The Irrationality of Humans

The Irrationality of Humans


Howard Adelman

In this series of blogs I began a week ago, I tried to sketch the deep philosophical assumptions underlying a variety of approaches to comprehending and managing the polis. How do we organize our political lives and to what end? The blog on last week’s Torah portion offered a moral approach, as set out in the Book of Leviticus, essentially setting up rules for redistributing wealth in the economy. The presumption was that religious laws could be imposed on the polity and used to counteract the built-in propensities encouraging economic inequality.

A variation of this approach is currently being applied in Iran which just witnessed the landslide re-election of an ostensible reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, against his challenger, the hardliner, Judge Ebrahim Raisi. I call Rouhani an ostensible reformer because his program differs markedly from the puritans who want to close off Iran to Western influences versus the Rouhani position of greater flexibility and interaction with the rest of the world. Rouhani has a more tolerant perspective on the role of domestic individual behaviour and external foreign interests in dealing with the policies of the polis. But both the reform and the conservative leadership remain committed to the precepts of Islam framing the polity. The conservatives want to control it as well.

The previous two blogs analyzed a book that won the Donner Prize last week (Alex Marland’s Brand Command) which documented the Stephen Harper government’s method of centralized control and the use of branding to manage the polity. My critique insisted that the book had inverted the roles of framing and branding, and that the key issue was framing. Branding was simply a method of covering up the contradictions within the Tory base between free enterprise conservatives, who oppose any moral frame for the polity, and community conservatives who believe the polity should conform to historically predominant Christian norms.

The analysis also implied that, as long as Liberals (or Democrats in the U.S.) covered up the divisions on their own side between economic liberals who believe, on the one hand, that a light touch of liberal tolerance and justice can be used to manage the polity, its inequalities and injustices, versus a more radical wing that sees the need for a greater role of the state in managing competing interests to ensure greater equality, then a well-disciplined opposition with a clear brand can disguise and, indeed, repress those fundamental differences, and then win. The brand can be the disciplined command and control that Stephen Harper employed or the anarchic populist appeal used by Donald Trump. Branding is a tool used to manage contradictions and manipulate constituents either by means of control and command or by populist appeal.

Framing, however, has priority, for if we fail to understand the warfare over principles, in despair a divided polis can easily turn democratic representative and responsible government into a populist system run by a demagogue. The warfare is not simply over principles, but over the role those principles are permitted to play in the polis. To understand the tension between various sets of moral principles wanting to provide the frame, and the behaviour of humans within the polis, it is necessary to acquire a better grasp on that behaviour and the nature of the tension and tribulations between the frame of the polity and the behaviour of its members. In this blog, I concentrate on the latter. In the next blog, I will analyze the civic religion in Canada that provides Canadians with a generally dominant overarching frame.

Conservatives are divided between free enterprise and community conservatives. For free enterprisers, humans are rational actors who make choices to maximize their own individual interests, but their interests are determined by a deeper human nature driven by a need to survive at a minimum, and by greed and acquisitive drives that build on and enhance the survival mode. Humans may be driven by greed, where the principles of survival play a commanding role, but they also may be driven by passions that have an inherent propensity to undermine interests. The predominant Christian ethos was based on the need to control passions that could wreak havoc in our individual and collective lives. Is life or desire fundamental? Neither is rational.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who worked in the United States for years, won the 2002 Nobel prise in economics for documenting and explaining individual economic behaviour and demonstrating that it was fundamentally irrational. Their proofs also undermined the rational choice assumptions of the high priests of monetary policy whose behaviour Juliet Johnson described in Priests of Prosperity, a nominee for the Donner Prize. The sacred religion of rational choice was upended in the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Imprinting and unconscious embodiment explain to some degree why survival and desire dictate choices more than any rational deliberation over alternatives to determine which one will best satisfy our individual interests.

The work of both men in behavioural psychology and their articulation of prospect theory undermined totally the Kantian assumption that judgement was simply the process of rational reconciliation between our moral values and our understanding of the world in accordance with the laws of nature, between practical and pure reason, between morality and nature. In 2011, Kahneman published a volume with great popular appeal, Thinking Fast and Slow, which contrasted our predominant predisposition for fast thinking, for thinking that I have described in my writing as searches for congruencies between one’s own inscribed views of the world and priorities in dealing with it, and rational deliberative decision-making.

If you are a free enterprise conservative, you are steeped deeply in the frame set out by both John Hobbes and John Locke that humans are interest maximizers and possessive individualists determined to secure their futures by seeking to acquire and own goods ad infinitum. Humans were inherently possessive individualists driven by the natural laws of survival. Kahneman, using his original work on complex correlational structures and studies of how attention, more than the actual observed world, was correlated with actual behaviour. Influenced by Richard Thaler’s pioneering work on consumer choice and hedonic psychology, in 1982 Kahneman published with Amos Tversky Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Both men were Israelis. Kahneman in particular had served in the intelligence service. The IDF, the politicians and Mossad in 1973 had all ruled out the possibility of a massive assault by the Arab forces. After all, Syria and Egypt had both suffered enormous psychological and physical defeats in the 1967 war. Any rational assessment would have indicated that initiating a war with Israel would be self-defeating. The failure of the intelligence operation to anticipate the possibility of an attack, the failure to look at worst possible scenarios, ignoring or misinterpreting data the IDF itself had collected of an imminent attack – that Russia advisors had withdrawn – failing to recognize that Egypt was currently driven by a sense of shame and a need to recover some honour, even at the risk of another great defeat, had, together with other forms of mindblindness, produced a situation in which the fate of Israel had been risked and almost sacrificed to this immersion in preconceptions that made both the state and much of society blind to the motives and actions of others. Even at its most fateful level of survival, irrationality had framed and limited rational deliberation. And Kahneman and Tversky went on to demonstrate how this mindblindness and irrational choice revealed itself in the most mundane of subjects, consumer choice.

Thus, began the tectonic shift undermining rational choice theory based on interests. Choice was seen to be rooted, not in survival and life, but desire and the assessment of whether an experience will be pleasurable rather than painful. While life emphasizes the needs necessary for the body to survive, desire is something else. It is the effort to see ourselves projected into the world and recognized by another, usually another seen as superior in some respect, for who we have become and what we have accomplished. The individual suffers discomforts and even pain when that recognition does not come. Desire is not material, even as it is manifested in material things. God is portrayed in the Torah as motivated to create the world in the first place to become manifest and to be recognized through projections into the world. Humans were created with the ability to provide that recognition. In contrast to God, humans had the benefit of being embodied.

Humans are not so much possessive individualists as troubled personalities making mistake after mistake about what satisfied their interests, mistakes made precisely because they are governed in their judgments and decisions by a commanding illusion that develops mindblindness, an incapacity to take into account a variety of other factors as they focus on a specific one perceived as crucial to realizing who they are. Humans are not so much possessive as obsessive individualists.

If not for obsessive individualism, how else can you explain why Israelis living in an environment in which neighbours threaten your very existence and when personal allies argue endlessly over every triviality, they nevertheless perceive themselves as extremely happy? They do so certainly in comparison to members of Nordic countries who have created polities that do far more than any other on earth to ensure both that needs are satisfied and that long-term security is achieved. Israelis were indoctrinated to believe in Jerusalem of Gold, that Israel was the Promised Land, even though the external evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. On the other hand, in one study by Kahneman and Gilbert, Midwesterners in the U.S. experienced themselves as deficient in comparison to Californians because they suffered from a much harsher climate; they became convinced that good weather would solve their discontent. Any study of the experience of Californians would show it would not.

Cain and Abel were not driven by possessive individualism. They clearly demonstrated this by their willingness to sacrifice the best products of their labour so that God would recognize them as the best. When one received the recognition and the other did not, the latter was driven, not just to distraction, but to murder the other, not because of the superiority of the other’s nomadic life, nor because of all the herds the other had collected that he as a farmer had not, but because this nostalgic way of life seemed to be recognized as superior by the same God of judgement. There would always be a bias to the status quo called nostalgia or, in modern economic and political theory, status quo bias.

Kahneman and Tversky pioneered in developing an understanding of base rate fallacies and cognitive, optimist and conjunction biases, in attribution substitution and the economic conception of loss aversion that undergraduates find so entrancing in undermining rational choice theory. Together they built the structure of prospect theory and established the primacy of framing, but have thus far had only a marginal impact on the economic religion of rational choice. Their own work could be used to predict how difficult it would be for the status quo of economic rational choice theory to absorb the lessons that emerged from their research.

They provided a solid empirical basis for undermining rational choice theory that has been reinforced by the research of neuroscientists on imprinting and on more contemporary versions of the theory of the unconscious than Freud offered. We are, to a great extent, our genes and the environmental imprinting in our lives.


In the contest between genetic determinants and environmental cues, we learn independently of the consequences, not only because of the genes we have inherited, but because we can only really learn some things when we reach different stages of life. Learning is phase-sensitive. It works through genomic imprinting: DNA methylation and post-translational modification of DNA-associated histone proteins. The 1,000+ transcripts in our brain – particularly in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus – is where memory is imprinted and learning takes place in a process of neurogenesis. Thus, it is not only our organ development, the development of our muscular-skeletal system and organs as imprinted in the subventricular zones and lateral ventricle of the brain that stage our physical development, but our mental development is, to a large degree, also determined by imprinting.

Alongside these developments, in the actual field of politics, efforts were initiated to select politicians who could perform. Hillary supposedly lost because she was so stiff. It was only after she had lost and gave her first interview that she seemed to relax. The goal became to groom politicians to match biases in the populace and to appeal to those biases through controlling the brand or, more demonstrably in the U.S. in the last election, deal with the incongruence of the candidate and both the needs of the populace and the needs of the nation with a more fundamental emotional appeal, even if originating in the chaotic mind of a populist candidate versus the chaos in the beliefs of the populace.

Thus far, Canada has avoided that fate because it has a strong civic religion. But dangers are evident concerning the fragility of the faith.


With the help of Alex Zisman


The Democratic Deficit in Canada

The Democratic Deficit in Canada


Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland)

Brand won the Donner Prize of $50,000 from a very distinguished jury. Brand is many books in one. First and foremost, it is a manual of government public relations for the digital age. Second, it is a history of the development and use of that manual by the Government of Canada, overwhelmingly the Stephen Harper regime, with some short excursions into the behavior of the Justin Trudeau. Third, it is an interpretation of causation in history, more specifically, that the characteristics of the digital age determined a specific outcome, radically changing the Canadian political culture. Fourth, and certainly not final, for that is my main interest, it is a portrait of Marland’s interpretation of Canadian political culture set against his enunciation of the norms of western democracy. Measured against those norms, the book is a depiction of the Canadian democratic deficit.

By far the largest part of the book is about the first and second topics.  However, I start with the last item, the conception of democracy itself and a democratic culture, a topic about which the author gives very short shrift (46-53), surprising in a book that uses democratic norms to assess and evaluate the communications culture of a specific democracy, that of Canada. However, this may not be so surprising since the book is only about a specific aspect of democracy, the efforts of politicians, political parties and governments to reach an audience of voters made up of disparate parts.

Those parts consist of the following: partisans; deliberators; single issue voters and hands on voters, the latter singularly and largely ignored in the digital age and ignored in this book as well, though they constitute as much as 15% of the electorate but are not reached by marketing, but by establishing a direct connection between the candidate and the voter. Hands on voters do not vote based either on ideas or ideology, at one end of the spectrum, or the power of advertising persuasion on the other. 

 Marland deals with partisans only in generic terms, sometimes regarding each voter as a tabula rasa whose loyalty and support, commitment and trust must be won and solidified through messaging. At other times, he seems to regard their dispositions and commitments as being bred in the bone. He does not sub-divide Conservative partisans into free-enterprise voters versus community conservatives, two groups which populate and divide the Conservative Party of Canada, or into self-interested voters who determine which party matches their specific individual needs and interests, a group divided between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party in Canada and representing the largest bulk of voters. Deliberative voters swing between and among parties and are usually branded as independents. The Green Party had been a single-issue party appealing to voters conscious that climate change is the most important topic on any political agenda, but, more recently, making a strenuous effort to broaden its appeal. There are other voters concerned with a wide range of other specific issues – abortion, LGBT rights, etc.

These connections are usually established by symbols and brands, in this case, the party names: Conservative, Liberal, Green and New Democratic. As parties, they are concerned with access to and performance by voters during elections (turnout and voting) and maintaining trust and, therefore, loyalty during the interval between elections. As an analyst, Marland is concerned with the values that ought to govern the relations between parties and government and their supporters – access to their representatives and transparency about what they do. Given his focus, Marland does not really discuss constitutions and laws, legislation and governance, except one key condition of representation and governance – communications – a necessary ingredient by means of which a democratic government, as distinct from other forms (tyrannies), earns and maintains its support, authority and legitimacy.

The means to do so rather than the definition of the common good preoccupies him, though one good is presumed – an informed electorate. What effect do government structures and practices, particularly current forms of communication, have on the relationship between citizens and their government? For Marland, the idea of a member of parliament simply representing the interests of his constituents is an allusion to a nostalgic past that may never even have existed. MPs have become “vital regional sales reps” in a system run by means of unrelenting centralized media management.

Party whips ensure members toe the line whatever their constituent concerns, speakers are given time limits, and the role of question period has become less relevant.  MPs have less rather than greater access to data and documents. The power of committees has been reduced as partisanship became the order of the day; representatives are portrayed as no more than lemmings unable to speak freely to their constituents or the media. The role of the legislature is reduced as the status of the executive, especially the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), has been enhanced so that there are fewer sitting days and prime ministers and their cabinet members feel less obligated to face their peers in the House. The use of blogs and tweets by party members is highly controlled, a charge for which Marland provides little evidence. Communication strategies “embolden” tribalism rather than representative responsible government. As a result, trust in government in general has waned.

In a fundamental contradiction that runs through the book, this dystopic democracy is painted as, at one and the same time, an inevitable result of the new technology and as a failure of democratic leadership. Marland is both a causal necessitarian about history and a hectoring superego on the body politic given that control of the message now has such enormous consequences when a member “goes off message.” MPs have been reduced to the puppets of a ventriloquist.

Marland does offer one ray of hope – Gordon Chong’s Bill C-586 amending the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act giving the leader much less control and the member more opportunity to express him/herself, though Marland insists that the proof will be in the practices that result. However, the overwhelming mood of the volume is pessimism stemming from his adherence to the Innis-McLuhan thesis that “technology is the driver of social organization.” Further, with the development of electronic and visual communications, these forces have become more pervasive, more powerful and more potent.

In the next blog, I will take up the issue of whether his analysis of those tools of communication, the techniques used to employ them and their impacts determine political structures or whether his analysis is much more a reflection of the Harper government in Canada from which he derived the bulk of the content of his book. My own direct experience suggests the latter since much of the process of centralization had very little to with messaging and a great deal to do with control.

My main example is a proposal we submitted to amend existing migration policy. Rather than initiating a new program, we had proposed to take in refugees to replace temporary skilled workers. In the “old” days, the change would have taken less than a week for the minister to approve. We were informed that because it was so palatable to the government, it would be approved, but still would take four months. For every change had to be approved in the PMO. Eighteen months later, there was neither an approval nor rejection.

The process was particularly galling since the change, one tested in both Halifax and Calgary, would deliver a quadruple hit with only positive upsides. Business support existed and would grow because it was a program preferred by business which could do better long term training and planning at even less cost. Projecting a humanitarian face for the Harper government would certainly have been a result, and a needed one. At the same time, private sponsors eager to help the refugees could be satisfied instead of having to wait, sometimes more than a year, for the entry of those privately-sponsored refugees. The tweak to the existing program would also provide a back door to exit the unskilled temporary work program that had become such an embarrassment for the government.

Let me offer other examples, most also all based on direct experience wikth the Harper government:

  1. At the same time as the above, we were informed that ALL approvals, even for the purchase of more paperclips, had to go through the PMO, and that it took weeks even for miniscule authorizations;
  2. Libraries for helping write policy papers were removed from the department and placed in storage;
  3. The policy unit in the department had been dissolved;
  4. In a policy paper that I had been involved in writing, we were asked to excise the word “Syrian” because that term was anathema to the PM;
  5. Social and natural scientists working for government were muzzled;
  6. Outside knowledge that could disrupt plans and priorities was excised from any input into government – such as the cancelled long form census survey;
  7. I was also told, though I have not verified this, that civil servants were booking off sick days in record numbers; this was explained in terms of the impotence forcefully introduced into the civil service with a resultant pervasive depression when initiative was severely discouraged.

I could go on offering other examples, but most of the above have nothing to do with controlling a message and everything to do with our former PM being a control freak. What struck me in reading the book, and contrary to Marland’s insistence that he had been politically neutral, is that while he, like Tom Flanagan, whom he credits as an essential guide, was totally distressed by the huge democratic deficit that had been created, he seemed to want to find the Conservative Party innocent by removing any significant blame from Harper and placing it on the demands and drives of changing technology. In that way, the Liberals and Conservatives would be painted with the same brush while Marland preserved his superego standards intact.

There is a way of testing whether my hunch is correct or false, but that requires reviewing the tools and techniques available in the digital age, how they are used, and the impacts of both on government structures, organization and policies. This is the task I will take up tomorrow.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Accepting Refugees: International Law in a Canadian Context in the Twentieth Century

Accepting Refugees: International Law in a Canadian Context in the Twentieth Century


Howard Adelman

Keynote Address

24th Annual Canadian International Law Students’ Conference (CILSC)

“International Rules and Standards: A Meeting of Minds”

3 February 2017; revised 22 February 2017

Faculty of Law, University of Toronto.



The dominant discourse in contemporary refugee scholarship re policy and law is based on refugee rights. However, by far, the vast majority of refugees in the world are humanitarian refugees; they flee, not because they are targeted for persecution, but because of war or a natural disaster.[1] Even when the instigation is persecution, they are often accepted for admission as humanitarian rather than Convention refugees.[2] Further, the Convention refugee category offers rights only to those victimized by very specific kinds of persecution. Yet, Convention refugees constitute most of those admitted to Canada as refugees.[3]

Why does the Convention and the issue of refugee rights dominate the intellectual and conceptual landscape? Why is there not far greater attention applied to those who flee because of need? Why, in fact, are rights granted only to those who flee persecution and not to those who flee because of need? This is especially important because a number of states, including Canada, have, at times, been more willing to grant entry to humanitarian refugees rather than respecting the right of Convention refugee claimants to claim refugee status once on Canadian shores. The intake of Indochinese refugees is an example.

In the case of rights refugees, there is a direct clash with the concept of sovereignty. In the case of needs refugees, there is no conceptual conflict – though some would try to make one.

“When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security — big trouble!”

Donald Trump tweet, 4 February 2017

This paper will discuss the interweaving of policy in Canada applied to rights refugees and humanitarian refugees since WWII, not to answer the above questions, but to provide an empirical backdrop for wrestling with them.

The timing is propitious, but only with respect to academics and practitioners concerned with refugees, not with refugees themselves. They are doubly victimized, first by the warriors and ideologues that forced them to flee their homelands if they wanted to survive, and then, a second time, when persons in authority like the malignant narcissist and serial liar, Donald Trump, placed an indefinite ban[4] on Syrian refugees coming to the United States, and then a “temporary” 90-day ban on refugees coming to the United States from six other countries – Iraq, Iran,[5] Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen in his notorious executive order issued 27 January 2017, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

Visas will not be issued to anyone from those countries. Even those traveling with valid visas may be and were turned back or detained. Many others, including, initially, those with Green Cards, were not allowed to take their seats on airplanes on which they had booked travel.

