Canadian Jewry Mobilizes Behind National Unity and Reform

Canadian Jews have mobilized to support the ongoing efforts to reform their country’s constitution and salvage ties with French-speaking Quebec, home to one of Canada’s oldest and most viable Jewish communities.

Under the auspices of its National Unity Committee, the Canadian Jewish Congress has become a vocal supporter of a proposed constitutional accord that would safeguard federalism. B’nai Brith Canada has also participated actively in the passionate debate over national unity.

At the recent CJC national plenary in Toronto, newly elected CJC national president Irving Abella stressed the importance of unity. “Coupled with the question of survival as a people must be survival as a nation,” said Abella.

“The message that has emerged loud and clear from this Congress Assembly was that we Jews cannot afford to be spectators in the most fundamental constitutional crisis in our history,” he said. “Apathy signifies defeat; silence at this time will destroy us.”

Progress in the unity talks has been stalled, however, because Quebec has been boycotting the negotiations since the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord to reform the Canadian constitution in 1990.

But earlier this month Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa began studying an offer from the premiers of the eight remaining provinces that represents the best hope so far that a compromise will be achieved.

QUEBEC TO HAVE MORE AUTONOMY

Under the new package, Quebec would have more autonomy — a crucial issue for Bourassa and his constituency — while the now largely ineffectual Canadian Senate would gain additional power.

A bill passed by the Quebec legislature requires Bourassa to hold a referendum on the future of the province before Oct. 26. To date, the Quebec leader, who faces a vocal opposition that wants the French-speaking province to separate from Canada, has been carefully non-committal regarding the compromise package.

At issue during the current negotiations has been a long list of items. Of major significance in the new package is that Quebec will finally achieve recognition in the constitution as a distinct society.

The distinction was coveted by the predominantly French-speaking population, which is almost obsessed with preserving what it views as a unique language and culture in a country that is overwhelmingly Anglophone.

But Quebec’s separatists and federalists alike have lately been voicing opposition to the package. The sticking point for both groups is the issue of senate reform. The new proposal calls for an equal number of senators from each province — and both groups are angered over the possibility that Quebec might end up with fewer senators than before.

Max Bernard, chairman of CJC’s National Unity Committee, remains confident that some sort of a deal could be worked out, one that would please all the provinces. “I’m optimistic. I think that all Canadians, including those in Quebec, are far too intelligent to shoot themselves in the foot,” said the Montreal lawyer. “We’re all beginning to realize what a great country we have.”

The National Unity Committee is part of the Constitutional Coalition, composed of members of the Jewish, Greek, and Italian communities. In recent months, Bernard and other coalition members have toured Canada making a pitch for unity and Bernard is extremely pleased with the results.

“I think it has made a difference,” he said. “We met with Canadians from all walks of life and, significantly, those from our individual communities. We made them understand the value of unity and the value of keeping Quebec within Canada.”

Bernard said that Canadian Jewry’s involvement in the unity debate has had positive ramifications for the community, even among French Quebecers. “I don’t think that there has been a negative perception of Jews because of our involvement, quite the opposite.

“On the national tour, we received very positive feedback from all parts of the country, Quebec included. I think what we’ve done is very positive for our community,” he said.

Ian Kagedan, B’nai Brith Canada’s director of government relations, believes the crucial issue is constitutional protection for multiculturalism. This, he said, is paramount to protection from racism.

“We have a clear vision of Canada as a multicultural, non-racist state,” said Kagedan. “It’s a country of immigrants, built by immigrants, and we have always felt strongly that ethnic groups should not have to trade in their own backgrounds in order to become Canadian.

“We want the multicultural nature of Canada recognized in the ‘Canada clause’ (the introductory portion of the constitution) entrenched in our constitution as much as any other fundamental principal,” he added.

Kagedan considered it essential that Quebec remain a part of Canada. “One needs the other, but it’s a tragedy beyond words for Canada if Quebec separates.”

He rejected the sentiments expressed by those like author Mordecai Richler, who in his recent book, “Oh, Canada! Oh, Quebec!” stated that Quebecers are anti-Semitic.

Kagedan said Jews here had nothing to fear. “I think the problem is one of insensitivity where others are concerned and too much sensitivity where French Canadians are concerned,” he said. “But that’s not the same as racism.”

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