, the Roma.

There are lots of big issues in Canada in this time of Harper, and you can read about a lot of them in this corner of rabble.ca and elsewhere. 

In fact, refugees and immigration have only occupied about 20 per cent of the real estate in this space over the past year. If it seems like more, maybe that’s because of the impassioned and even angry tone I cannot seem to avoid. 

One friend even wrote me to say I risked becoming as extreme on the Roma side as Ezra Levant has been on the opposite side. 

It was so-called broadcaster Levant who, on-air, used openly hateful terms to describe the entire Roma people. Even Sun TV had to issue a formal apology and Levant still might face formal hate crime charges. 

I will leave it to readers to decide whether or not my views are, in their own way, as extreme as Ezra Levant’s. Don’t hesitate to write or comment if you have thoughts on that. 

New approach to refugees a political departure

The current government’s decision to politicize and demagogue the refugee issue is a radical departure from Canadian practice over the past half century.

In the not-so-far-off past, Canadian political parties were not always in 100 per cent alignment on immigration policy; but they tended to take the high road on this policy area and did not deliberately seek to make it a “wedge issue.”

Then came the Reform Party, for which Stephen Harper was first elected to Parliament in 1993.

Reform was truculently and defiantly “not politically correct” on Aboriginal rights, bilingualism, immigration and a bunch of other so-called “sacred cows” including, of course, distinct society status for Quebec. 

It was all part of Reform’s grass roots, bad-boy, rebel-populist brand.

Part of the mission of Harper’s new, merger-created Conservative Party was to reset that divisive Reform brand to something more mainstream, sober and responsible. 

To win an election, Harper and his colleagues calculated that they had to appeal to women, ethnic minorities and self-defined political middle-of-the-roaders and moderates. At the very least, they had to avoid scaring those voters.

As part of that grand mainstreaming approach, Harper gave Jason Kenney the job of bringing family-values, small business-oriented members of “ethnic communities” into the Conservative fold. 

It is a task to which the current Immigration Minister has given himself with unalloyed enthusiasm, and he has had great success. Witness the number of urban ridings with large “ethnic” populations the Conservatives won in the last election. 

Made-to-order scapegoats

The recently articulated tough and hard-nosed approach to refugees does not mean Kenney is deviating from his courting of “ethnic” support.

In fact, the new refuge policy is, in part, an attempt to appeal to established immigrant groups, people who “play-by-the-rules.” It would be reasonable to expect those folks to  resent “queue jumpers,” “irregular arrivers,” and “bogus refugees.”

The unwanted asylum seekers are made-to-order political scapegoats.

They have neither the vote nor any political influence. And they have few natural allies or friends in Canada, except among people who are unlikely ever to vote Conservative — people such as human rights advocates, “bleeding heart” do-gooder types, and lawyers who make their living representing refugees.

Plus — in taking on the Roma, in particular, Kenney has found himself a kind of political sweet spot. 

Thousands of Canadians from Europe, especially from Central and Easter Europe, brought their ancient hatred for the “dirty, deceitful and lazy Gypsies” across the Atlantic with them lock-stock-and-barrel. 

Kenney does not have to push very hard to get those people on side.  

In the United States, they call it “dog whistle” politics. 

It means speaking in code and short-hand in such a way that one’s message may be “inaudible” to many within earshot, but entirely clear to your target audience.

When Kenney goes on Sun TV and describes the people apprehended in the recently announced so-called “human trafficking bust” as belonging to a “tightly knit” group, coming from the same villages in Romania, having significant financial means and being involved in organized (if petty) crime, his audience knows what group he is talking about — and it is not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  

You can tell a lot of people are hearing that dog whistle loud and clear just by reading the comments they post on news sites anytime anyone reports on the “Roma question.”

Here are just a few of the comments elicited by a CBC report last week on what was purpoter to be a “human trafficking bust” involving Romanian nationals:

“Roma are not refugees: they are undesirable in most countries because of their chosen lifestyle which is largely criminal … They boo-hoo that they are persecuted when in fact they are parasites living off others and defend it by calling it their ‘culture’.”

“Deport them all. Keep thieves, beggers (sic), and criminals out of Canada, there are enough people on welfare as it is.”

“Why on earth would we provide refugee status to pickpockets, scammers and thieves. They’re not considered honourable professions in Canada either.”

“They are not Romanians, they are Roma (aka gypsies) from Romania. They are very organized and proficient as thieves.”

“The abuse by the Roma of the rest of society and its laws is well known and is a surprise to no one. This is and has been a part of their culture and history and is known the world over.”

Invented news to create a new narrative 

The frustrating thing is that, in reality, this whole “bust” news story was a very successful exercise in media manipulation by Kenney. A good many smart and professional journalists fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Here are a few actual facts about that story, most of them courtesy of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Immigration Canada.

The number of Romanians who have been advised of what the CBSA calls “their designation” — that is of the fact that they are “irregular arrivals” and will be treated in the manner prescribed by recently passed refugee reform Bill C-31 — is 53.