It just happens that these seven dangerous “Muslim” countries are all ones which the U.S. has waged war against and even actually bombed, but does not include Saudi Arabia, the source of the majority of the 9/11 terrorists and a country in which Donald Trump has financial interests, nor Pakistan, the home country of one of the very few Islamicist terrorists who committed heinous crimes within the United States in the last eight years.[6] It also just happens that not one of those seven countries nurtured a single terrorist who committed a terrorist act on American soil.

Of the relatively small number of refugees that the U.S. planned to take in during 2017, 10,000 slots targeted for Syrians were recently increased to approximately 20,000 by the outgoing Obama administration.[7] All 20,000 will probably now go unfilled even though the original executive order on migrants was stopped in its implementation by American courts.

In contrast, in 2015 even under the Harper regime, Syrians constituted the group of refugees with the highest numbers coming to Canada. For ten years, Canada’s average intake of refugees had been about 25,000 annually, about 10% of the overall immigrant intake. In 2015, almost 60% came as asylum seekers with their family members, over 40% as either government or privately sponsored refugees, the latter making up about one-third of that 40%.

In 2016, the Harper government had planned an intake of 10,000 refugees.  When the Liberal Justin Trudeau Government was elected, it immediately announced some ambitious plans for the intake of Syrian refugees. As indicated above, by the end of 2016, Canada took in almost 40,000 refugees under this new initiative, twice that even planned by the Obama government and now literally infinitely more than will be allowed entry by the Trump administration

The breakdown was as follows:

Data as of 2 January 2017

Refugee category                                                              Number of refugees

Government-Assisted Refugee                                                        21,751

Blended Visa Office-Referred Refugee (BVOR)                             3,923

Privately-Sponsored Refugee                                                           13,997

TOTAL                                                                                                  39,671

The number estimated for 2017 is expected to be about 23,500, the reduction coming overwhelmingly from the government-sponsored class. Just after ‘The Donald’ issued his executive order, an initiative was begun almost immediately for Canada to admit 20,000 more Syrian refugees than planned for 2017 on a matching formula whereby the government will take in the same number of government-sponsored Syrian refugees, up to 10,000 in 2017, as the number of Syrian refugees sponsored by the private sector. There need not be any deliberate explicit connection to Trump’s embargo. The day after Donald Trump issued his executive order, Justin Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” He walked that fine line by praising Canadian values rather than criticizing current American policy. At the same time, an influx of refugees from the United States began arriving on Canadian soil to claim refugee status. For example, some crossed from Minnesota into Manitoba at Emerson after trekking for miles in freezing weather through deep snow drifts.[8] When the weather improves, the numbers are expected to dramatically increase.

The current Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, who himself fled war-torn Somalia at the age of 16, under the plain reading of the Trump executive order would not be allowed entry to the United States if he were not traveling on a diplomatic passport. Hussen issued a policy directive in response to the Trump decree that Canada would issue temporary residency permits to those stranded because of Trump’s order, but that would do nothing for Canadian citizens and permanent residents born in those seven countries. Later, the State Department, in apparent direct contravention of the wording of Trump’s executive order, declared that the ban would NOT apply to Canadian citizens with dual passports or to Canadian permanent residents with passports from those countries.

What has happened to the carefully constructed international refugee system developed in the aftermath of World War II that has enabled millions of refugees in every region to find safety in other countries? What has happened to the country that for decades welcomed refugees, that until very recently resettled millions of refugees, from regions in turmoil and led initiatives in inspiring other countries to engage in responsibility-sharing?[9] That country has now fallen into the hands of a president governed by a radical nationalist ideology who builds policy on paranoia and prejudice rather than any analysis of data or of consequences. Make no mistake about it; his policy has as little to do with the threat of terrorism as the connection between drinking Coca-Cola and a healthy lifestyle. Though couched in security concerns, the Trump policy is rooted in cultural identity politics with virtually no reference to either rational economic policy or genuine dangers.

It is not as if Trump is alone. Stephen Harper for almost ten years offered a polite and non-demagogic perspective that was suspicious of Islamic refugees from the Middle East, but is now perceived as an extremely faint shadow of Trump’s position. However, in today’s world, Trump’s blatant extremist position is not rare. Look at Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a “defender of Western Christendom” built a wall to keep out the Islamic hordes. Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister, Robert Fico, insisted that Islam had “no place in Slovakia.” And in Western Europe, France and Holland, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, are rising populist stars who have been building support based on their anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Part II

If you think the current wave of negative attitudes towards refugees is a monopoly of nationalist populist extremists, it is not. On 27 January 2017, I participated in an international webinar,[10] “European Union third-country partnerships: Where do we go from here?” The discussion centered on current refugee policy in Europe with participants in Brussels, Berlin, Madrid, Washington, etc. Those who led the discussion moderated by Elizabeth Collett, Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, included four very distinguished and knowledgeable, as well as liberal, leaders and academicians very intimately involved in the formulation of those European laws and policies.[11]

I will not even attempt a summary of the discussion. But I do want to communicate its predominant theme. That theme was not refugee asylum policy or issues of integration. This was not simply because of the topic. For the title of the webinar itself had been chosen because the prime approach in Europe these days to refugee issues, from those sympathetic to refugees, is refugee return. The prime issue is how to link return with development in partnership with the states from which the irregular migrants are fleeing. The primary challenge is now re-migration and reintegration, taking into consideration the country of return’s capacities and the skills the returnees bring with them on their return.

This focus was based on the conclusion that there was no solution to the refugee issue if the primary reliance was on law and the individual rights of refugees. As one person put it, “THERE IS NO LEGAL WAY OUT.” Instead, the focus was on knowledge gaps, on evaluations of past practices, on leadership in the face of the humanitarian disaster producing so many millions of refugees and pushing them to seek very unsafe passageways to the West.  Further, the not-so-hidden problem is that humanitarian aid funds are primarily used to hold refugees in place rather than return them, using a more vulgar but colourful language, to warehouse them. But reintegration poses its own set of problems – competition among those who stayed behind, IDPs returning and refugee returnees. The latter may be the ones who are best off given skills acquired in camps and when abroad, and given their better access to aid funding.

Money tells the story. The EU recently pledged $2 billion in development aid to assist refugee return and reintegration.[12] Thus, the policy of an enlightened refugee-receiving country like Denmark now is to focus on linking development aid both to refugee return and to inducing people to stay. Instead of the right to claim asylum, the emphasis is placed on the “right to stay” that, of course, went far beyond issues of governance and transportation. In the webinar, sensible slogans were thrown about, such as a “broad approach,” the linkage between peace and local stability[13], the need for coordination among like-minded countries, the absolute requirement that climate change and climate change policy be integrated into any solution, that there would have to be a primary reliance on civil society rather than government. Thus, humanitarian policies and rights had to be examined within the larger political, social cultural and primarily economic contexts. So why call them rights at all? And what was humanitarian about such a program?

The application of such efforts has some dire consequences on the right to leave. On 3 February 2017, at the same time as this talk, European Union leaders met in Malta to try to extend the initial deal made with Turkey to a contract with the countries in North Africa. The gist of the deal to reduce crossings, primarily to Italy now that the efforts to reach Greece have been largely stopped, entails a deal where the North African countries assume the responsibilities for search-and-rescue, hence avoiding the problem of warehousing the refugees on European soil and giving those refugees access to the refugee asylum system in Europe. On 2 February 2017, Libya signed the first deal, the EU-Libya Framework Agreement, to accept monies in return for assuming these responsibilities. The problem is, given the past record, North African countries may not be as effective in saving people given their capacity limitations and their disincentives to save illegal migrants.[14]

What we also need to keep in mind is that migration has always been used for families to manage risks, as demonstrated in the role that management of that risk played in getting the refugees to different places in the first place.[15] Yet the focus of the discussion was overwhelmingly about individuals.

However, my goal in this paper, issued initially as a series, is not to undertake an analysis of the United States or of Europe. Nor is my focus on contemporary policy, though I hope I will throw some light on the current situation. Rather, I want to use the trajectory of the development of that refugee (and migration) policy in the twentieth century in Canada to provide some understanding of where we find ourselves today with respect to the issue of refugees within Canada and within a global context. Because the material is so vast, I will use my personal involvement with refugees as a totally non-objective selective guide to offer a constructed narrative of what took place.

Further, even using my selective mechanism, it is not possible to cover the whole story of the development of Canada as an outlier country in the West with respect to refugee policy. But by covering three-quarters of the period, I can, I believe, unpack the tensions involved in the development of that policy and the fundamental contradictions that are at the base of the problems. That basic tension exists between rights refugees and needs refugees, between Convention versus humanitarian refugees, and, within Canada, between asylum claimants and refugees admitted under relaxed immigration criteria.

In 1943, two years before I start my tale, Hannah Arendt wrote a seminal essay, “We Refugees.”[16] She began by stating that “we” refugees avoided that designation and preferred to be called newcomers or immigrants. At that time, she defined the term refugee in terms of needs rather than rights. Refugees “are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.” (110) In resettling, “We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine,” avoiding any allusion to concentration camps (by enemies) or internment camps (by friends). Recall that Emil Fackenheim and Gregory Baum were interned in Canada as “enemy aliens.”

Arendt then went on to discuss PTSD as it is known now, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffered by many of the refugees, with some of them to taking their own lives. This was a pattern that began, not in the camps, but with the rise of fascist power accompanied by a massive inversion from optimism to pessimism. Captives and slaves rarely commit suicide. Those about to lose their freedom, those whose freedoms are haunted by memories and traumas, do. Their own sense of personal failure, combined with the lack of recognition of themselves as human beings, not political oppression, does them in.

Most fundamentally, we must recognize that refugees are people who do not want to be refugees, who do not want that as their identifier. At once, they want to be accepted and recognized as one of us while being induced often to forget that they are, behind the mask, one of them. One way to forget, ironically, is to “Never Forget,” to pass forward and help new refugees.

Let me end this section with a story that I have told often. It really took place. It was 1979. We were in what used to be the Cecil Street Synagogue (not its Jewish name) where my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah and was then and remains to this day a Chinese-Canadian community centre. We were greeting and offering some orientation to the first group of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam who had been privately sponsored and arrived in Toronto.

I belonged to a group of people introduced in Chinese as VIPs. We may have been very important people in their eyes, but each one of us lacked the ability to give a speech from the heart. Instead, all four of us, without any coordination whatsoever, gave the same speech – of course using different words and different situations for illustration – but the same speech in terms of the theme. ‘You are us,’ we told them. Except for the indigenous people, all the rest of us Canadians came as immigrants and refugees. We are you and you are us. And, they had lots of time to think about what we said because our words were being translated.

The speeches of Chinese community leaders followed. Those speeches too were all the same – again different words and depictions, but, according to what I heard from the translator beside me, offered a radically different message than the one we had. “You are NOT one of them. You are not yet even one of us. If you are staying in a private sponsor’s home or in a private sponsor’s apartment, do not cook with fish oil. They [mostly Caucasians] hate the smell of cooking with fish oil. Always remember that you are representatives of the Chinese-Canadian community in Toronto. Do not shame us. Do not disgrace us.”

If they were not torn between bewilderment, the need to feel appreciation and the desperate desire to get on with their lives, they might have been able to wonder. “Weren’t those white guys (there was one woman among the four of us) liars? We did not speak their language. We did not look like them. But they told us we are the same because their parents or grandparents or great grandparents came to Canada as immigrants and refugees? What do they personally know about the risks, the death of loved ones? At least 1 in 10 of us died in the flight. Their smiling welcome is obviously a false front.”

Perhaps they were bothered even more by the local ethnic Chinese who said the refugees represented them. “We held their reputations in our hands, or, more accurately, in how we cooked. They were so condescending in letting us know that we had a long way to go before we became hyphenated Canadians. For though they looked like me and spoke my language, they not only were not us, but they made sure that we knew, in their superego instructions to us, that we had a long way to go before we became them.”

While I offer this long historical talk on the development of refugee policy in Canada, a talk that only covers half the period since WWII, let’s not forget those who are at the centre of this story, refugees, refugees who for the most part do not even aspire to be human beings, as Hannah Arendt did. They just once again want to be themselves. And that requires that they be recognized. Hannah Arendt ended her essay, “The community of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest members to be excluded and persecuted.” Behind my paper is the question, “How can Canada not go down that path? How can we help reverse the direction of the path on which our American cousins are racing?

An even larger question: why are security concerns linked with the rejection of refugees? Why are refugees increasingly seen as barnacles on the body-politic of the nation-state that show that the human rights commitments of these states are a sham?  And even when those rights are used for protection, they protect so very few and conceptually omit offering any rights to the tens of millions of refugees who simply flee war and may not be individually targeted for persecution? Why are these refugees given no rights but are declared to be humanitarian refugees, refugees only with needs? From another perspective, why does a predominant conception of sovereignty in the end reject refugee claims based on universal right, since the prime right of a sovereign state is to protect its members and determine its new ones? And, in the ultimate end of this madness, why are those least likely to be security threats branded as a prime security threat?

Part III

I Refugee Policy After World War II – 1945 to 1965

  1. 1945-1947

It is often forgotten that Canada’s refugee policy in the immediate aftermath of WWII was pretty dreadful, characterized still by exclusion and xenophobia.[17] Before WWII, it was even worse. Canada had a terrible reputation as a receiving country for refugees. Canada would not admit any of the hundreds of thousands of refugees left in the aftermath of WWI because there was no provision that they could be returned, though, in the 1920s, the government admitted over a million selected immigrants. In contrast to immigrants, refugees might not be able to be sent back home.

In the 1920s, Canada refused to recognize the Nansen passports. A 1923 Order in Council specifically prohibited the entry of “Asiatics.” In the 1930’s, a racist immigration policy was the order of the day and immigration in terms of numbers was also very restrictive.

When the Deputy Minister Frederick Charles Blair, who headed Immigration, Mines and Resources, was asked how many Jewish refugees could be admitted, he replied, “None Is Too Many.”[18] Blair retired in 1943, but even after the war, Canada only admitted 8,000 Jews between 1945 and 1948. When Canada had one of the 11 seats on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine occupied by Ivan Rand, he supported the position of partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, not because of any guilt about the Holocaust[19] – that influenced none of the members in their recommendation – but primarily because 250,000 Jewish refugees were still languishing in European refugee camps and countries, including Canada, would not offer to resettle them. A Jewish state seemed to provide an opportune answer.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King certainly opposed admission of anyone as a fundamental right. Despite previous reservations about admitting refugees even based on Canadian self interest married to humanitarian concerns, this position shifted, in good part motivated by the need for manpower in a rapidly industrializing country and the availability of people from Europe. The shift was not motivated by a concern with rights.

Changes were underway. Parliament in 1946 began to consider the possibility of admitting refugees as immigrants under relaxed admission criteria, though it would be ten years before any large program was implemented. French immigrants were finally treated equally with American and British applicants. And, in 1946, Canada also made provision for Canadians to be citizens and not just British subjects.

In June of 1947, Louis St. Laurent became Prime Minister of Canada (1948-1957). Finally, in that month, Canada opened its doors, a bit and then wider and wider for the admission of Eastern Europeans – Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians – initially only 5,000 and then only if they were privately sponsored. The arrival of over 1,500, mostly Estonians, in 1948 marked the real beginning of the program.[20] One quarter of a million European “refugees” as well as almost two million immigrants were eventually admitted over the next 14 years.

  1. 1948-1955

The shift in 1948 was quite radical for Canada at the time. In 1950, Leslie Chance, a Canadian, took the role of Chair of a United Nations Ad Hoc Committee on Refugees and Stateless Persons Special Committee to draft a new refugee convention. Up until that time, refugees had been dealt with on a case-by-case basis focused on providing humanitarian aid on a temporary basis until they could return to their homes or be settled in the regions or countries to which they had fled. This was the case with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which focused on both Arab and Jewish refugees displaced from the war in Palestine. It was also the case with The United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) (1950-1958) established in 1950 to provide relief and rehabilitation on behalf of the United Nations in South Korea.

The minutes of the debates in developing the Refugee and Stateless Persons Report during 1950 make for fascinating reading, if only because the issues sound so familiar 67 years later. For example, the beginning discussions at the Lake Success 13 February 1950 initial meeting largely focused on ending statelessness based on a report of the Israeli delegation. One issue was the nationality of a child born of a refugee claimant on the soil of a country in which the woman was not a national. Based on lex sanguinis, should children born of refugee applicants be denied citizenship because the mother was only in the country temporarily, an issue still alive today? What if the child remained in the country until he or she was an adult? Or should ius soli be applied and such children automatically be granted citizenship? Discussion of granting refugee status based on rights would never prove straightforward, especially since rights, supposedly universal, were interpreted so differently by different countries.

The minutes of the final meetings between 14-25 August in Geneva considering the report and the final recommendations are especially instructive.[21] Canada was represented in the latter meeting by Ross W. Winter and N.F.H. Berlis. (Leslie Chance was unable to attend that meeting.) John Humphrey was also present as a representative of the UN Secretary-General. The report was drafted by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and amended in response to various government inputs. Since it is 26 pages, let me just quote some germane passages, beginning with the preamble:


  1. Consideringthat the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establish the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination;
  2. Consideringthat the United Nations has, on various occasions, and most recently in General Assembly Resolution 319 A (IV), manifested its profound concern for refugees and endeavored to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of these fundamental rights and freedoms;
  3. Consideringthat, in the light of experience, the adoption of an international convention would appear to be one of the most effective ways of guaranteeing refugees the exercise of such rights[22];
  4. Consideringfurther that it is desirable to revise and consolidate previous international agreements relating to the protection of refugees, to extend the scope of such agreements to additional groups of refugees, and to increase the protection accorded by these instruments;
  5. Considering, however, that the exercise of the right of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation;
  6. Consideringthat the High Commissioner for Refugees will be called upon to supervise the application of this Convention, and that the effective implementation of this Convention depends on the full co-operation of States with the High Commissioner and on a wide measure of international co-operation.
  7. Expressing the hopefinally that this Convention will be regarded as having a value as an example exceeding its contractual scope, and that without prejudice to any recommendations the General Assembly may be led to make in order to invite the High Contracting Parties to extend to other categories of persons the benefits of this Convention, all nations will be guided by it in granting to persons who might come to be present in their territory in the capacity of refugees and who would not be covered by the following provisions, treatment affording the same rights and advantages.”

This was a radical change. Instead of a refugee being regarded as a national outside the borders of his nation, and sometimes even within, as a person with humanitarian needs, the report recognized refugees as members of humanity first and foremost with inalienable rights. The refugee convention was to be designed to both recognize and protect those rights.

But what was that right? Was it to be guaranteed membership in a nation-state that protected all other rights. But if the nation-state was the instrument recognized as the protector of rights, who or what would protect the right to be a member? As it turned out, refugees were not really given rights, only those refugees who could establish that they had been targeted for persecution were given rights. And then, only if they were on the soil of a nation-state that signed the Convention.

Further, and even more telling, there was a caveat inserted because of pressures from some countries – clause 5. If a country determined that a refugee exercising his or her rights placed “unduly heavy burdens” on the country of asylum, the granting of those rights would depend on international cooperation or what later became known as “burden sharing.” However, the report, and then the Convention based on it, allowed a refugee on the territory of a nation that was a signatory to the Convention, to claim those rights as a refugee. (Clause 7)

It is no wonder that in the history of human rights, refugee rights are viewed as ersatz rights when sovereignty and security so easily trump those rights. It should be no surprise that refugee rights are rarely placed among the pantheon of fundamental rights even though no other right can be enjoyed unless one is a member of a nation-state that protects such rights.

Though the refugee convention was initially restricted in both time covered and geographical region, the refugee in section A was defined as a person outside of his country of nationality and unwilling to avail himself or herself of its protection and required to have a “well-founded fear of being the victim of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion” to claim refugee status. But could such persons be later expelled if found to be detrimental to the life of that nation – an issue that continually stymied Canada from accepting the Convention for years.

There was also the issue of non-refoulement, that a claimant not be sent back to a country where they would be at risk. But what if they did not satisfy the criteria for being a refugee? One principle would deny their admission. Non-refoulement would prevent expulsion. Claimants could become de facto landed even if they were not granted refugee status.

Does not the following ring familiar?

Mr. ORDONNEAU (France) pointed out that article 24 as originally drafted by the Secretariat had covered both expulsion and non-admittance. The reference to non-admittance at the frontier (refoulement) had been omitted from the new draft, which was thus incomplete.

In reply to a question by Mr. ORDONNEAU (France), Mr. GIRAUD (Secretariat explained that the original draft of article 24 had been based on article 3 of the 1933 Convention. The reference to non-admittance at the frontier (refoulement) in paragraph 1 applied only to refugees who had already been authorized to reside in the territory in question. The practice known as refoulement in French did not exist in the English-speaking countries. In France and Belgium, however, there was a definite distinction between expulsion, which could only be carried out in pursuance of the decision of a judicial authority, and refoulement, which meant either deportation as a police measure or non-admittance at the frontier.

Mr. CUVELIER (Belgium) agreed with that explanation and added that the term “expulsion” was used when the refugee concerned had committed some criminal offence, whereas the term “refoulement” was used in cases when the refugee was deported or refused admittance because his presence in the country was considered undesirable, even though he was a person of good character.

Sir Leslie BRASS (United Kingdom) concluded from the discussion that the notion of “refoulement” could apply to (a) refugees seeking admission, (b) refugees illegally present in a country, and (c) refugees admitted temporarily or conditionally. Referring to the practice followed in his own country, Sir Leslie stated that refugees who had been allowed to enter the United Kingdom could be sent out of the country only by expulsion or deportation.

The effort of Mr. Henkin from the U.S. to speak on behalf of the French but attempt to mediate the debate in the direction of the British also sounds familiar. But the main point is that wherever you probe, the definition of rights expected to be universal, in their application proved to be anything but; they varied from nation to nation.

In the larger picture, we had two different streams for defining refugees, one as persons in need to be admitted to Canada as a humanitarian determination solely at the discretion of the Canadian government, and a rights definition whereby a refugee claimant on Canadian soil could make a claim as a matter of right for Canadian protection.[23] Of course, Canada could also then choose to admit a person determined to be a refugee by UNHCR under the Convention, and, in that case, sovereign choice would be wedded to rights.

In due course, when Canada eventually signed the Convention in 1969, this was the method used initially. Subsequently, Canada developed its own capacity to make such decisions. Within the rights perspective, rights were always presumed to be universal, but, as soon as the process was domesticated, they varied depending on how the state balanced its self-interest, humanitarianism and principles of sovereignty against those rights. The historical process kept hitting the wall of the nation-state which subsumed refugee law within its own national framework.

In the interim, the Canadian Cabinet opted NOT to sign the Refugee Convention, finalized in 1951. Why? The old fear that Canada would be restrained from deporting refugee claimants if, for example, they turned out to be subversive communists. (Canada did not become a signatory to the Convention until 1969.)  Ministers were concerned that the Convention would impede Canada’s ability to deport persons they considered a security risk, especially communists. Further, the cabinet even then recognized that rights were not just abstract under Canadian law, but conferred rights to representation and rights to a hearing where the claimant was present.  Canadian officials were reluctant to grant refugees such rights, including “the right to be represented in the hearing of his appeal against deportation.”

This period of development ended with a unique contribution by Canada that would be one factor that led to Canada being appointed to gavel the refugee talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s.[24] Major-General (ret’d) Howard Kennedy from Canada had been the first UNRWA Director from 1950-1951. In 1955, in the summer, Canada offered to admit refugees that were not from Europe for the first time, adumbrating a policy change that would take place only a few years later. The Canadian government offered to admit 100 Palestinian refugees and their families who possessed skills that Canada could use. I n addition to acquiring migrants with needed skills, the program was intended to relieve the economic burden of countries in the region who were hosting a population that had grown to almost a million. The effort was also intended to contribute to facilitating peace in the region. That goal faltered as the Arab and Palestinian leadership raised a hue and cry and accused Canada of siding with Israel and, in today’s language, helping Israel ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from the Middle East.[25]

Part IV

  1. 1956-1957

Given my later extensive research on Palestinian refugees[26], one might expect that this last initiative would have been my first real foray into the refugee issue. But it was not. I first became involved with refugees in 1957, sixty years ago. I was then the General Manager of the Campus Cooperative Residences at the University of Toronto. The previous fall, in November, I had been one of the young romantic students who met on campus to join a group who were going to volunteer to go overseas to fight and defend the “democratic” Hungarian regime in its efforts to throw off the yoke of Moscow. With the arrival of Russian tanks, the attempt of Hungary to break away from the Soviet bloc was crushed as were the impossible romantic notions of young students dreaming of recreating the “glory” days of the Front in the war in Spain in the 1930s.

My chance to play a part arose the following spring when the Canadian government was searching for temporary housing for the Hungarian refugees arriving in Canada. Of the over 200,000 Hungarians who fled following the crushing of the revolt, under the leadership of the unstoppable Jack Pickersgill (Liberal – Bonavista-Twillingate, Newfoundland), Minister for Citizenship and Immigration 1954-1957, Canada ended up taking in just over 37,000 Hungarian refugees under the humanitarian provisions of relaxed immigration criteria[27], an initiative even supported by John Diefenbaker, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party that won the election in 1957. Jack personally flew overseas to organize the processing of the applicants.[28]

That does not mean there was not opposition to the intake, even from within the Liberal cabinet. Worries were expressed that the refugees would be infiltrated with communist spies and hence the movement represented a security threat to Canada. After all, the Igor Gouzenko security crisis had taken place after the end of WWII, just 12 years earlier.[29] But Pickersgill was such a powerful personality. Further, he was backed by a tremendous upsurge of vocal support from civil society. He was unstoppable. And so was the Canadian initiative.

Though the movement was considered one of the great triumphs of Canadian humanitarian initiative, it was not without its problems. Among the brilliant businessmen, scientists, academic, artists, theatre directors and filmmakers who came to Canada were a significant criminal element, for the prisons were opened to allow inmates to flee with the refugees. I know of no estimate of how large that group was – some estimate as high as 10% of the intake – but I was personally acquainted with one group who operated a Hungarian restaurant on the north side of Bloor just west of Spadina. They were colourful racketeers who also melded into Canadian society without any significant incident.

Though “Jumping Jack,” as he was often called, was widely recognized as getting Prime Minister St. Laurent in 1956 to agree to waiving the requirement that the refugees take out loans to fly to Canada – 200 air flights had been chartered – what is less known is that he discovered an old nineteenth century provision in Canadian law that allowed the Prime Minister to, in effect, print script and thereby spend money without Parliamentary or even Cabinet approval. Jack directed the processing of refugee applicants before monies had been allocated for the task which, provided he worked fast enough, would allow him to take into Canada in the end one-sixth of the refugees before a lid was placed on the numbers we accepted. The only country that took more, and it had ten times the population of Canada, was the United States, and it only took about a thousand extra. Suddenly, Canada had leapt to the head of the line in resettling humanitarian refugees, but still showed no indication that it was willing to sign the Convention and recognize refugee rights. I am proud that I played a very minor role in helping a small group of them with temporary housing.[30]

  1. 1958 – 1965

Canada continued to apply its race-based immigration policies even when applied to refugees accepted only through humanitarian programs. In the United States, the 1965 Immigration Act made major changes in immigration policy by amending the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Quota systems were abolished as were preference system and labour clearances for certain classes of immigrants. These changes immediately affected the country of origin of migrants. Southern European, Asian and Caribbean immigrants made up increasingly larger proportions of migrants. There were also increased volumes.[31]

In Canada, a 1962 Order-in-Council accomplished most of the same goals by substituting skill criteria and eliminating overt racial discrimination through the designation of only specific countries of origin from Canadian immigration policy. All Canadian citizens and permanent residents could sponsor relatives. Racism, however, still left its residue. Only Canadian immigrants from preferred nations in Europe, the Americas and select countries in the Middle East could sponsor children over the age of 21, married children and other members of their extended family. Canadians with respect to immigrant sponsorship were divided into two types of citizens in the first effort to get around the racism built into Canadian immigration and refugee policy up until that time.


What a difference new thinking on migrants and refugees makes! It began with the 1962 Order-in-Council and culminated in the 1966 White Paper on Immigration originally commissioned by Mike Pearson’s Liberal government to recommend restructuring the whole immigration process. The big change – choose immigrants based on their skills and potential contribution to the Canadian economy and not based on the source country. The other big change was on refugees. The White paper insisted that the time had come to sign the Convention. Secondly, finally specific legislation should be introduced to deal with refugees.

These changes are widely known. Less known, and of much greater relevance to the present, were the security provisions. Enhanced protections against the admissions of criminals and homosexuals or, indeed, chronic alcoholics, labeled security risks, were deleted from the Immigration Act. No longer would these types of people be rejected because they were defined as presenting a danger to the country. Whether a potential immigrant (or refugee) was a security threat would be determined on a case-by-case basis. Until Trump, that had also been the modus operandi in the U.S. for over fifty years.

You might believe that these more impartial and fairer provisions would have been broadly welcomed. Instead, they stirred up a hornet’s nest of complaints from labour unions and from immigrants who arrived recently and wanted preference to be given to their family members, both immediate and more distant. Churches and synagogues wanted to continue the process of sponsorship that left more decisions in their hands, but would, in effect, reinforce a preference for immigrants who were reflections of who they were.[32]

Nevertheless, the 1967 regulations that followed in launching the point system to replace country of origin criteria, leveled the playing field for family sponsorship with the introduction of both the Sponsored and the Nominated Categories. Universality had become the order of the day. The basic premise of the new immigration system was to be based on the premise of treating everyone as an economic actor and assessing the degree that individual who applied to Canada would be useful to the Canadian nation-state in advancing its economic prospects.

Internationally, universality had also been applied to refugees as the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention removed the geographic restrictions in defining refugees. When Canada signed both the Convention and the Protocol two years later in 1969, refugees became, initially only formally, a problem of rights as well as needs. If needs, they were to be given humanitarian aid overseas and were not issues of Canadian self-interest unless the refugees were viewed as benefiting the Canadian economy, in which case they could be admitted under relaxed immigration criteria. In terms of rights, there was a conflict between the sovereignty of the nation-state to determine its own members and the right of the refugee to belong to a nation-state which could and would protect his/her rights.

But human rights law was about the obligation of the nation-state to guarantee those rights, so how could that obligation be internationalized to become a responsibility of the whole world community? Only with the introduction of the Convention. In that Convention, nation-states surrendered part of their sovereignty to allow certain individuals, those who could establish that they were in fear of persecution on grounds considered to be abuses of human rights, to come (and, later, stay) in Canada and claim membership as a matter of right. There were fundamental contradictions among three different poles: a) between the conception of a nation-state and its sovereignty; b) the conception of the nation-state as the instrument for protecting the rights of its own citizens; and c) the new notion that the sovereignty must be qualified and the obligation of the state to serve and protect was to be extended to those who were not citizens.

Hannah Arendt had pointed out the real core flaw in the international system in her seminal paper on persons who do not have membership in a state that protects their rights, either because they are stateless or because the state to which they belong is an abuser rather than a protector of their rights. Michael Walzer had pointed out that the most important decision a state makes is who to accept as a member and that is the essence and core of sovereignty.[29] A White paper premised on serving self-interests fairly with respect to the intake of immigrant was not the best place to adjudicate how refugees would be protected. The first statutory provision for protecting refugees only took place in 1973 with an amendment to the Immigration Act about allowing refugees to remain in Canada if they claimed to be refugees.

In the meanwhile, Canada introduced practices and procedures to make this principle of universality, initially only with respect to immigrants, operational. Area Offices were created staffed by Canadian officials – subsequently called visa officers. Within a year, they were interviewing people in one hundred countries and territories. This would turn into the operational foundation for selecting humanitarian refugees under relaxed criteria.

  1. d) 1968-1975

The basic premise of the new system was to be based on the premise of treating everyone as an economic actor and assessing the degree that individual who applied to Canada would be useful to the Canadian nation-state in advancing its economic prospects. But refugees were either a problem of needs or of rights. If needs, they were to be given humanitarian aid overseas and were not issues of Canadian self-interest unless the refugees were viewed as benefitting the Canadian economy. In terms of rights, there was a conflict between the sovereignty of the nation-state to determine its own members and the right of the refugee to belong to a nation-state which could and would protect his/her rights.

But human rights law was about the obligation of the nation-state to guarantee those rights, so how could that obligation be internationalized to become a responsibility of the whole world community? Only with the introduction of the Convention. In that Convention, nation-states surrendered part of their sovereignty to allow certain individuals, those who could establish that they were in fear of persecution on grounds considered to be abuses of human rights, to come (and, later, stay) in Canada and claim membership as a matter of right.

There were fundamental contradictions among three different poles: a) between the conception of a nation-state and its sovereignty; b) the conception of the nation-state as the instrument for protecting the rights of its own citizens; and c) the new notion that the sovereignty must be qualified and the obligation of the state to serve and protect was to be extended to those who were not citizens.

Canada was now on a roll, not vis-à-vis refugees with rights, but with refugees with needs, with humanitarian refugees. For another fifteen years, the issue of rights refugees would sit as a shadow in the background. The issue of rights refugees would grow slowly and emerge out of the darkness to become the predominant issue in refugee policy in the 1980s.

In the meanwhile, Canada admitted almost 11,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia between 20 August 1968 and 28 February 1969 when once again Russian-led Warsaw pact troops crushed a thrust for independence by one of its most western satellites. However, if public support from civil society proved telling in backing the government initiative, in the initiative in fostering the intake of the largest refugee intake into Canada, civil society was in the lead to allow entry of American draft dodgers and, later, deserters into this country.

Of course, Americans were not called refugees. The use of that term would have insulted both them and the American government, our big bully partner to the south. The Americans came as immigrants and were quickly processed for admission. Some were genuine immigrants who came because they did not want their children to fight in Vietnam. However, the clear majority, perhaps up to 180,000,[33] came to escape participating in the Vietnam War. If they had come from any other country, they would have been labeled refugees. That was evident in the lobbying that we had to do to facilitate quick entry approval, easy initially for draft dodgers, much more difficult but eventually successful for deserters.

On the path of rights refugees as distinct from humanitarian ones, after the signing of the Convention and Protocol, problems of principle and subsequently operations would also arise. On 27 July 1970, the Federal Cabinet noted that, “while Canada’s immigration policy was placed on a universal basis with the introduction of the new immigration regulations in 1967, the selection of refugees continued to favour persons of European origin.” How could the principle of universality be applied to refugees? Only if the European geographical bias was removed.

Canada dropped the Euro-centred refugee definition and adopted the Convention universal one. At the same time, in terms of needs refugees, discretion could be applied to selection. As a result, a number of humanitarian classes of refugees would be created, including the oppressed minority policy that allowed entry to Canada for persons who had not fled their country of origin., a measure that would subsequently benefit refugees from Russia, Uganda, Chile and other Central American countries.

The foundations began to be constructed also of a refugee rights regime. An Immigration Department Operations Memorandum on 17 January 1971 led to the creation of an “Interdepartmental Refugee Eligibility Committee. This was the precursor to the independent stream of refugee adjudicators eventually developed. Tibetan refugees constituted the next group of needs refugees permitted entry under relaxed immigration criteria. However, their numbers were small.

The first large group of non-European sourced refugees were the Ugandan Asians who came in 1972. When Idi Amin decreed that Ugandan Asians were no longer wanted in that country, Canada, with only the slightest pressure from Britain because they were British subjects, stepped up to the plate and allowed the entry of 20% of those expelled, just over 7,000 by the end of 1973. It helped, of course, that these were largely prosperous professionals and business people. The principle of accepting humanitarian refugees as immigrants under relaxed criteria designated for that class seemed to be working very well. That should have set a precedent for the Canadian response to a refugee crisis originating in Latin America when Pinochet overthrew the Allende government in Chile in a coup, but this proved more difficult. Our department of philosophy at Atkinson College (I was the chair at that time) was successful in getting Claudio Durán, his wife and children into Canada by offering Claudio a faculty position in the department, but for many others without job offers, the gates were closed. I regard it as a disgrace that by February 1975, less than 1,200 Chilean refugees had managed to escape to Canada. 3,000 Chileans “disappeared” in the ruthless Pinochet coup.[34]

However, the foundations were in place for a much larger group of humanitarian refugees. The experiences above, as well as with people fleeing the Soviet Union, bequeathed to the department an enormous experiential treasure that was used in writing the 1976 Immigration Act and its promulgation in 1978 as well as dealing with the first wave of Indochinese refugees. It is through these experiences that the designated classes and the idea of private sponsorship emerged that would be so influential in the intake of subsequent waves of refugees.

These initiatives also took place with respect to rights refugees. The Immigration Department not only developed specialized units focused on refugees, but cooperated with External Affairs and CIDA by assigning specialists to the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva to connect with UNHCR, ICEM (IOM), the Red Cross organization, the World Council of Churches and an ever-increasing number of international refugee-centred NGOs. With this foundation in place, the Canadian regime with respect to both needs refugees and rights refugees was ready to expand and develop, initially primarily in dealing with humanitarian refugees and the creative response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.

Part V

 1976 – 1982

The largest recognized[35] movement of refugees into Canada began in the same year the Chilean movement ended. But one would not have known this from the start. When Americans left Vietnam in such a humiliating way, Canada was asked by the State Department to take some of the refugees. The Canadian government at the time was reluctant. These refugees were perceived as America’s problem. For the vast majority of Canadians, the Americans should not have been involved in the Indochinese wars at all.  Further, some once again expressed fears that the refugee stream would be used as a route into Canada of communist spies from Southeast Asia. To mollify its American partner to the south, Canada did agree to take in the three years after the conquest of the south by the north a total of 8,000 persons, a relatively token number given the demand and the size of the movement.

That attitude changed in 1978. Canadian diplomats concluded that the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing Vietnam, though also Laos and Cambodia, were not the result of the war because the refugees had been allied with the Americans. They were fleeing repression and ethnic cleansing of Chinese in Vietnam at the same time as the ethnic Vietnamese were being cleansed in Cambodia. The issue came to a head in 1978 with the Hai Hang, a large and ancient freighter packed with over 2,500 refugees from Vietnam. Local countries were unwilling to admit them fearing they would be followed by a flood which they were reluctant to absorb. The Canadian government stepped forward and instead of the usual international implicit norm of Canada taking 10% of a refugee movement, Canada offered to take 25% of those on board to induce the Hong Kong government to allow the boat to dock and other countries to rally and join with Canada to resettle the refugees. The situation was repeated with a second boatload.