Of that 53 only a quarter, 13, are now in detention. 

A large majority of the 53 “designated” people are children under the age of 16: 33, to be exact. 

The CBSA says that children under sixteen whose parents are incarcerated, or who arrived on their own, have been “released to a child protection agency or family members.”

Are any of these people, as Minister Kenney has suggested, receiving welfare? 

Both the CBSA and Kenney’s own Immigration Department say they do not know.

They advise those who might want to know to seek that information from provincial agencies. Of course, lacking the names of the people, and the provinces where they now reside, it would be impossible to get at that information. 

Which begs the question: If two Government departments or agencies do not know who, if anyone, in this group of Romanians is on welfare — and journalists are unable to get the facts — how does Jason Kenney know?

Then there is the other issue Kenney raised: criminality. Have any of these people been charged with crimes in Canada, as the Minister of Immigration has suggested? 

The CBSA will not say yes or no to that one. It says it must remain mum on the subject because there is an “ongoing investigation.”

And so, journalists and the Canadian public have to take what are, in effect, insinuations from the the Minister on faith, with no facts or figures. 

In addition, this group of so called “mass arrivals” did not all come to Canada at the once. Some arrived as early as early last February, before the new refugee rules had even been tabled in Parliament.

The fact is that the notion that there was some actual news that required the Minister to truck down to Quebec-Vermont border, last week, and make a splashy announcement is almost entirely fictitious. 

There does not appear to have been any kind of single, recent “bust” of the sort the media reported.

Even the number of Romanian nationals involved — which was widely reported by the media as 85 — now turns out to be many fewer, most of them children.

But the Government has got its big catch: a baker’s dozen of “irregular arrivals” being held (perhaps unconstitutionally) under the provisions of the new law. 

In the annals of law enforcement, this will not rank with the apprehension of Al Capone or the seizure of millions of dollars of drugs and a major arms cache from criminal bikers.

(And why is it that a Roma arrested for a petty crime such as shoplifting is invariably described as a “Roma – or  Gypsy – criminal”, while a murderous biker and drug pusher is not similarly “a criminal of Scots-Irish or British origin”?)

But Kenney achieved his purpose, which was dual.

First, he wanted to get some political mileage out of the new refugee law, to show Canadians that this government is “getting results” and “keeping Canada safe.”

Second, it was an opportunity to demonize the entire Roma community, just as evidence of increased acts of hate and violence against the Central European Roma, particularly in Hungary, was beginning to seep through a largely indifferent Canadian media.

Real news, on the other hand, that most media somehow missed

Kenney caught a break when he went off script at a news conference on November 29th and openly admitted that both Roma and Jews are the targets of “hateful and xenophobic nutbars” in Hungary.

He was answering a question about his own recent fact-finding trip to Hungary, and could not stop himself from sharing some measure of the truth.  

Even the most seasoned politician cannot be on message track 100% of the time!

However, though that news conference and Kenney’s candid comments were reported in this space, they were reported nowhere else. 

One Press Gallery colleague actually told me that he believed Kenney was only talking about Jews, not Roma. He obviously was not listening. In fact, in his response to that question about Hungary, Kenney used the word Roma seven times.

CBC and other broadcast organizations recorded those very telling (and new) comments from the Minister. To my knowledge none have yet broadcast them. 

Re-framing the issue

When you put Kenney’s candid avowal on November 29th together with rising European concern (as reported in the German magazine Der Spiegel, for instance) about the coziness of the Hungarian government with extremists Kenney describes as “nutbars” and with the international Jewish community’s alarm at rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, you get a real headache for this Canadian Government. 

The Government is, after all, about to declare Hungary to be a safe “Designated Country of Origin.” 

The theatrical “human smuggling” event Kenney staged a few days after the news conference was a perfect analgesic for that headache.

That event reframed the issue.

Roma asylum seekers are not, it turns out, potential victims of persecution by “xenophobic nutbars.” 

No, they are “irregular arrivals,” “queue jumpers” and “bogus refugees” who are abusing Canada’s generous system and who are, in some vague and ill-defined way, possibly mixed up in crime (however petty).

There is now a new narrative and all is well for Kenney.

For my part, I admit I cannot help but think about the hundreds of decent people I have met who just happen to be Roma. 

The love their children, they respect their elders, they work for a living and pay their taxes, and many of those settled in Canada love this country. They even get their coffee at Tim Horton’s and watch professional hockey (when there is hockey to watch). 

That’s why this whole business makes me, for one, think of Martin Niemöller. 

“First, my government decided to scapegoat the Roma people, but I did not speak out, because I was not Roma…”

Of course it is not a journalist’s job to “speak out.”  It is her/his job to tell the truth as best she/he can. 

My own approach may sometimes be over the top. 

But I will not stop trying to provide my readers with both the facts and the context on this issue. 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...