By the beginning of 1979, Bud Cullen, the then Minister of Immigration in the Liberal government, had convinced the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues to establish a special program for Indochinese refugees to be admitted under relaxed immigration criteria and set a target of 5,000 for that year.[36] When the Joe Clark Conservatives won the election in the Spring and when Ron Atkey, who had been named as the new Minister of Immigration, sat down and had a talk with Bud, Bud convinced Ron that the most important issue on his desk would be the movement of Indochinese refugees and that Ron should be prepared to take a lead in increasing the numbers of refugees.

One of the first initiatives the Joe Clark government took, after the fiasco over moving the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem[37], was to increase the intake of Indochinese refugees into Canada, 8,000 to be government-sponsored refugees and 4,000 to be privately sponsored. Private sponsorship was a novelty. A little-known clause had been introduced into the new 1976 Immigration Act that had been promulgated in 1978. The change was made to accommodate the Jewish community that wanted small groups of Canadian Jews to sponsor Jews from the Soviet Union. Only 200-300 refugees were expected to come via this route.

The provision allowed a group of five or more sponsors, or a church, synagogue or other organization involved with refugees, to initiate the sponsorship of humanitarian refugees from designated classes determined by the Minister by means of regulations. In 1979, there were three designated classes: the Indochinese, the Latin American Political Prisoners and Oppressed Persons and the East European Self-Exiled Persons. The first would become by far the source of the largest intake.

By the time the government of Joe Clark took office in June and the refugee crisis in the South China seas had reached dramatic proportions, senior government civil servants had only been able to convince two groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Dutch (Christian) Reformed Church to sign an umbrella agreement that would permit small groups of its members to initiate sponsorships under the guarantee of the larger church body. There is a myth that the government was forced by public pressure to increase the Indochinese intake. Evidence supports the interpretation that the opposite was the case. In this instance, the government was always the lead player.

The situation changed dramatically in June of 1979. Part of the reason was that a new government had taken over and wanted to demonstrate it was in charge and initiating policy, but it was policy that had support from all sides of Parliament. A second major reason was the dedication of senior policy staff in the Immigration Department; they worked assiduously to get the government to take a lead in dealing with this problem. A third instigator was the media that provided non-stop coverage of the issue as front page news that was critical in arousing the compassion of Canadians. In contrast to the incident of the Hai Hong, where there was much speculation about the gold bars the refugees had used to pay their way out and questions about whether we were helping refugees in need or just wealthy families to escape, that whole concern had been shoved overboard and disappeared into the choppy ocean waves.

A fourth element now entered the equation – the involvement of secular civil society at large rather than just special religious groups with a record of commitment to assisting refugees. Operation Lifeline was part of that upsurge. Though it turned out to be the name of the major initiative that spread across Canada, there were other worthy local initiatives, the most noteworthy being the initiative of Mayor Marion Dewar in Ottawa with Project 4,000.

Operation Lifeline in some form was inevitable, but it developed from a serendipitous combination of factors.[39] Let me speak of my role first. I had been up north working on my book on Hegel and the Problem of Recognition. I was on an island cut off from the media. I had been up there for six weeks and only returned to Toronto because I had a prior commitment to running a workshop for the Canadian Friends (the Quakers) on the island they owned; the topic was the Israeli-Arab conflict. The group consisted of supporters of each position, but each group was required to take up and defend the position of the other side. It also happened to be the case that I had written a review essay on a spate of books and articles that had recently been published, each having been written about the way various nation-states had turned their backs on Jewish refugees in the 1930s. As I was inundated with the media coverage that everyone had been reading for weeks, I became determined that this should not happen again.

When I finished the retreat, I decided to stay in Toronto a few days longer to write Ron Atkey, my member of Parliament and a former colleague at York University where he previously taught at the Osgoode Faculty of Law. I wanted to exert pressure on him to enlarge his initiative. I organized a meeting at my house on a Sunday, 26 June 1979, after church was out at 1:00 p.m. Representatives of the Catholic church up the street, an Anglican minister whom I knew from the area, rabbis from Holy Blossom Temple and Beth Tzedec Synagogue as well as the local alderman and some friends were invited to draft a letter to Ron asking the government to take a larger initiative. Not one who was invited failed to come or send a representative.

Just after 1:00 when the meeting was just beginning, there was a knock on the door. I went to answer presuming it was just some late comers who I had not been expecting. It was, but from a source I would never have guessed. The Director of Settlement for Ontario in the Immigration Department as well as the head of public relations for that department, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, were at the front door. They said that they had heard about the meeting and wondered if I would mind if they were permitted to attend and listen in.

I had to overcome being flabbergasted that senior civil servants had heard about the meeting, that they took time on a Sunday to come to a private home of someone they did not know. They did not even know if they would be welcome. I invited them in to join the group. We wrangled over the wording of the proposed letter for perhaps half an hour when our visitors from that strange land, the government, intervened. They asked if they could offer a suggestion. We easily acquiesced, if only to get relief from fifteen or so people trying to write a letter together. They informed us of this small provision in the Immigration Act. They asked if, perhaps in addition to writing a letter, we might want to make use of that provision and initiate some sponsorships as a form of witnessing.

Within a few minutes, we agreed to abandon our letter drafting and took up the idea of private sponsorship. We quickly determined that among the religious institutions in the riding as well as local community groups, we could organize at least 50 sponsorships. We divided up responsibilities with each of us agreeing to contact others to arrange for sponsorships. Within two weeks, we had overshot our target. We could never arrive at an accurate figure, but we certainly organized over 150 sponsorships in our riding.

Serendipity, once again, entered. It so happened that I had invited one of my graduate students to attend the meeting, on the assumption he might be interested, as well as to save time so we could work on his thesis immediately after the meeting was over and before I headed north again. He had never told me that he was a stringer for our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. The next morning, when I was sitting at my desk, at 5:45 the phone rang. It was a lady from Marystown, Newfoundland. She had read about Operation Lifeline in the Globe and wanted to know how she could help. Startled, I asked her what Operation Lifeline was? She then read me Dick Beddoes’ page length column in the newspaper that has described myself as abandoning my book on Haekel (sic!) to return to Toronto to save the Boat People and to organize Operation Lifeline. At the bottom of the page, he had printed my name and number and suggested that if others wanted to help, they could contact me.

I laughed at the enormous lie, but then responded that she should organize a chapter of Operation Lifeline in her riding. I appointed her chair of the Marystown Chapter of Operation Lifeline. She protested, insisted that she was only a housewife and did not know how to go about this. I told her to contact her friends, her local clergy of any denomination, local politicians to form a local chapter of Operation Lifeline in her federal riding. I said I would send her an express package describing in detail how to go about sponsoring, even though at the time I had no clue. Reluctantly she agreed, and she performed admirably as she promised to keep me notified of her success.

Delighted, I hung up the phone and no sooner had I done so, it rang again. By the end of two weeks, 66 chapters of Operation Lifeline had been organized across Canada. By the end of the week, my house was overrun with volunteers – it was great that the family were now up at the island and that school was over. Also by the end of the week, the target of 50 sponsorships had been reached in our riding and would soon be greatly exceeded. In that morning, people began showing up at the door to volunteer since they were unable to reach me on the phone. One of these was Wendy Schelew, an expert in hospital administration who was between jobs and volunteered her services. She became the managing head of Operation Lifeline. Another was Dr. Joseph Wong who had organized a similar initiative among his friends who had immigrated from Hong Kong and he merged his organization with ours and became a stalwart. A third was Elaine Slater who brought us a pile of office supplies; she would become chair of the Board.

Another was a former fellow graduate student in philosophy who was then a practicing lawyer. He had gathered an enormous body of material on private sponsorship when he had tried – unsuccessfully – to get his United Church in April to initiate a sponsorship group. By Tuesday morning, after the two of us worked all night, we had a manual on private sponsorship that we could send out to chapters of Operation Lifeline that were mushrooming up all over.

There are many stories to tell about the exhilarating days that followed, how, for example, Flora MacDonald, Foreign Minister, got her cabinet to raise the target from 12,000 to 50,000, with 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector. (The private sector by the end of the period of 18 months had almost doubled that target.) But I will end this story of the beginning of the Indochinese private sponsorship movement with one tale, that of Operation Intellectual Kneecapping. (It turned out to be a stupid name, but that is what we called it.) The National Citizens Coalition (NCC), then headed by Colin Brown, though subsequently by Stephen Harper, published within weeks of each other in August and September full page ads in Canadian newspapers. The first said that each refugee brought in would eventually bring in another 16 family members on average. The result: according to the NCC, almost a million Indochinese would be allowed to enter Canada.

Setting aside whether that would be a problem in the first place, setting aside that the numbers projected were based on early forms of family sponsorship practices no longer possible under the 1976 Immigration Act, the ads stank of racism and the fears of the “Yellow Peril.” Sometimes the bogeymen are communists. At other times, they are Islamic terrorists.[40] That time, race was the spectre.

That initial ad was followed by a second based on a survey the NCC had taken. Based on that survey, most Canadians were opposed to the intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. Only about a third of the population supported the expanded initiative. At the time, we denounced the way the survey had been carried out and the leading questions asked. But we later learned that secret surveys of public attitudes had been undertaken about the same time, but based on more scientifically stringent questions and methods. The results were not significantly different. Though virtually every professional organization, business association, business leaders, along with the parties in parliament, had endorsed the initiative, the NCC was tapping into a racist vein that ran through the heart of Canada. Quite aside from its effects on the sponsorship movement and on the political process, an NCC anti-refugee campaign would be very detrimental to the process of resettling refugees. They already had more than enough insecurities. We would be welcoming refugees against a background noise that said that they were not welcome.

Dr. Joseph Wong and I huddled together and he came up with an idea to contact one of the financial supporters of the NCC whom he knew to be a very good guy, though a fiscal and financial conservative. Joseph contacted him and he agreed to meet with us for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. the next day at what was then called the Prince Hotel on University Avenue. We told him the problem. He said he understood and sympathized. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m. Before noon, he phoned Joseph and told him that we could set our concerns aside. The NCC would not be publishing anything more on the issue.

He had phoned seventeen of his friends and acquaintances who were donors to the NCC and received permission to speak on their behalf. He phoned Colin Brown and told him to stick to financial issues and abandon the campaign against the sponsorship of the Indochinese refugees otherwise not only would he and his friends withdraw their support, but he would personally phone people he knew across Canada, who were supporters and contributors to the NCC, to withdraw their support unless he received an immediate commitment to stick to financial issues.

We never heard another peep from the NCC. The danger of organizing a racist backlash had been diverted. However, when the President of the United States holds such views rooted in invented fears of terrorists slipping into the U.S. through the refugee door, when he is ostensibly a billionaire in his own right, the problem is raised to a totally different dimension.

Reflections and Adumbration

In the 1980s, the mouse that eventually roared was that sleepy issue of rights refugees. At the beginning of the Indochinese refugee movement that would eventually bring 160,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, rights refugees were a sliver in the refugee movement. In 1982, there were approximately 300 files that were reviewed by the Minister to determine whether a refugee claimant should be allowed to stay or whether a refugee referred to by UNHCR for protection status could be approved for admission by the Canadian government. But the signs were becoming ominous. The number of files had doubled from the year before. By the end of the decade, refugee claimants on Canadian soil had reached over 50,000 applicants per year with a backlog of over one hundred thousand. The story of rights refugee claimants had moved from the back burner to a front firestorm.

“Unprecedented in the history of Canadian immigration legislation, the Immigration Act, 1976 attempted to codify the procedures dealing with the entrance of individual refugees to Canada. “That coding would undergo many revisions over the years,”[41] initially in the eighties to give “the benefit of the doubt” to refugee claimants on Canadian soil, but over the longer term in practice, to set in motion procedures which would make it increasingly difficult to arrive in Canada to make a refugee asylum claim in the first place. Other scholars concentrate on the glass half full argument in tracing the application of refugee law in general in procedures and practices to make that law more precise.[42]

However, refugee rights regimes never escaped the net of the primacy of sovereignty[43] – we will accept refugee rights but only so long as the sovereign right to select members is only incidentally compromised. Refugee rights are inevitably caught up in security issue, often as indicated at the very beginning, to put in place a nativist agenda that had nothing to do with either refugees or security, except insofar as the former offer a convenient target and the latter offer a convenient even if irrelevant excuse. The security issue is often about cultural security and effects, not simply on the nation-state, but in a federal system like Canada’s, on the policies of provinces, such as those of Quebec.[44]

Politics has always been at the centre of refugee issues and rarely at the periphery. And that is completely understandable. As I have said above, the principle of the sovereign to decide for itself and its own interests is sacrosanct, even as it takes into consideration the rights, interests and needs of others. Those considerations can be shaped to serve the interests of the nation-state.[45]

In a subsequent article, I will try to describe the impact of human rights refugee law and its development on humanitarian refugee policy and the boomerang effect the former had on limiting the latter. At the same time, I will try to clarify several historical questions, all of which have an impact on the debate of whether it is preferable to view refugees primarily through a needs window or whether refugee policy should be subsumed under human rights law.

How did the crisis in El Salvador and the creation of special measures for admitting Salvadorans into Canada in 1981, including those who were already in the U.S., impact on this question? When the Solidarity movement in Poland was repressed, why did we add Poland to the countries included in the Political Prisoners and Oppressed Person Class, a direct and clear case of people targeted for persecution and presumably eligible to be taken in as Convention refugees, but, in fact, allowed entry without having to prove they had a well-established fear of persecution? In 1983, how and why did the government expand the intake of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka from those simply affected by the riots in Colombo to include all Tamils throughout Sri Lanka affected by the war in the north. And what did this tell us about the rivalry between the primacy of rights versus needs, Convention versus humanitarian refugees?

The big shift took place in 1985 with the Singh decision. If you recall, at the very beginning of the development of the Convention, there had been a debate. If refugees were defined in terms of rights, then, as a concomitant of those rights, there would have to be other rights – rights to be heard, that is, to have an oral hearing and the application not simply processed by the Minister and/or her appointees, but the asylum claimant to be present at the hearing, to be assessed by persons of independent judgment, to have the right of counsel and to have the right of appeal. The Supreme Court of Canada in the Singh case in 1985 ruled that these connections anticipated in 1950 had to be implemented in Canadian refugee law.

Just after the Canadian people were awarded the Nansen medal in 1986 – an event commemorated by all of the Indochinese ethnic groups in Canada in Ottawa last year – for the tremendous leadership and work on behalf of humanitarian refugees performed by Canadian citizens on behalf of refugees, specifically the Indochinese, what followed was that the movement of humanitarian refugees in Canada shifted back into the shadow of an overwhelming focus on rights refugees and the creating of large institutionalized systems for hearing and adjudicating claims, for arranging counsel, for educating supposedly independent assessors. An administrative review system was initiated for refugees who had arrived before 21 May 1986, at the same time as Bill C-55 was passed to provide an adjudication system based on a combination of recommendations from the Robinson Report (1981), the Ratushny Report (1984) and mostly the Plaut Report (1985).

No sooner had rights refugees come to the fore than the reaction and pushback started. In 1987, refugees from the U.S. were forced to turn back and await a hearing date in the U.S. For only the second time in its history, parliament was recalled out of its summer recess in 1987 when a group of Sikhs arrived off the shores of Nova Scotia and, upon landing, requested refugee status. Very quickly, the government tabled Bill-84, the Refugee Deterrents and Detention Bill that was finally passed in 1988.

These steps to undermine the possibility of landing in Canada to claim refugee status were compounded by carrier sanctions, by expanding the number of countries where its citizens were required to obtain visas before they came to Canada as well as other deterrent measures. By 1988, where there had once been 150 and then 300 applications, the backlog alone of refugee claimants was over 100,000. By the end of the 1980s, the cost of the whole system just in Canada was estimated at over one billion dollars, equivalent to the entire budget then of UNHCR to deal with 35 million refugees.

The humanitarian designated class system, now relegated to a back seat, continued to function and was applied to overstayers from China following the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989 and, following the disintegration of the iron curtain that same year, to a European self-exiled class. By 1992, the accumulated methods for deterring the arrival of refugee claimants were expanded even more and given legislative authority in Bill C-86, including more scientific methods of identification – fingerprints originally – and expanding the detention system, though never as broadly or as cruelly as in Australia. Further, refugee claimants who traveled to Canada had to have the proper documents, in total contradiction to both reality and to the principle that the persecuted had rights independent of their membership in a state.

At the very same time, Canada opened the definition to include those persecuted because of gender. But the key shift took place even before the United States when immigration responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Public Security. The message was very clear – much harder to get in and much quicker to be kicked out. The newly elected Chretien government simply reversed that step and shortly after that, modified the requirements on documentation.

By 1987, initiatives were taken to bring the humanitarian process and the asylum or rights process into closer alignment with the creation of a Humanitarian Designated Class applied to applications from those persecuted who were still in their home countries – the Source Country Class. A Country of Asylum Class for Convention refugees from overseas who would be sponsored was created.

The dialectic between humanitarian and rights refugees continued into the twenty-first century, leaving the tensions between sovereignty and rights, between security and humanitarianism, between prejudice and generosity, unresolved and leaving the field open for a demagogue to play on fears and ignorance, lies and misrepresentation to advance a populist lowest denominator appeal that would transform an open polity into a closed and paranoid one.

To rephrase Judge Rosalie Abella, with the doctrine of civil liberties we gained the universal right to be equally free from an intrusive state regardless of group identity; with the doctrine of human rights, we gained the universal right to be equally free from discrimination based on group identity. But what about refugee rights? What about the right to belong to a state that protects your rights? For only if we are members of a state can we have both civil and human rights.

This brief historical sketch points to a claim that rights language cannot produce the transcendental conditions that are the preconditions of any rights in the first place. The existence of a sovereign nation-state is a precondition of both civil and human rights and membership in a state that protects such rights in the first place. A nation-state that goes beyond its sovereign and democratic responsibilities to guarantee rights to non-members has a problem. Further, it stimulates a fear that globalizing rights will take away a nation’s primary interest in self-preservation and open the way for exploitation by populist demagogues. In any case, refugee rights are redundant. Once a foreigner is on the soil of such a sovereign state, they too must be guaranteed both civil and human rights. There are no separate refugee rights. Further, I suggest much more can be done for refugees and more will be granted membership in a democratic nation-state when the threat to sovereignty is removed.

But this argument requires a full essay on its own.


[1] Of almost 64 million refugees and persons of concern to UNHCR in 2015, only 3,219,941 were asylum seekers and many if not most did not qualify as Convention refugees. In contrast, there were over 16 million humanitarian refugees, though IDPs were more than double that number. (

[2] For example, government assisted refugees (GARs) and Blended Visa Office-referred Refugees (BVORs) are Convention refugees referred to Canada for resettlement by UNHCR, while privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) may be Convention refugees or Country of Asylum refugees, that is, refugees seriously and personally affected by civil war or armed conflict.

[3] Thus, of 40,081 Syrian refugees who arrived since 4 November 2015 to the end of 2016, GAR and BVORs made up over 25,000 of the total while under 15,000 were PSRs. Some of these were Convention refugees referred to Canada and private sponsors by UNHCR. ( In addition, within Canada over 16,000 individuals claimed Convention refugee status in 2015. If even only 40% of those end up being accepted as Convention refugees, and even if all PSRs were non-Convention refugees, Convention refugees would outnumber humanitarian refugees admitted to Canada by approximately a 2:1 ratio.

[4] Though Trump and members of his administration repeatedly used the word “ban,” they subsequently blamed the media for calling what they were doing a ban. It was only a “pause,” they asserted. How can a pause be “indefinite”?

[5] Shargh, the Reformist Iranian newspaper on 26 January 2017 wrote, “Donald Trump … has taken a hold of a pen, and is fulfilling every one of his electoral promises, and is scaring thousands of people across the world by every decision he is making. The United States of America, the country which is founded on immigration and racial diversity, is now witnessing one of its most anti-immigrant presidents of its history in the White House.” The prominent Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who stars in Asghar Farhadi’s film, The Salesman, decided to boycott the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony in protest.”

[6] Not one of the perpetrators of terror attacks on U.S. soil in the twenty-first century came from any one of these countries. Most perpetrators of terrorism are home-grown. Though three of the major terrorist attacks during the Obama regime were perpetrated ostensibly by Muslim terrorists, all three were cases of psychological disturbance. Only two of the sixteen major terrorist cases were clearly ideological, based on Islamicism. In the San Bernardino terrorist attack in which 14 were killed, one perpetrator was born in the U.S. of Pakistani descent while the other was a legal resident of the U.S. of Pakistani descent. Any reasonably objective study would conclude that there is virtually no linkage between domestic terrorism and refugees.  Trump’s whole policy was based on a lie, and, unlike the fraud of weapons of mass destruction that took the Americans into Iraq, this is a case of a blatant lie, not simply one of questionable evidence but of no evidence.

[7] The U.S. under the Obama administration admitted about 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. For 2017, it planned to increase the overall target of admitted refugees to 110,000 for 2017, a 30% increase over 2016. The single largest increase, by an additional 10,000, was expected to go to Syrian refugees.

[8] The Globe and Mail on 12 February 2017 (“Quebec and Manitoba see influx of asylum seekers crossing U.S. border”) reported that on the previous weekend, 42 people crossed illegally into Quebec and 21 into Manitoba. Most were Somalis. Thus far in 2016 into 2017, 400 had crossed, an increase from 68 in the previous 2014-2015 fiscal year.

[9] For a historical comparison of the development of refugee policy in the two countries, Canada and the U.S., see Howard Adelman (ed.) (1991) Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, Toronto: York Lanes Press Ltd.


[11] Jean-Louis de Brouwer, Director, Humanitarian and Civil Protection Operations, DG ECHO, European Commission; Laura Hammond, Reader, Development Studies, and Team Leader, Research and Evidence Facility, EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, SOAS University of London; Nassim Majidi, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Samuel Hall and the Migration Pillar Lead; Affiliate Researcher, Sciences Po Paris / CERI, France; and Affiliate Researcher, Wits University / ACMS, South Africa; Mia Steninge,
Chief Advisor, Migration and Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.

[12] See, for example, the following: Charlotte Alfred (2016) “How the EU Is Trying To Stop Africans Boarding Boats To Europe,” Worldpost, 9 June; James Traub (2016) “Europe Wishes to Inform You That the Refugee Crisis is Over,” Foreign Affairs, 18 October; Patryk Kugiel (2016) “Can Development Assistance Solve the Refugee Crisis?” The Polish Institute for International Affairs, 87 (937), 14 December. The effort is attacked as far more expensive to implement than estimated, far more difficult to get cooperation on the ground in real terms, while incurring political and moral costs. The Turkish agreement is an example where the EU said it would continue to consider asylum claims from within countries of first asylum, but, with the pressure off, is, in fact, doing very little to process claimants.

[13] To understand how refugee return can be a destabilizing factor and contribute to a renewal of war, cf. Howard Adelman (2002), “Repatriation of Refugees Following the Signing of Peace Agreements: A Comparative Study of the Aftermath of Peace in Fourteen Civil Wars,” in Stephen Stedman et al Thematic Issues in Peace Agreements Following Civil Wars. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[14] Cf. Elizabeth Collett (2017) “New EU Partnerships in North Africa: Potential to Backfire?”, Migration Policy Institute, 2 February

[15] The pioneer work to underpin migration movements, not in individual choice, but in family survival strategies, was initially put forth by Oded Stark (with D. Bloom) (1985) “The new economics of labor migration.” American Economic Review75, 173–178. The family, not the individual is the crucial agent in the vast majority of cases of migration. This applies to integration as well as emigration. In both, the family constitutes a crucial actor in the process of human mobility. Given this family risk management framework, it is often the case that family reunification may not be the ideal goal in dealing with migrants. Cf. Laura Zanfrini (2012) “Family Migration: Fulfilling the Gap between Law and Social Processes,” Societies 2:3, 63-74.

[16] The essay was published in, Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson, London: Faber and Faber, 110-119.

[17] Cf. Howard Adelman (1991) “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Period: An Analysis,” Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, ed. by Howard Adelman, Toronto: York Lanes Press, 173-223.

[18] See Irving Abella and Harold Troper (1982; 2012), None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys and revised edition, University of Toronto Press.

[19] For a more general argument about this thesis and its influence on the development of human rights laws in general, cf. Mark Mazower (2004) “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933–1950,” The Historical Journal 47:2, June, 379-398.

[20] The documents on their arrival can be found in the archives of Tartu College at 310 Bloor St. W. in Toronto.


[22] This supposed “international constitutional moment” (Anne-Marie Slaughter and William Burke-White, (2002) “An International Constitutional Moment,” 43:1), in which refugee law was built into human rights law, is under dispute from many directions. Some argue that the moment existed, but not at birth, but only when these rights were first really institutionalized – in human rights law in the 1970s and in refugee law in the 1980s. Others argue that all three types of rights, general human rights born with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (along with the subsequent International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)), Refugee Rights in the Convention and the rights of a group not be attacked for their culture, beliefs and way of life in the Genocide Convention, are triplets, born at about the same time out of the same seed, even if one of the triplets, human rights law, emerged first from the womb. Still others argue that the legacy is much older than the aftermath of WWII. Human rights and refugee rights are as old as Methuselah. And primogeniture belongs to refugee rights expressed deeply in all three major religions that arose in the Middle East and possibly Far East religions as well. Cf. Jill I. Goldenziel (2016) “The Curse of the Nation-State: Refugees, Migration, and Security in International Law,” Arizona State Law Journal 48: 579-636, 581-2. Goldenziel argues that, in the contemporary world, refugee rights not only emerged from a very much older tradition, but coalesced in the 1940’s because of national interests as well as abstract principles. (There is a sense in which each of these positions is correct, but that is for another discussion. The real debate is whether refugee law should be primarily understood in terms of human rights law as my colleagues Guy Goodwin-Gill and James Hathaway have argued. (For the latter, see his 1991 article, “Reconceiving Refugee Law as Human Rights Protection,” Journal of Refugee Studies 113: 113-131 and the many other articles and books he has published to advance that argument.) The argument proceeds by concentrating on the Convention and its aftermath and largely ignores humanitarian law applied to refugees. Or, for that matter, to actual genocides. Cf. Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke (1996) Early Warning and Conflict Management, Volume 2 of The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Copenhagen: DANIDA; Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke (eds.) (1999) The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books; Howard Adelman, with Frank Chalk, Alexandre Kiss, William A. Schabas and Dinah L. Shelton (co-eds.) (2004) Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 3 volumes, New York: Macmillan USA.  The interaction between the issue of genocide and refugee flows is discussed in Howard Adelman (2005) “Rwanda and Refugees,” Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen (eds.) Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present, Oxford: ABC Clio 2, 542-547.

[23] Cf.. Goldenziel, Jill I., (2016) “The Curse of the Nation-State: Refugees, Migration, and Security in International Law (July 10). Arizona State Law Journal, 48. SSRN:; see also , François Créepeau and Michael Barutciski (1995) ““Refugee Rights in Canada and the 1951 Geneva Convention,” Journal of Refugee Studies, 7, 239-248.

[24] A major concern was the right of refugee return, not discussed in this article. For an extensive analysis, cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press. For an analysis, most germane to the thesis of this essay, cf.  Howard Adelman (1994) “Refugees: The Right of Return” in Group Rights, ed. Judith Baker, University of Toronto Press, 164-185, and Howard Adelman (1987) Palestinian Refugees and Durable Solutions, Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme. When applied to refugees in the Far East, cf. Howard Adelman (ed) (2008) Protracted Displacement in Asia: No Place to Call Home, London: Ashgate, and, more generally, Howard Adelman, (2013) “The Law of Return and the Right of Return,” in M Rafiqul Islam, Azizur Rahman Chowdhury and Jahid Hossain Bhuiyan (eds.) An Introduction to International Refugee Law, Leiden: BRILL, Netherlands, 291-318, and Howard Adelman (2010) “Refugee Return: By Right and By Law,” in Dan Avnon and Yotam Benziman (eds.) Plurality and Citizenship in Israel: Moving Beyond the Jewish/Palestinian Civil Divide, London: Routledge, 31-52.

[25] Cf. Jan Raska  (2015) “Forgotten Experiment: Canada’s Resettlement of Palestinian Refugees, 1955-1956,” Histoire sociale/Social History, November, 48:97

[26] See, for example, Howard Adelman (1986), Guest Editor, Palestinian Refugees, Middle East Focus, 9:2.

[27] For an overview of these developments, cf. Howard Adelman, editor-in-chief (2002) Immigration Policy and Practice in Canada. Ottawa: Metropolis Institute.

[28] Howard Adelman (ed.) (1994) Hungarian Refugees, Toronto: York Lanes Press and “Genesis,” in The Genesis of a Domestic Refugee Regime: The Case of Hungary, Toronto: York Lanes Press.

[29] The Gouzenko Affair marked not only the beginning of the Cold War, but an unprecedented abuse of human rights in the name of national security by the Federal Government of Canada with the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the arrest and trial of many, and with the reputations of many others ruined in the process.

[30] For a more thorough discussion, cf. Howard Adelman (1991) “”Humanitarianism and Self-Interest: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Hungarian Refugees,” Studie- en Informatiecentrum Mensenrechten Special 11 Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, 98-108.

[31] Charles B. Keely (1971) “Effects of the immigration act of 1965 on selected population characteristics of immigrants to the United States,” Demography 8:2, 157-169.


[32] Cf. Harold Troper (1993) “Canada’s Immigration Policy since 1945,” International Journal 48:2, Spring; Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock (1998) The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Valerie Knowles (2000) Forging our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900-1977, Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada.


[33] Precise figures are not available because Canada diplomatically never announced a special program for American refugees. We did not have to go overseas to get them. They arrived in Canada on their own, often with the help of Canadians in what was termed the Vietnam underground railroad. I then lived in Rosedale and cannot count the number of draft dodgers and deserters who came to the terminus of that railroad to sleep in our third floor.

[34] Steve J. Stern (2004) Remembering Pinochet’s Chile, Duke University Press.

[35] Only the American refugee movement during the Vietnam War was larger, but it was not recognized as a distinct movement.

[36] For a more detailed discussion and depiction of these developments, cf. Howard Adelman (ed.) (1980) The Indochinese Refugee Movement into Canada, Toronto: Copp Clark, and Howard Adelman (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: Weigl Educational Publishers.

[37] Howard Adelman (1980) “Clark, and the Canadian Embassy in Israel,” Middle East Focus, March 2:6, p. 6-18.

[38] The source of this false news is not only the media, which has a propensity to view government initiatives as only passive responses to the voice and will of the people. One source of this misleading information is the otherwise extremely reliable Canadian Council for Refugees. On its website summarizing the history and development of refugee policy in Canada, it is written that, “Popular pressure forced the government to adjust upwards its initial commitment to resettling the refugees.” This is just incorrect.

[39] For a journalist’s account, see Peter Goodspeed (2014) “Can Canada duplicate its boat people rescue with Syrian refugees?” Toronto Star, 26 September.

[40] For a discussion of the interaction between terrorist threats and Canadian refugee policy, cf. Howard Adelman (2008) “Canada’s Balancing Act: Protecting Human Rights and Countering Terrorist Threats”, in Alison Brysk and Gershon Shafir (eds.) National Insecurity and Human Rights: Democracies Debate Counterterrorism, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 137-156.

[41] Cf. Christopher J. Wydrzynski (1979) “Refugees and the Immigration Act,” Montreal: McGill Law Journal, 154-190. This article outlines “the immigration system established to process refugee claims, and will comment on the legislative steps Parliament has taken to ensure that Canada meets her international obligations and provides a system whereby the individual refugee applicant is treated with procedural and substantive fairness.”

[42] Cf. Alexander Betts (2009) Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, and Alexander Betts, Gil Loescher and James Milner (eds.) (2012) UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection, London: Routledge.

[43] Howard Adelman (2008) “Sovereignty in the Twenty-First Century: Security, Immigration and Refugees,” Ch. 8 in Trudy Jacobsen, Charles Sampford and Ramesh Thakur (eds.) Re-envisioning Sovereignty: The End of Westphalia? Aldershot: Ashgate, 129-150. See also Jack Donnelly (2014) “State Sovereignty and International Human Rights,” Ethics and International Affairs, 225.

[44] Cf. Howard Adelman (1995) “Canada, Quebec and Refugee Claimants,” in Is Quebec Nationalism Just: Perspectives from Anglophone Canada, ed. Joseph Carens, McGill-Queens University Press, 82-96.

[45] Thus, the effort to get nations to intervene in other states where there were gross abuses of human rights – Government of Canada and U.N. Secretary-General, Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response, 1, U.N. Doc. A/66/874-S/2012/578 (July 25, 2012). For the more ambitious issue of humanitarian intervention, cf. Canadian Government Responsibility to Protect and a critique in terms of practice, Howard Adelman and Govind C. Rao (eds.) (2003) War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention 1996-1997, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press as well as a more extensive effort to salvage the disasters in application, see U.N. Secretary-General (2012) Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response, U.N. Doc. A/66/874-S/2012/578, 25 July. Refugee movements are also used as a propaganda tool and an instrument of war. Cf. Howard Adelman (2003) “The Use and Abuse of Refugees in Zaire,” Chapter 4, Stephen John Stedman and Fred Tanner (eds.) Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 95-134. For a more theoretical examination that preceded the publication of the Responsibility to Protect, cf. Howard Adelman (2001) “Theory and Humanitarian Intervention,” Chapter 1, Michael Keren and Donald A. Sylvan (eds.) International Intervention: Sovereignty versus Responsibility. London: Frank Cass & Co., 3-24.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Secure America

Secure America


Howard Adelman

This morning I received the following email:

Secure America


Howard Adelman

Howard —

Today is Election Day! This is a critical election and we need every single American to do their part.

Hillary Clinton is a danger to Americans. Go to the polls today and stop Clinton from implementing her dangerous policies by voting against her. Hillary plans to increase the number of unscreened refugees in the U.S. by at least 550%, directly endangering our communities. Through her role in the murder of Americans in Benghazi and her support of Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal, she has demonstrated her terrible judgement over and over again.
Point blank, we cannot let Hillary Clinton become the President of the United States.

America is at a crossroads and this election will have huge ramifications upon our national security. With so much at stake for the future of our nation, you simply cannot afford to stay home. Your vote will help to restore our national security and protect Americans across the country.

Do you know where to vote today? Click here to find your polling location:

Get out and vote today!
Thank you for your loyal support,
Secure America Now

Quite aside from the fact that the organization did not know that I am not an American and am not eligible to vote in an American election, and setting aside the vilification of Hillary Clinton, this short email makes a number of simple factual errors. The organization is accurate in several respects – today is election day in America. It is accurate also in asserting that “America is at a crossroads.” Sometimes, making such an assertion is merely rhetoric, but I believe it is demonstrably true today.

The email stresses the two core themes raising fears among Americans:
1. The fear of terrorism and of Syrian refugees;
2. The Iran nuclear deal is a direct threat to the U.S.

Secure America asserts, “National security is the most important issue this cycle. Hillary Clinton endangers the security of Americans with her support of the Iran nuclear deal and admitting Syrian refugees.”

On Syrian Refugees

One year ago, following the terrorist attack in Paris, Hillary Clinton weighed in on the refugee issue in a city not particularly pro-refugee – Dallas. America had a target of 13,000 Syrian refugees last year. Hillary argued that closing the door to refugees fleeing Syria would “undermine who we are as Americans. “We always welcomed immigrants and refugees. We have made people feel that is they did their part, they sent their kids to school, they worked hard, there would be a place for them in America.” She added that those seeking refuge must be carefully vetted by “our defense and intelligence professionals.”

So the email is blatantly incorrect that Hillary Clinton proposed allowing the entry of unvetted Syrian refugees. She never did. She never has. And she never will. For even the strongest bleeding heart for refugees does not recommend an unvetted process. As for numbers, Hillary did support a 550% increase in the intake, from 10,000 to 65,000, just about the same number Canada will take this year with a population one-tenth of America’s. A 550% increase seems enormous, but not if you start with a very low figure. Given traditional ratios, if Canada takes in 50,000 refugees, the U.S. would be expected to take in 500,000. But given the temper of the times in America, it is hard to imagine America getting back anytime soon to being a large haven for the oppressed in the world.

The fear mongering about Syrian refugees, other than telling an outright lie about vetting, ignores a number of facts:
1. Syrian refugees include Yazidis and other Christians who are being and have been systematically religiously cleansed from the Middle East;
2. If you are a terrorist, the refugee route is one of the poorest routes through which to gain entry into the United States or Canada since you become so well documented. Arriving as a student, as a visitor, as a business person, are all far easier routes into the country;
3. 70% of Syrian refugees are women and children;
4. The vast majority of terrorist acts committed by terrorists – and there have not been that many given the huge threat from them – has come from radicalized young Muslims who grew up in Canada or the United States; they are homegrown influenced, by the ideology of Al Qaida and ISIS.
5. Syria thus far has been a magnet for extremists far more than a producer of terrorists for export. This may change with the imminent defeat of ISIS.
6. The Harper government, far from being pro-Syrian refugees, was very suspicious of Syrian refugees, but still authorized Canada to adopt the same absolute target as the U.S. in the Obama administration. [In its 2013 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, published by Public Safety Canada, there is no suggestion that refugees from Syria currently pose any threat.]

The Iran Nuclear Deal

This is a subject on which I have written extensively and a quick survey of the SAN site indicates that it is another area with enormous misinformation.
Note the source of the missive I received – Secure America Now (SAN). SAN claims to be non-partisan, but seems clearly linked to the Alt-Right and headlined by hard-line ideological Republicans such as John Bolton. It was established by two pollsters, John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell, in 2011. It is one of the major sources of non-scientific “push-polls” that Donald Trump frequently cites to show he is on a winning track.

SAN has pushed petitions that are strong on rhetoric and very weak in providing information that urge the U.S. government to “lead a multi-faceted campaign to stop Iran” and “to send a powerful message to the world that America is strong and will not tolerate illegal aliens infiltrating our land.” The organization is alarmist and demonstrates little concern with accuracy. For example, while urging support for the American intelligence and military service arms of the U.S. government, SAN ignores the simple fact that those same communities, whatever hesitations or qualms they might have about the nuclear deal, contrary to SAN claims, agree that Iran’ nuclear program is NOW not geared to nuclear weapons production. SAN’s videos are also replete with geographical errors, errors about dates, and questionable maps about Iran’s nuclear sites. If you wonder where Donald Trump’s vision of restoring water boarding and other even worse torturing techniques, that even the conservative U.S. Supreme Court insists are contrary to the American constitution, look at this site. Further, its “information” data base looks even worse than Donald Trump’s mendacity, if that is possible.

“Push polls” spread politically driven talking points under the guise of gauging public opinion, They are the same types of polls that the National Citizens Coalition in Canada used to raise fears in 1979 that the Vietnamese refugees arriving in Canada would each bring an additional 16 relatives – for some of us, not a fear at all – but it played on a deeper “yellow peril” fear that once ran through Canada. However, while the National Citizens polls mislead with leading questions, they did not distort, as SAN polls seem to do, by cherry picking those to be interviewed or respond. One SAN poll claimed to show that Americans viewed Iran as a top security threat when independent scientific polls show no such thing.
The oldest trick in the American political playbook is to play up America fears. JFK did it in his race against Nixon in 1960 – “the myth of the “missile gap”. SAN is part of that tradition.

This is what SAN has to say. “Secure America Now will work with like-minded groups to help our elected officials to make the right policy decisions on a wide range of security issues. For too long and too much the threats to our security have been downplayed or even ignored in our political discourse. Secure America Now exists to make sure our security concerns are no longer ignored. Secure America Now will challenge political correctness that often leads to avoidable security situations such as the Fort Hood massacre committed by Major Hassan. Secure America Now will expose and promote action when governmental policies fail to effectively address direct threats to our national security such as the nuclear program of Iran, the rise of China’s military challenge, and growing lawlessness in our society. For too long national security policy has been made by politicians in a vacuum. These issues are too important to be left to the politicians. The American people should be heard on these issues that impact all our lives.”

Scaremongering along the lines of Trump lying! Just two more from the above list. One is the alleged “growing lawlessness in our society.” If the reference is to ordinary crime, crime rates have declined steadily. If the reference is to the lawlessness of torture or to urging people at rallies to take protesters out, then the point is self-referential and not at all about society as a whole. On the issue of Dr. Nidal Hasan (not Hassan), a major and a psychiatrist in the Army, Hasan shot 13 people and wounded 32 others seven years ago. He was convicted and awaits execution. The FBI, the DOD, and the Senate all conducted thorough investigations and all concluded the same thing: “Investigators in the FBI and U.S. Army determined that Hasan acted alone and they have found no evidence of links to terrorist groups.” He would describe his colleagues as anti-American. On the other hand, he was a devout Muslim who examined terrorist sites and was upset by what he heard from the soldiers he was treating about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is more information that is readily available, but there is no suggestion of any connections with refugees let alone Syrian refugees.

The SAN missive alone is sufficient to make sure one does not vote for Trump.

A. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – an Introduction

Corporealism XVI: Justin Trudeau Redux

A. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – an Introduction


Howard Adelman

Last week and the week before, the parliament of Canada debated Canada’s role in the fight against ISIS. The focus during last year’s election and the beginning of this year has been the Liberal Party pledge, executed on 15 February 2016, to withdraw six Canadian CF-18 fighter jets from combat in Iraq and Syria. Before I analyze the debate itself in the context of the larger war against radical Islamic terrorism or Islamicism, more specifically against ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, I offer a brief introduction to the formal status of the debate in the House of Commons and some historical background to the current debate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s motion about Canada’s contribution to the fight against ISIS (17 February 2016) was not a motion asking the House of Commons to authorize the Liberal Policy. For one thing, the revision was a fait accompli. The acting leader of the Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose, contended that the introduction of the motion after the fact was disrespectful of parliament, but a motion after the decision had been made was consistent with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motions when he deployed Canadian military forces in Iraq in 2014 and 2015. Further, the Liberals had offered much more parliamentary time to debate the issue. Third, the government was simply asking the House of Commons “to support” a decision already made. It was a support rather than authorization motion. The authority to deploy military resources and shape goals and modalities of the military mission belongs to the Federal cabinet, not parliament. To repeat, support, not authorization, was being sought.

The motion begins, “That the House support [my italics] the government’s decision to broaden, improve, and redefine our contribution to the effort to combat ISIL by better leveraging Canadian expertise while complementing the work of our coalition partners to ensure maximum effect…” The motion was not simply about a new policy; it was comparative. The new Liberal policy was broad; the old Tory policy was narrow. The new Liberal policy was an improvement on the older, inadequate policy. At the same time, the new policy was not radically different; it was merely a redefinition. The new policy is still to combat ISIL. Was it simply to degrade, or was it to destroy? It had two key characteristics according to the Liberals. The policy leveraged Canadian expertise. The policy complemented rather than simply duplicated that of Canada’s allies.

The debate is rooted in Canada taking exception towards perceived American military adventurism. When U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acted consistent with the Canadian attitude to refusing to participate in the Vietnam War rather than Canada’s participation in the Korean War, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan War. In the latter three, Canada was a very active participant. The refusal to join the Americans in Vietnam and in the second Gulf War without the endorsement of a UN resolution was a statement about Canada’s mode of taking military action in the international arena. Though years later he would admit the war was a mistake, in 2003 Stephen Harper, then leader of the Opposition Canadian Alliance Party, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal co-authored with Stockwell Day, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, wrote, “This is a serious mistake… The Canadian Alliance – the official opposition in Parliament – supports the American and British position because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values.”

On 4 September 2014, when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, he announced that Canada would be deploying up to 100 Canadian special forces in Operation Impact (compared to Operation Inherent Resolve for the American mission, Operation Chammai for the French, Operation Shader for the British and Operation Okra for the Aussies), but it was defined as a training rather than a combat mission. On 3 October, Canada assumed a combat role as well, not with boots on the ground, but with jets in the air. Harper announced the deployment of six CF-18 fighter jets, a refueling aerial tanker and two CP-140 surveillance aircraft for the war in Iraq. Air strikes commenced on 2 November 2014. On 7 October 2014, in almost similar wording to the motion passed last week, Parliament voted on party lines to “support” the Harper mission by a vote of 157 to 134. The NDP then leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, accused the government of setting off on a course of mission creep without either clear goals or an exit strategy. Justin Trudeau urged humanitarian aid instead and rather flippantly criticized the Conservatives for macho behaviour and “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are.” In March 2015, the Canadian deployment was renewed for another year by a vote of 142-129. Targets were expanded to include ISIS operating in Syria.

The motion tabled in the House of Commons on 17 February reads:

      That the House support the government’s decision to broaden, improve, and redefine our contribution to the      effort to combat ISIL by better leveraging Canadian expertise while complementing the work of our coalition partners to ensure maximum effect, including:
  (a) refocusing our military contribution by expanding the advise and assist mission of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Iraq, significantly increasing intelligence capabilities in Iraq and theatre-wide, deploying CAF medical personnel, offering to provide the Government of Iraq ministerial liaison personnel to the Ministries of Defence and the Interior, enhancing capacity-building efforts with our defence partners in Jordan and Lebanon to advance regional stability, and withdrawing our CF-18s while maintaining air force surveillance and refuelling capability;
  (b) improving the living conditions of conflict-affected populations and helping to build the foundations for long-term regional stability of host communities, including Lebanon and Jordan;


  (c) investing significantly in humanitarian assistance while working with experienced humanitarian partners to support the basic needs of conflict-affected populations, including children and victims of sexual and gender-based violence;
  (d) engaging more effectively with political leaders throughout the region, increasing Canada’s contribution to international efforts aimed at finding political solutions to the crises affecting the region and reinforcing our diplomatic presence to facilitate the delivery of enhanced programming, supporting increased CAF deployments, strengthening dialogue with local and international partners on the ground and generally giving Canada a stronger voice in the region;


  (e) welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada;
  that the House express its appreciation and pride to the members of the CAF, diplomatic and intelligence personnel for their participation in the fight against terrorism, to Canadian humanitarian workers for their efforts to provide critical support to conflict-affected populations, and reconfirm our commitment to our allies in the coalition against ISIL; and


  that the House note the government’s resolve to return to the House within two years with a new motion on Canada’s contribution to the region.

The debate could only proceed after Trudeau paid homage to Canada’s armed forces personnel who served with such courage and dedication. The homage was repeated by many parliamentarians on both sides of the House, But Trudeau and others could not possibly outdo the remarks during the debate of James Bezan, the PC member from Selkirk and defence critic. “I understand the incredible risk that our military services, either in the regular or reserved forces, are willing to undertake to protect Canada. Everything that we hold dear in here, our democracy – our freedom of speech, our rights and liberties – are only possible because of the incredible sacrifices made by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the veterans who came before them. I want to pay tribute to every member who is currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, whether they are in the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Army, in reserves or regular forces. I thank them for keeping us safe. We do not even realize the incredible efforts they take 24/7 to keep us safe in Canada. They are the eyes of Canada on the world. They are standing on the wall to keep evil out and they are always prepared to go where no one else will go. They run toward danger. Their commitment is something each and every one of us in here should pay great respect for and thank them profusely.”

Though many tried in the debate, no one was nearly as effusive as Bezan,

“Broaden,” “improve,” “redefine,” these were the key buzzwords in shaping the program. “Comprehensive” (aiming for a durable result and utilizing the various means to achieve it), “integrated” (with allies and various other approaches), and “sustained” (i.e. multi-year), these were the key words in characterizing the design of the program. “Robust,” “comprehensive,” and “effective,” these were the key words depicting the execution. Better leverage of Canadian military assets and expertise while complementing the work of its coalition partners – that was the frame.

But what did that mean in practice?

  • Expanding the advice and training mission for the Iraqi “boots on the ground”
  • Increasing intelligence capabilities both in Iraq and the larger Middle East theatre
  • Deploying CAF medical personnel
  • Military and diplomatic liaison with the Iraqi Departments of Defense and Interior as well as with Jordan and Lebanon
  • and, the contentious issue with the Conservatives, withdrawing the six CF-18s.

The rest of the motion had to do with enhanced humanitarian aid, development aid re governance and Canada’s refugee resettlement program. What the latter had to do with a military deployment overseas became clear in the debate, a debate that began as I indicated above with Justin Trudeau offering plaudits to Canadian men and women in uniform and compassion for the family of Andrew Poiron killed by friendly fire almost a year earlier.

During this week, if I am able to stick to my plans as I write each morning, I will try to proceed according to following plan:


With the help of Alex Zisman

Niqabs and the Canadian Citizenship Oath

Niqabs and the Canadian Citizenship Oath


Howard Adelman


I am en route back to Canada so a requirement of Canadian citizenship for new Canadians, namely the oath of allegiance, is an appropriate topic raised in Michiel’s email to me yesterday which I first read last evening. Further since this issue is primarily a thought exercise requiring only reading the documents referred to as well as the federal court ruling, and does not require extensive research, it is a great way to fill my early morning hours.

Michiel Horn sent me Cliff Orwin’s discussion of Harper’s opposition to wearing the niqab when an immigrant takes a citizenship oath to become a Canadian citizen. A niqab, a veil that covers all but the eyes of the face of a Muslim woman, is required by some ultra-orthodox Muslims to be worn when in public in the presence of a non-mahram male, that is, a mature male past puberty who is not a relative of the immediate extended familys. Thus, fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, siblings, children, grandchildren, uncles, cousins, nephews, father-in-law, son-in-law, and further refinements are mahraim. Essentially, if a Muslim married a mahram, this would constitute incest.

I have forwarded Michiel Horn’s e-mail separately since I was not able to technically include it within this blog. The references were to the following:

My response has little to do with Harper’s political motives – which are often questionable. It has more to do with Cliff’s critique that is correct as far as it goes. However, the critique, on the one hand, went too far since the court found in favour of Zunera Ishaq, not on the basis of the constitutional challenge and the respect for religion and requirement of tolerance, but on errors in administrative law in a government making something mandatory and incumbent on judges to implement when the applicable legislation permitted no such action. More importantly for the point I want to make, Cliff’s argument does not go nearly far enough to unpack the underlying issue. Once unpacked, a whole different dimension of the issue emerges. But first let me briefly recapitulate first Harper’s position, Cliff’s response and that of the Federal Court that found in favour of Zunera Ishaq.  

Minister Stephen Harper’s Position

Harper stated in parliament, and did so most vociferously, that it is “offensive” for a new applicant for Canadian citizenship to wear a face covering niqab when taking an oath to become a Canadian citizen. Actually, he said it was offensive because at the time of the oath the individual was “joining the Canadian family” not becoming a Canadian citizen. The two are not the same as Cliff noted. This policy was introduced by Jason Kenney as Minister of Immigration and Citizenship on 11 December 2011. Kenney argued that 80% of Canadians oppose wearing a niqab when taking an oath of citizenship. Harper vowed to appeal the Federal Court decision. (More tomorrow on that vow.)

Clifford Orwin’s Views

Cliff Orwin argued that Harper’s position is totally wrong and made Jason Kenney’s tending to religious suppression even more heinous. It is not an issue of numbers. Cliff does not care that the ruling only applies to one hundred women in Canada – actually, it applies to one hundred women per year, but this is a technicality since the point is the rule affects relatively few of the quarter million individuals who become citizens each year. Nor does it matter that 80% of Canadians follow Harper’s lead and abhor that a religious Muslim woman be allowed to wear a niqab at a public ceremony where the oath of allegiance to Canada is sworn. Nor does Cliff think that Harper’s appeal to transparency and openness is at all relevant. “Liberal democracy isn’t about compulsory baring of ourselves (or our faces) to others.” Nor is calling the Canadian society a “family” relevant, for in taking the oath of citizenship, one is not joining one big family, but simply acquiring membership in a state. For Cliff, it is about the fundamental small “l” liberal belief in “the right of each of us to lead a life of our own, in religious matters as elsewhere,” as long as in doing so we do not harm another. Offending someone is not prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Freedom of worship is a Canadian value. The Canadian Charter of Rights requires respect for religious freedom. Transparency and openness are appreciated by Canadians, but unburdening ourselves, as one might do in a family, is neither protected nor expected by the Charter. Nor is the issue one of respecting local customs – “when in Rome” – for wearing a niqab is a religious practice, not an expression of local custom. So custom is not the issue. The right to wear the niqab as a form of religious expression is. When Paikin asked Cliff whether it was alright for an immigrant to wear a Nazi storm trooper uniform when taking an oath of citizenship, Cliff insisted the issue was not the same. Wearing a Nazi storm trooper uniform is not ok because it is not a religious expression, but an expression of intolerance. Therefore, it is not a parallel circumstance.

To repeat, the issue for Cliff was not whether the vast majority of Canadians abhorred the practice of women who believe it is appropriate to wear a niqab, particularly at a Canadian citizenship ceremony when taking an oath of citizenship. What the vast majority of Canadians abhor about a piece of apparel when that apparel is worn for religious reasons is of no consequence. There are indeed legitimate reasons why wearing a niqab rubs people the wrong way. A man wearing shorts and sandals leading a woman in a burka in a doctor’s office may be repugnant to someone also sitting in that office, but the woman wearing the burka has as much right to wear the burka as the other woman in the office has the right to be repulsed by the practice. Again, the reaction to wearing a niqab is irrelevant to the right of the woman to wear the niqab, including when taking an oath of citizenship. A niqab-wearing Muslim woman may not be Harper’s type of Canadian, but hopefully all Canadians do not and will not conform to what Harper thinks is a right kind of Canadian but, rather, what the law determines.

Paikin offered another example posed by a commentator to Cliff’s Globe and Mail op-ed. She said that, at a citizenship oath ceremony, she had observed a man taking the oath of citizenship, shaking the judge’s hand and receiving a certificate but when his wife took the oath, he insisted that she could not shake the judge’s hand and the husband took the certificate on her behalf. Cliff insisted this was not ok. The reason was because, in this case, the man was interfering with the wife’s freedoms. Presumably, if she declined to shake hands with the judge and personally requested that her husband receive the certificate on her behalf, that would be ok. It is the interference with the right of the individual to make her own religious beliefs known that was evidently the problem.

Paikin asked whether some aspects of the Muslim religion were essentially intolerant, especially of other religious beliefs. Whether or not that was the case, Cliff replied, was not relevant since the person taking the oath vowed to subscribe to the laws of Canada that dictated respect for the religious beliefs of others. It was presumed that just as her avowal of her religious beliefs was sincere, so it must be presumed that her oath of Canadian citizenship must be presumed to be sincere. I will return to this issue, but as a segue into the next section it has to be noted that while Cliff defended the right of the woman to wear the niqab on charter grounds, these were not the grounds the federal court struck down the 11 December 2011 policy banning women from wearing a niqab at a citizenship oath ceremony.

The Legal Case

The case arose when Ms. Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani Muslim immigrant, following Hanafi beliefs that require devout Muslim women to wear a niqab in public, applied to have her citizenship ratified by taking an oath of allegiance to Canada. A permanent resident of Canada as of 25 October 2008, her citizenship was approved by a citizenship judge on 30 December 2013 after proper identification was made on 22 November 2013 (at which time she removed her niqab in front of a female immigration officer). Zunera Ishaq was granted citizenship on 2 January 2014. The citizenship ceremony to consummate the awarding of that citizenship was scheduled for 14 January 2014. However, for the citizenship to be consummated, she had to take an oath of allegiance to Canada before a citizenship judge. The citizenship oath that she was still required to take reads as follows:

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.

At the time she removed her veil for identity purposes, she was also advised that when taking the citizenship oath, she would also be required to remove her veil. She presumed that this also could take place in private in front of a female citizenship judge. However, she learned that Operational Bulletin 359 introduced by CIC on 12 December 2011 required removal of any face covering for the oath taking part of the citizenship public ceremony. As the CIC officials testified in court, prior to 12 December 2011 the judge only needed to be satisfied that people had taken the oath; after 12 December, the judge was required to witness the person taking the oath and not simply hear the oath, meaning that neither monks sworn to silence nor mutes could take the oath. More specifically,

[C]andidates wearing face coverings are required to remove their face coverings for the oath-taking portion of the ceremony.

However, the regulation went on:

“If they do not [take off the face covering], they will not receive their citizenship certificates and will have to attend a different ceremony. If they again do not comply, then their application for citizenship will be ended.”

The presumption was that this alternative ceremony would allow her to take off her niqab in private before a female citizenship judge. However, she was warned that this would not be the case. Further, all compromises proposed meant that she would be required to remove her veil before unrelated adult males. Both the initial and the alternative ceremonies were public. So Zunera Ishaq appealed to the Federal Appeal Court in accordance with the provisions of the Immigration Act. She did not wait to be ordered to remove her face covering but appealed the regulation in anticipation of this outcome.

The government would claim in court that this made the whole appeal moot since no action had been taken that either did or did not abuse her rights. I would argue it was a silly argument – since the issue is that you are affected by a regulation, and not whether you are affected in a very specific way. The government further claimed that the citizenship judge, as an independent official, might have disregarded the policy, but section 1 of the manual specifically says the regulations bind the judges. Both of these government responses to Zunera Ishaq’s claims were rightly ruled as invalid.

The issues were as follows:

  1. a declaration that the Policy infringes paragraph 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11 [Charter] [regarding respect for religious beliefs];
  2. a declaration that the Policy infringes section 15(1) of the Charter [prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and sex];
  3. a declaration that the Policy is inconsistent with the governing legislation and is therefore beyond the powers of the Respondent [what constitutes proof that she took the oath];
  4. a declaration that the Policy unduly fetters the discretion of citizenship judges [a contention under administrative law];
  5. an order enjoining the Respondent and any officials of the Respondent from refusing citizenship to the Applicant on the basis of the Bulletin; and
  6. her costs.

In this case, there were technical issues as well as constitutional ones at stake concerning dates of notice and to whom notice was to be given, but we can ignore these for they had no effect on the substantive case and were ruled as inapplicable. Further, the above-mentioned CIC regulation was not

promulgated under sections 27(g) and 27(h) of the Act, which permit the Governor in Council to make regulations “(g) prescribing the ceremonial procedures to be followed by citizenship judges” and “(h) respecting the taking of the oath of citizenship.”

The intention of the policy was that it be mandatory. On that ground, and on that ground alone, the court found the position of the government to be inconsistent with the legislation and invalid.

Tomorrow: The Deeper Issue – Potentially Conflicting Oaths

Canadian cynicism

Canadian cynicism


Howard Adelman

I slept in until 7:15 a.m. Friday morning. Writing a blog after 9:00 a.m., I have decided, is, for me, cruel and unusual punishment. I ought to never again inflict it upon myself. The phone calls, the interruptions, the need to attend to service men and my insurance agent – let alone my lovely wife. It drives you crazy. So why was I so cruel to myself Friday morning? I started the blog and never got even one-third through. This blog may explain why.

On the occasion of Shira Herzog’s tribute evening on Thursday evening, a reader of my blog greeted me and asked me to “lighten up already. War, war and more war – it’s depressing.” So today I will try – at least a little – to lighten up. A warning first. When I wrote my final exams in high school, the English composition exam assigned a piece of creative writing for half the marks. I wrote what I thought was a very funny story. I received a mark of sixty overall. My answers to grammar questions were worth half the mark. Though I do not speak with correct grammar and often do not write according to the rules, I do know the rules and usually received perfect, or close to perfect, marks in grammar tests. As a result, I figured I only received ten out of a possible fifty marks on the creative portion of the exam. Someone clearly did not like my sense of humour. Hence the warning! Also the promise – I will refer to comedians but I will not try to be one. And a second warning. Be cynical. Don’t believe me. I am as incapable as Stephen Harper of lightening up.

Many comedians, and perhaps most of the very famous ones, are contemporary cynics. They look at the follies in the world and, by satirizing behaviour, believe they play a role in correcting much of the nonsense they observe so acutely. Therefore, cynics do not have to be absolutely wedded to a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps they are only pessimistic about those who seek and achieve power. They still may believe in their own powers of amelioration even when they deliberately choose to be outsiders to the power system. Cynicism is central to great satire, but mindblindness may also be at the core of satire, for irony and satire only work if the satirist is unaware of the contradiction between his belief in the effectiveness of his or her comic talents to question and reveal what is wrong with the world and his usually accompanying belief that any assumption of power corrupts.

Much of contemporary comedy, however, is not merely cynical; it is often cruel. Joan Rivers, who recently died, was a partisan not only of the comedy of vulgarity and put-downs, but the comedy of cruelty at its core. In a performance in March of 2011 in Wisconsin, she was on stage and said, “I hate children. The only child I would have ever loved was Helen Keller. She didn’t talk.” A heckler, who had a deaf son, interrupted her, and, in evident protection of civility and sensitivity, as well as his own feelings about what was appropriate to joke about concerning his own child – but, using heckling to make his point, in contradiction to his own position — yelled out: “That’s not funny.” Joan immediately responded with a combination of a string of invectives – “Stupid”, “Idiot,” “Stupid son-on-of-a-bitch,” “Asshole,” and referenced her mother’s deafness and her husband’s loss of his leg about which she had a whole comic routine. She then immediately slipped into a sketch asking, “How do you find Osama bin Laden.” Her answer: “There is only one plug in all of Afghanistan. Follow the cord…” as she re-enacted with her body the quest. She, of course, brought the house down.

The introduction to the sketch above, as a response to a roast evening of herself, was an observation about another comic whom Joan described as a self-pitying woman on the Howard Stern show, “shrying” that, “My father molested me. My father molested me.” Joan Rivers responded: “Take a look at yourself, honey. You should be happy he paid any attention to you at all.” Joan continued: “I saw you backstage naked. You looked like a fucking mudslide.” She told one of the other comics, “You took a shit last week and Rock Hudson came out.” To a Jewish comic she claimed he had debased himself by defiling the evening with vulgarity. “You made me a Jew-hater. You know what I am going to do now? I am going to Malibu and give Mel Gibson a blow job.”

The comedy of cruelty has no boundaries. You may be powerful. You may be absolutely unfortunate. There is no proportionality and no laws of discrimination. Everyone can be and must be a butt of a joke. As great Irish (as well as Newfie) comedy reveals, the misfortunate have often been the best masters of the comedy of cruelty as their appalling stories told with a straight face reveal that laughing at the misfortunes of others allows misfortune to become a common bond. One need only watch Martin McDonagh’s comedy, The Cripple of Inishman or John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

The Torah even has one of the great satires of all time, at once a tall fish tale and a satire at God’s enormous power and at His expense. The greatest part of the satire is that it is included as a sacred text. Further, Jonah is read on the most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur. And, to think, the vast majority of Jews with their great, and often cynical, sense of humour, most often aimed at themselves, take the book of Jonah so seriously they do not get the joke.

All cultures have their satirical streams. Early English literature is certainly replete with satire. One only has to read Chaucer to savour its scatological richness and its ability to scoff at platitudes, unveil hidden presumptions and motivations, and point out the bizarre and contradictory, if sometimes unintended, consequences of our actions. But this is not the comedy of cruelty as we have experienced it since the end of WWI.

For the essence of contemporary comedy is cruelty. The comedy of cruelty is no longer a humorous dissection of illogic and contradiction, but is, as Joan Rivers exemplified, a form of discourse that eschews argument in favour of invective, that tolerates NO argument and no half-measures in its search for the more extreme and the more shocking. The comedy of cruelty is the North American successor to pre-WWII surrealism and its negation without limitation where dream and reality become one and boundaries are dissolved. There just is no independent reality in this worship of subjectivity.

The comedy of cruelty is not subtle and despises gradualism, wit that builds a case by minor step-by-step shifts. That is, as Joan Rivers clearly stated, because the comedy of cruelty requires keeping control of your audience. That comedy is, at its essence, an exhibition of control. Comedy is Spiderman with the broad smile of Batman’s The Joker with the real power of a tarantula who works by stinging and paralyzing his victim after weaving a web of entrapment. The comedy of cruelty is not intended just to satirize power and those in power, but is egalitarian, for it regards all humans as power seekers who need to be ridiculed and laughed at. Contemporary inhumane cynicism stands in stark contrast to the altruism and humane Cynics of the classical world who valued “the natural” and “the natural” that became the ethical.

What does all this have to do with Stephen Harper’s Canada and with Stephen Harper himself? He is not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. It is because the comedy of cruelty is the mirror reflection of those contemporaries who strive for and achieve power, but the corners of the mouths of those who have real power are turned down while the corners of the mouths of our comics are turned up to hide and disguise their core of cruelty. “Say it like it is” and “Say whatever you like without any inhibitions” is supposedly the highest expression of human freedom standing in total opposition to those in power who want to limit and control discourse. But that is only the appearance. The comedy of cruelty is the inverse mirror of a politics that insists upon controlling the message and expressing politics as control. In the politics of control, all political activity is reduced to an individual materialist striving, awarding those who maximize profits the highest pinnacle of reverence in order to deliver power to the few who ostensibly recognize and esteem this ideal when their own vision is not the acquisition of wealth ad infinitum but the acquisition and retention of power.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was a story on a former Finance Minister from Nova Scotia, Graham Steele, who had just written a new book, What I Learned About Politics. Steele was a Rhodes scholar who chose to go into politics with a view to changing the world for the better. He did it as a member of the NDP, which may explain why The Globe saw it as worthy of a front section news story instead of a review in the more specialist and less widely read Arts section. He resigned office when Darrell Dexter, the premier of the province at the time when he was Finance Minister, made a deal with health workers without consulting either him or the caucus. His view of politics, according to the story (I have not read the book), is that public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected. Further, he contended that there was no real difference whether you sat on one side of the house or the other since no legislator deals with the real issues. For him, the contemporary political culture of cynicism is deep, tenacious and pervasive.

In his section on “Rules of the Game,” the first and number one rule is do what you have to do to get re-elected. Since there are no electors in the legislature, spend as little time there as possible; for policy debates are for losers. A second rule, of which Stephen Harper is a past master and Rob Ford was but a buffoonish imitation, is “Keep it simple”. The electorate is too preoccupied and distracted, so communicate with them with slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures and images. “Find whatever works, then repeat it endlessly.” There is no necessity for any slogan to have even the slightest truth value.  Another rule is seek to get credit and seek even harder to avoid blame. Politics is the art of covering your ass. And the final of his ten rules is deny that any of the above are the rules of the game.

I have not read a better summation of contemporary cynicism. It could be and should be funny if it were not so destructive. I was in Ottawa this past week meeting with top governmental officials about implementing a new humanitarian policy, a policy proposal a few of us had written and that the officials had read, absorbed and even reconfigured. In a lunch beforehand of the three authors of the proposal, we asked each other what was the best we could expect. “That they would say that they would implement the proposal.”

They did more than did that. They were much more ambitious. They thought the proposal should be expanded. Further, they had taken its core of business/NGO partnerships in the local community and converted it from a grass roots into a business elite proposal in a program that highlighted “badges of honour” and “branding of businesses” as exemplifications of humanitarianism to enable those businesses to maximize their profits while undertaking a humanitarian mission. What is even more astounding is that we walked away enormously pleased with ourselves because: a) they heard and listened to our criticism of the differences; b) and we were overjoyed at our success.  For all of this is to be done by a government that has squeezed the independent information and knowledge foundation out of our mandarins by closing its libraries and department think tanks, a political regime that has not permitted mandarins to make independent decisions of any significance, and forced them to avoid areas that are politically sensitive. Whereas a decade ago, mandarins were entitled to make policy decisions that were not overarching, today ALL policies, big and small, all budget changes, big and small, have to be processed at the highest political level. The real rationale is to inculcate into the mandarin culture that they are merely the servants of the political class in power and serve that power and not the people of Canada.

We should have cried rather than congratulated ourselves when we left the offices where we had our two meetings. Public servants have been reduced to political servants. How humiliating for such a talented groups of people to have to spend time figuring out how to be devious in order to be innovative. Machiavellianism in its worst sense now permeates the civil service. How impoverishing! How immobilizing to decision-making! The government in power has put a stopper on innovation in the public sector to prove its own mantra that innovation is a virtue of the private sector. So creativity grounds to a stop in the micromanagement of the delivery of public goods and services. It should be no surprise, as an Environics poll showed in June, that trust in the federal government to do a good job has declined by 13% since 2002, from almost half the population to 36%, much lower than the decline in faith in the abilities of either provincial or municipal governments.

Do not get me wrong. I favour business-humanitarian partnerships. But I do not favour confusing and even identifying the two as one and the same. Further, I definitely object to the evisceration of the mandarin class in Ottawa and resent even more the hoops and twists that intellectuals have to go through who work with and try to influence the mandarins and politicians, with excisions and modifications of proposals just to converse with those in power and, worst of all, then congratulate ourselves that our public servants have listened to us at all after we have taken out all the parts that might elicit a negative response.

The Harper government is not like Preston Manning’s vision of a smaller government sensitive and responsive to the words, feelings and thoughts of its citizens. It is a government with a vision of controlling those words, feelings and thoughts, not primarily by draconian measures, but by its deafness. As in Joan River’s comedy, they have made deafness both the butt of the joke and the exemplification of its most essential characteristic. And it is done straight-faced without cracking a smile.

The long form census that is needed to produce the knowledge on which policy could be based was eliminated. So the government has deliberately blinded itself without the excuse of Oedipus that he had unknowingly had sex with his own mother. Decisions which should take two days, take two months. And decisions which should take two months, take six months and a year if they are ever made at all. It is a government in control of discourse that cannot control action and implementation. On its core platform and supposed strength, its strong belief that the primary purpose of the state is to protect its citizens from external threats, the government has been exemplary in its rhetoric and totally porous in its incapacity to deliver.

In July 2007, over seven years ago, based on Conservative policies first unveiled in 2005 in the Conservative Party’s Canada First Plan for Arctic Defence, the Harper government released its defence policy. The government planned to procure six to eight Arctic patrol ships to demonstrate as a state that Canada controls its Arctic waters and the government’s supposed belief in sovereign enforcement. What has the government done? It is engaged in symbolism and indulging Harper’s misuse of and sentimental view of history. The government has found one of the ships from the nineteenth century Franklin expedition. The Harper government has demonstrated it can find sunken ships while, symbolically, it reveals it has a mindset more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century, but its citizens still cannot get a glimpse of those six to eight Arctic patrol boats that were promised so many years ago to be operational by 2010, a date revised and then re-revised promising delivery this year, but which we may not see in 2016 or 2018. And when they appear out of the mists of promises and re-promises, as a report critical of the procurement demonstrated, the ships will lack the speed, strength, stamina or scale to cover the territory assigned and will be unable to deliver any effective defence.

What about the deep-water docking facilities on Baffin Island in Nunavut for these ships that have been lost in the Arctic fog? These have not sunken without a trace, but the existing wharf in Iqaluit in Nunavut, which could allow the new ghost ships to dock, has already sunk two meters since it was built and the government has been unable to find a way to stop the sinking without sinking more funds in the effort to have an Arctic defence port.

Why does the Harper government not form an expedition to locate deep–water docking facilities and the ships to dock at them? And what about the proposed “Arctic National Sensor System”?  One can go on and on – about our attempt to acquire fighter aircraft to replace our aging F-18s, an effort the Harper government muffed even more than the Liberals, but which, ironically, may be of some benefit as drone warfare gradually displaces the role of fighter aircraft except in close air support to ground troops, except that the government persists and has re-launched an effort once again to procure the aircraft.

The defence budget for 2014-15 is only $18.2 billion dollars, down in absolute dollars 15% from 2009-10 and 30% in constant dollars. In the face of increasing threats in the Middle East, on the eastern borders of the Ukraine, Harper can be a loudmouth, as Joan Rivers was, on defence policy, but in reducing defence spending to only 1% of GDP instead of a targeted 2% and the 1.3% we spent in 2009, the government continually displays its incapacity to put its boots on the ground where its mouth is. It is a government of words, not of action.

None of this takes into account what the government takes back on the exit side. For, according to a 2013 study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Department of National Defence, the Harper government since 2006 has returned $9.6 billion dollars it has been unable to spend because this is a government incapable of making timely and expeditious decisions. The reality today – Canada is unable to mount a sustained deployment of troops and all it can do in Iraq is send a few advisers so no one need worry that we will have significant troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

I am not talking about cuts to the Arts, Culture and Research programs at universities or within government. I am not talking about the excision of the Rights and Democracy Institute in Montreal or to Kairos as a humanitarian agency. I am writing about programs supposedly at the core of the Tory agenda, The reality is, and exactly contrary to its discourse, Harper’s government is not a conservative government; it is a demolition government.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s ninety-fifties self-indulgent roman-à-clef, The Mandarins, she depicts the role that she and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Jean Genet played in trying to forge the intellectual foundations of post-war post-Vichy France in the shadow of Hegel’s great misinterpreter, Alexandre Kojève. The latter gave that French intellectual generation its theoretical foundation by displacing Jean Wahl’s focus on the unhappy consciousness in Hegel, the point of view of the comic of cruelty as pure negativity, a vanishing particular who will fight to the very end to celebrate finite and transitory existence without meaning in a world in which God has forsaken humanity altogether. In Jean Wahl, the unhappy consciousness was viewed as the highest achievement of persons who have no sense of historical development. When man truly recognizes his nothingness, he can be raised up to the higher levels of deformed Reason and reformed Spirit as the core of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Kojève insisted instead that the political structures had to be totally rebuilt. With his shift to and emphasis on Lordship and Bondage as the core turning point of Hegel’s great classic, he propounded his misbegotten version that the section was primarily about Masters and Slaves, about those who wielded external power and control over others. The French thinkers à la Marx began to view the structure of society as reflected in individual thought rather than the quest for spiritual freedom in individual thought itself as the source of the problem with the structure of society.

So Arthur Koestler (see David Caesarani’s book on Koestler The Homeless Mind) is represented in de Beauvoir’s book as a fossilized classical Cynic. Nelson Alger (Lewis Brogan in her book), the Chicago writer and love of her life – Sartre was more a matter of  idol worship than a true lover – becomes the romantic ideal that has to be bracketed and sacrificed for her career. Albert Camus, the only really likeable character in Simone de Beauvoir’s volume, is portrayed as a person, not of moral purity concerned with acute personal decision-making, but as an individual who lies about the lead actress in his play (presumably Caligula), either to save the career of the actress or to save the production, or both, we are not sure.

Controlling the message is at the heart of the book and was at the heart of Sartre’s reverence for Stalin implied in his play, Les Mouches, and de Beauvoir’s 1947 ruminations in Pour une morale de l’ambiguité on the necessity and utility of using violence presumably to achieve the freedom which that violence inherently denied. For history, as they all believed, was a slaughter bench upon which the freedom of individuals as well as the happiness of peoples are sacrificed. In de Beauvoir, as in Sartre, freedom is reduced to the proposition that, in the end, each of us is fundamentally alone and singular and there is no self integrally related to community. Perhaps that is why Simone de Beauvoir is rarely if ever seen with a smile on her face in most of her photographs.

Given her portrait of the intellectual mandarin class as the kissing cousins of the civil service and of contemporary Canadian politicians now in power, it should be no surprise that France, since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power, has produced such an impoverished series of leaders, especially in the last forty years since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from the centre-right and François Mitterrand, the fascist posing as a socialist, came to power, only to be succeeded by the three stooges, each more comical than the previous one — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and, the most hilarious of all, François Hollande.

The problem is ubiquitous. In Israel, the Netanyahu government tries to equate Hamas with ISIS, but, as Ha’aretz noted this morning, the Prime Minister of Israel comes off as a used car salesman. The impression is particularly sharpened when a long list of Israeli elite intel unit veterans this past week denounced the use of that intel to persecute innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I formerly saw Obama as one of my few heroes. It was hard to listen to his message, full of superb rhetoric, to Americans this past week. If Netanyahu (as well as Harper) is to Obama a used-car salesman, Obama increasingly comes across as a carnival barker without any real bite.

So I am not suggesting that the Stephen Harper government’s cynicism is unique or extraordinary. It is only special in its grimness for it allows none of the comic relief of the Rob Ford farcical attempt at governance. I believe the Mandarin intellectual class of France that reached such stellar heights in the post-WWII period and spread their message of post-war disillusion to their successors and to the rest of the world, has served as an intellectual Ebola virus that now permeates all governing classes and those who try to influence public policy. Unfortunately, I recognize now how infected I am. I now comprehend the meaning of a question I avoided for years, the one Iris Murdoch asked in the philosophical journal, Mind, a long time ago, “How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?”

In the contemporary world, we are condemned to walk around with intellectual oxygen breathing machines. If I were truly an idealist and a visionary, I would be able to communicate how you can choose optimism over despair, faith in peace against the reality of the incompatibility of the warring or even peaceful belligerents, to love humanity as my friend Sister Jo Leddy manages to do in the face of terrorism and the inhumanity of man especially to women. Further, if I were a contemporary cynic, I would have been able to make this blog funny.

My apologies, but only after you have read my older blog on apologetics.

Rob Ford’s Populism Compared

Bob Ford’s Populism Compared


Howard Adelman



I have previously written on Bob Ford by asking whether he was a maggot and examining the question of stupidity. (See attached.) I now want to probe his populism. My informant on Bob Ford has been David Ryder. David was the bureau chief for the Toronto Star covering TorontoCity Hall and, more specifically, was the point man leading the paper’s coverage of the Mayor Rob Ford administration. He is the St. Clair Balfour Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year. What I learned from David was that Bob Ford is a very hard working municipal politician dedicated to hearing the complaints of the city’s residents and getting something done about it. He has a solid base constituency of supporters comprising anywhere from 20-30% of the voters.

Bob Ford’s Approval

His supporters applaud him for stopping the gravy train and have determined that the press picks on him to degrade his image when his major accomplishment is being the cost cowboy at City Hall. The “stop the waste” mantra has been accepted even if the demonstration of waste has been marginal. He is also seen as personable, approachable, a regular down to earth guy, charming in his own way with the passions and shortcomings of the average man. He is definitely not viewed as a wealthy plutocrat.

He is clearly not a strategic thinker and operates by the seat of his pants, clinging to his short list of slogans. Unfriendly to bikers, walkers and even public transit in spite of his cheerleading for subways, he lives in the twentieth century suburban worship of the freedom of cars and their priority rather than in the twenty-first century move towards much greater investment in infrastructure, particularly mass transit. He is not a fan of mandarins or of expertise and sees civil servants as simply implementers to satisfy people’s every day needs – hence his tromping around with city officials in tow in response to taxpayers’ complaints to get potholes and sidewalks fixed. He is unable to present a long term strategic vision for the city or articulate core values whether it be a caring metropolis or an innovative one, or to understand how arts and culture as well as sports make a city liveable. One can be certain that he has never read the late Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of American Great Cities that had such an impact on thinkers and planners from this former American who settled in Toronto in the late sixties. Instead, he is tied to immediate gratification – excellence in service, cost savings, cleanliness – all very positive values but not helpful to the stuff that visions and strategic plans and tough choices and cost allocations require.

Bob Ford is a gut-driven populist where his knowledge and political street sense comes from his very large gut. He is courageous and bold – indeed so courageous and bold that he becomes rash and pushes ahead on schemes without thinking them through. In that sense he connects with the everyday ordinary citizen who has to get by with whatever wit and wisdom he or she picks up without long spells spent on deliberation, winnowing down choices in a process of deliberative reasoning based on gathering the best available evidence to inform judgment. He may be a conservative but he is certainly no Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, or even a calculating cerebral populist like Stephen Harper.

Bob Ford Compared to Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper

What cerebral populists like Harper, sentimental populists like Pauline Marois and gut populists like Bob Ford have in common was very cleverly demarcated when Chantel Hébert in yesterday’s Toronto Star (21 September, A8, “PQ takes leaf out of Stephen Harper book”) opined that the PQ on the Québec Charter of Values was borrowing from Stephen Harper’s political recipe book. The common elements include:

1. Addressing very concrete problems in terms of abstractions and slogans:

·         Getting the government off the backs of the taxpayer

·         The obligation of government to be neutral

·         Getting rid of waste

2. Smudging the thin red line between politics and governance so that virtually all governance becomes politics:

  • The template of take no-prisoner governance becomes the mantra of governance
  • You are either a supporter of the Quebecois nation or a treasonous dissident
  • You either go along with me or you are my enemy

3. Political warfare against mandarins, even ones they appoint or even in their own office, who disagree with the party line while running the line that they are encouraging debate

  • Insisting that top civil servants are simply instruments of the governing party and punishing those, even if Conservative appointees, who dare to criticize – such as Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, and letting Nigel Wright carry the ball for the Duffy Senate scandal
  • Appointment of four new pro-Charter women to Quebec’s Council on the Status of Women to ensure that Council came out in support of the Charter
  • Appointment of a clearly incompetent and intemperate Dave Price and firing Mark Towney, his Chief of Staff, in May, not for anything he did but allegedly for offering advice Bob Ford did not like

4. Policies that smack of wedge politics to win a broader base of support rather than advance the interests of the city, province or country

  • The increase in lengths of incarceration for convicted criminals in blatant disregard to both costs, the lack of evidence for the need or the negative effects on both society and the incarcerated individuals
  • The Quebec Charter of Values sent to every household at public expense
  • Subways, Subways, Subways but no effort to even figure out how to pay for them

5. The war on evidence-based policy making

  • The muzzling of scientists
  • The absence of any evidence of how many civil servants wear ostentatious religious symbols, whether a single citizen was offended or treated in biased way  or even whether the citizen’s belief in the neutrality of the civil servant diminished
  • The wild improvised plan for Cherry Beach

6.  Indifference to the Rule of Law Combined with a Law and Order Agenda

  • The Senate scandal
  • The legal advice from provincial government constitutional experts that key sections of the Charter of Values would run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • Too many incidents to list, including Bob Ford’s refusal to abide by the legal advice that he should not vote on a matter concerning his solicitation and use of funds to support his football team

7. The Extensive Use of Government Monies to Promote Political Agendas

  • The Federal campaign of up to $16.5 million for advertising to promote oil, gas and pipeline companies as well as other Canadian natural resources
  • The Provincial Government costs for promoting the Charter of Values
  • Bob Ford’s launch of his election campaign before the official January start date through sponsoring a number of events, including doubling his annual backyard barbecue now held in two city parks

8. The downgrading of the use of legislatures and councils for passing policies

  • If the federal legislation appears obstructionist to any agenda, Harper prorogues Parliament
  • The PQ went directly to the people with their Charter before it was even introduced into the House and put forth for debate
  • Bob Ford lost control of Council long ago and does whatever political mischief he can do outside the boundaries of Council

9. The Paradox of Secrecy for Such Ostensible Accountable Politicians

  • Harper is a very private and secret person while having been on record since his start in politics his belief in responding to the will of the people through referenda and recall procedures
  • Pauline Marois is totally opaque about the rationale for the Charter, so one cannot help thinking that behind it there are purely political motives
  • Bob Ford seems to be spread out before the people and is totally accessible to them while clearly having some type of underground life related to his probable addictions that leads him also to flee journalists

10. Extreme and deep-seated political partisanship

  • This is very well known of Stephen Harper and extends to members of his own party who cross him even when it is clearly an expression of the integrity of the Other, such as Tom Flanagan, his top political adviser, when Tom as an academic wrote a book about Harper and the Conservatives, and Brent Rathgeber who was forced to resign from the Conservative caucus when he insisted that his private member’s bill be given real consideration and debated
  • While saying they encourage debate, the Bloc fired Maria Mourani from its caucus when she offered a stinging criticism of the Charter of Values 
  • Bob Ford lets his city hall staffers go if they dare to cross him or question him

11. Control Freaks unable to Keep Control of the Political Agenda

  • Stephen Harper has been the exemplary control freak, insisting that MPs stay on message while ostensibly supporting open discussion and debate but he has lost control
  • Pauline Marois thought she was controlling the political agenda by introducing the Charter of Values but only two weeks into the debate it is clear that she has lost control
  • Bob Ford quickly revealed his desire to control the political agenda without discussion but quickly proved himself incapable

12. The Paradox of Personal Integrity

  • While in many countries populism is simply a cover for private corruption and unaccountability, in the case of all three levels of the government in Canada, the various expressions of different type of populism exhibit great personal integrity when it comes to personal expenditures but little integrity when it comes to a political agenda

Populism and Democracy

In the three jurisdictions where populism rather than representative democracy has become the defining benchmark, they are found in three different versions:

1) the cerebral populism of the Stephen Harper government;

2) the sentimental heartfelt populism of the Marois government;

3) the gut-led populism of Mayor Bob Ford mayor in Toronto.

But first a bit of theory. The French philosopher, Pierre Manent, a mentor of Brain Bidard, is my guide in this regard, although my interpretations of the three dimensions of populism in Canada are strictly my own. Manent made the point that democracy in Europe has become post-democratic, a jurisdiction of abstract rights divorced from its roots in history and the social contract upon which a state was founded, its national passions and sentiments. Modern liberalism does begin with the concept of the individual and rights, but it also begins with the separation of politics from religion – in secularism or what the French call their anti-theological secular religion, laicité.  For Manent, that separation is also at the root of the inability of the modern, morally neutral state to successfully dedicate itself to serving a higher moral purpose, whether that be the abstract “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine or the concrete challenge to end the mass killings of ordinary Syrians by the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas.

In Democracy without nations: The fate of self-government in Europe, Manent pointed to religion as the central element in the development of liberalism. That casting aside of one’s Christian heritage has become very widespread except, to some degree, in America. Let me give one very mundane trivial example from my own experience. When I began to teach at York University almost half a century ago, we had a meeting about developing a course on the history of modern political thought. There were five of us on the curriculum planning of this general education humanities course. I wanted to include six hours of the 78 hours of lectures on the history of Christianity, three on the role of Christianity in the roots of the development of modern political thought and three on its shifting role in the pattern that emerged. One faculty member on the committee was distinctly neutral about the idea. The other three were ardently opposed. As it happens, those three were all trained in the Christian ministry and one was a former bishop in the Anglican church. They remained committed Christians. All three were highly moral individuals. In a deep belief in the separation of church and state, they insisted that Christianity could not be taught as part of the course because it risked providing an opportunity for proselytizing. Modern history was an intellectual history in which religion had been confined to the private sphere; they argued against the futile counter-arguments of the one Jew on the committee.

Unfortunately or fortunately, it is just not true that religion has been successfully put under house arrest, though that effort has been part of the trajectory of modernism. The concept of individual responsibility and rights begins in Christianity. The concept of a community to which one is responsible and for which one is responsible and accountable remains part of modern discourse. Only it has been emptied of its meaning. Instead, we have replaced it with the idolatry of the people, an amorphous polity to which unscrupulous politicians can appeal when they want to escape responsibility for their own actions and cite a higher source without any connection to God. It is called populism.

In Manent’s analysis, democracy is only possible when it is rooted in the nation. Liberals who forget this create a vacuum that leaves a wide gap for an appeal to populist manipulation, sentiment and gut responses. Liberalism forgot its roots in nationalism and set out on a pursuit as mad as the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The worship of cosmopolitanism abstracted from the state became its mission. (See Howard Adelman, “The Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect: A Failed Expression of Cosmopolitanism,” in W. Kymlicka (2013) Rooted Cosmopolitanism: Canada and the World, UBC Press)

Democracy requires liberty. Democracy requires equality, not just an equality of rights but a quest for greater equality of outcomes, particularly in areas where the management of risk is crucial to preventing individuals suffering in ways unrelated to their talents and efforts. And democracy needs roots. It must be based in the history of a nation, not because those national roots are found to have been rooted in values beyond question, but precisely because, mixed up with individualism and equality, were other values that sabotaged individualism and equality. Each nation must know and understand the roots of its own national calculations, sentiments and driving forces both for evil and for good and celebrate the process of national overcoming and transformation rather than presuming that new inputs pose a danger or that subsequent developments – such as the vision of the state as the neutral adjudicator and administrator divorced from those roots – can offer a standard divorced from those roots. The whole of modern history and the efforts to effect such divorces yields, not democracy, but anti-democratic propensities and, in the extreme, authoritarianism.

The reality is that equality and liberty and fairness and justice in the management of risk require roots and require a sovereign state connected to those roots to defend and uphold those values. Neither the neo-liberal or neo-conservative tendencies, which are neither liberal nor conservative, to deprecate the state and minimize its role, nor the neo-Marxist and neo socialist efforts to exalt the bureaucracy of the state and turn that bureaucracy into arbiters of core values, recognizes the character of responsible government and the fundamental successful core values of a liberal democratic state rooted in its sense of the nation without idolizing either the nation or the state. These trends have forgotten the religious injunctions against idolatry 

We need institutions that protect liberty, equality, justice and the management of risk. We need a mandarin class employed by the state dedicated to those principles. We need to have that state supported by a respect for, indeed love of, common values which unite us as a nation. But these common values are not threatened by modes of dress or adornment whether associated with religion or with the Hells Angels. They are threatened when those values, because of the particular history of a nation, are viewed as antithetical to the religious roots of liberty, equality and social justice and the principle of fairness in managing risk. All religions are made to suffer in failing to recognize that the anti-movements – whether against the sovereign state (the neo-cons), against the nation (the cosmopolitan liberals) or against the very religious roots from which these values emerged – separatist opportunistic nationalists.

Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit in the section on Reason exposed reason as an irrational force when divorced from its spiritual roots and when reason became obsessed with appearances as the explanation for underlying tensions and problems instead of noting the way common sense deals with those problems. The focus on appearances and symbolic politics blinds us to those problems. Small “l” liberals who engage in this battle form the high ground of cosmopolitanism lose their foothold in dealing with the wave of passions and zealotry released by these idolotrous appeals and are in no position to combat them for they refuse to root their beliefs in the real trajectory of that nation, to understand and appreciate that trajectory and to recognize that without those roots and that pattern, the values which we esteem would and could not have been sustained.

Pierre Manent was correct in stressing the nation as the only viable form of a political community and its critical importance in remaining married to the institution of the modern sovereign state.  Pierre Manent has been correct to warn us that the efforts of Krojeve to build a post-Maastrcht Europe based on a neo-Marxist cosmopolitan mis-reading of Hegel and the efforts of the neo-cons to create a new Rome based in America that can be the imperial leader of the new world. These are mad delusions and a betrayal of the democratic roots of both regions. Canada with its head in France and the worship of laicité as well as possessing a contradictory love for a Kojeviam cosmopolitanism on an international scale and a belief that mandarins can be the state instead of servants of the nation through the state, has a propensity to forget where its feet are – in the ground and territory of Canada with a unique history and its own complex set of demands. When efforts are made to displace and replace – note the stress on displace and replace – democratic governments rooted in the nation and the sovereign state with governing structures abstracted from those roots in regional bodies – most successfully in Europe – or international bodies as with the efforts of Canadian pre-Harper Liberal and Tory governments – then we get rhetorical gestures and empty abstractions without political calculation, emotional attachments or the guts to put one’s body on the line to sacrifice for those values.

To accept religion as the roots of the modern nation-state does not mean jettisoning the state and the nation in service to a mediaeval religious vision as in Iran or in the vision of Al Qaeda. Rather, it means remembering and keeping in touch with those religious roots even as the nation and the state become the main outlets and expression of those religious origins. Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – or its mirror opposite, secularism turned into a religious quest without roots – are the twin notorious dangers to the nation and the state and their marriage as the foundation stones for the democratic values of liberty, equality and fairness as social justice dealing with the management of risk. We require a passionate attachment to our histories. We require political structures to ensure that liberty, equality and social justice are pursued with vigour and with enterprise. And we require a recognition that populism is not democratic but is a multi-faceted threat to what democracy is and can truly be.

Democracies must recognize that power comes from the people. Democracies must recognize that that power has been vested in governmental institutions and representatives who have the responsibility to interpret what the nation needs and how the state can serve those aspirations. But democracy does not mean appealing to that power as if the state is not there and as if those institutions as forged over time do not matter. They are there to protect us from the very power that is the source of our strength but also the source of destructive behaviour. Democracy is both the demos, the people, and kratos, the strength and power that comes from the people. But modern democracy is built on the notion that the sovereign nation through the representatives of the people acting through a constituted legislative assembly enacts the laws on behalf of and for the people. Modern democracy is representative not populist.

Harper’s Cerebral Populism

One form of populism is cerebral. Stephen Harper was a Reformer dedicated to bringing a “purer” sense of democracy to Parliament Hill. Beware of politicians who stand on the mount of purity. The mantra was referenda and plebiscites, recall rather than responsible representation, a Tripe-E Senate – elected, equal and effective – that became more than ever a receptacle for patronage appointments to strengthen the neo-con ideology, limited government. But most of all, government was about the exercise of power, not to enhance liberty, equality and social justice as was the goals of the Red Tories, but to enhance discipline and control. The Conservatives alienated the separatists because of the underling contradiction between the neo-con ideology and that of the sovereigntists. The Harper government is in the process of alienating the 905 Tories because the belief in traditional values have proven to be a shill game sacrificed to preserve control as the state became more and more dedicated to preserving Harper in power rather than serving the nation. That government is even on the brink of alienating the Alberta nation rooted in the wealth produced by the Tar Sands because their champion is unable to engineer the pipelines needed to ship that bitumen to ports in BC for destination in Asia, or across the border to the United States still eager to consume fossil fuels. The government may be successful in getting that dirty oil to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick.

The worst part is not the failures but the betrayal as the government spends millions flouting its successful championing of free enterprise as it fails to deliver a major free trade pact or an oil pipeline dedicated to international trade and as it was forced to retreat to the battlefield of cowards as it began to defend ordinary people with their own money against the predations of communication companies, airlines and banks. Even the defence of neo-con free enterprise core values would be sacrificed to championing populism if that was the calculation that staying in power required. In this case, the power vested in the state by the nation was not being used to distribute risk and enshrine fairness and foster equality, but for a misguided ideological definition of entrepreneurial enterprise.

Marois’ Sentimental Populism

Then there is the sentimental populism of Pauline Marois with its war on “ostentatious’ religious symbols that emerges as an assault on religious rights and freedoms. Its selective application to include “small” crosses hung around the neck or the big cross hanging in the national assembly since the time of Maurice Duplessis is revealing.  The exceptions betray the bias of that secularism. Secularism as a truly visionary enterprise allows everyone to practice their own faith while defending liberty and equality of opportunity. The Bouchard-Taylor Report concluded that this was indeed the overwhelming practice of Quebecers and the so-called clash of cultures that occurred were mostly stirred up by the media and political agitators.

Secularism is simply an ideological construct built on the lie that it is dedicated to preserving core values when it is, in fact, a betrayal of those core values which built democracy on the back of religion even as it rejected religion’s authoritarian propensities. Democracy is the respect for differences not the abolition of differences as the face of the state.

The key question of modernity is how to preserve the classical republican respect for public speech and mutual regard—what Hegel called “recognition” – in contemporary institutional forms that are also sensitive to the communal roots of a particular society.  In the Scottish liberal tradition, Adam Ferguson envisioned the adjudication of conflicts through political state institutions that set a primary value on social and political pluralism. (Cf. Andreas Kalynos and Ira Katznelson (2008) Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns, Cambridge University Press where they tried to show how civic republicans set the stage for the development of representative democracy that put a positive value of pluralism.) In the modern period, republic traditions espousing a common good required state institutional mechanisms, an educated and informed civil service that could defend liberalism and the emphasis on liberty, equality and fairness in dealing with differences while remaining sensitive to a particular history and social context. Representative and responsible government, not populist and ideological appeals, are the answer. The liberal idea of rights and the conservative idea of the importance of the rule of law, respect for the mandarin tradition but suspicious of the unboundaried growth of bureaucracy, genuinely suspicious of interest politics but also recognizing that the bashing of the state undermined the whole enterprise, aspiring towards service of the public good but also rooted in context and history – these are the benchmarks of representative and responsible government.