It wasn’t always called Canada Day. In fact, it took an act of Parliament on October 27, 1982 to rename our national holiday commemorating our upcoming national birthday.
Yet to my late parents, Max and Gert Farber, it was always “Dominion Day.”
Like many refugees, stateless people and immigrants to Canada, they saw a land consumed with freedom that housed many different faiths and cultures. Indeed, Canada is a mix of all our differences and as we say at the Mosaic Institute “Difference is the solution.”
My late mother, was brought to Canada as a child prior to the Second World War. Canada was a welcoming home at that time for a family driven from their village of Zaslav in the Ukraine by violent pogroms.
My father, Max, wasn’t so fortunate. The sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish shtetl (village), he lived through the brutalities of the Holocaust. Murdered in Treblinka were his first wife and two young children as well as seven brothers and sisters.
During the war years, Canada instituted a heartless closed-door immigration policy, but reopened its borders to the stateless people of Europe after that, among them thousands of Jewish survivors like my father.
As the child of refugees, I understood one thing: they all had a story, from the insignificant to the heroic, from sadness, heartache and despair to elation and joy.
Late last year, after almost three years of research and interviews, refugee advocate and today Senator Ratna Omidvar and Ryerson researcher Dana Wagner launched their book Flight And Freedom: Stories Of Escape To Canada retelling the complex, harrowing journeys of 30 individual refugees.
My father is one of them. Christine, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, is another. What will strike the reader is both the common threads between all these stories and the stark differences.
On its surface her story is as different from my father’s Holocaust ordeal as you can imagine. Geographically, politically, in terms of people and places, the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust seem to have little in common.
Yet Christine’s life-over-death experience is familiar. As Hutu genocidaires were waging their ruthless mass murders of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Christine, then a young child, experienced the slaughter of her father and brother. Through what my father used to call the necessary “1,000 miracles,” she and her mother escaped with their lives.
Horror surrounds you in such evil times, and Christine explains all too well the way they coped. “Because [we] were trying to save our own life, we wouldn’t pay attention to what’s happening. We would just run.”
Perhaps though, the story that has stayed with me most is that of the young Bedouin woman Sabreen. Brought up in a camp in southern Israel, she was a pariah within her tribe because her mother had given birth to her out of wedlock, heresy in the tightly bound Bedouin community. Her mother was murdered as a result, an “honour killing,” and Sabreen was suspect from the day she was born.
Harsh physical abuse, followed by her father’s demand for a forced marriage, drove her to attempt suicide. Here a commonality between their stories made itself felt: as in my father’s case, death was cheated by happenstance. After her suicide attempt, with the help of Israeli friends, Sabreen made it to Tel Aviv and eventually to Canada, where her application for refugee status was approved.
There is so much more to Sabreen’s story, and to all the others in Flight And Freedom. In the end, all the refugees and immigrants in this book share one collective conclusion – each is deeply grateful to Canada for embracing them and giving them back their dignity.
In the last decade, Canada’s heart sadly hardened toward refugees. It took a photograph of a young Syrian boy lying lifeless on a Mediterranean beach to remind us of our humanity and that we are ourselves a country of many immigrants and refugees.
And so as we prepare to celebrate this July 1st I am consumed with my own memories of thanks that my parents taught me. It is the morning of Dominion Day. I am perhaps ten or eleven years old. It’s a warm summer day as I walk with my father to our small grocery store in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill.; an area that was multicultural before the word was even coined. East Asians, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians mixed not always easily with French Canadians, German Canadians, Chinese Canadians yet Dominion Day was always special.
My father on that day before he opened his store would unfurl the then Canadian flag (the Union Jack) and raise it on a flagpole he erected especially for that day.
I grew up in Canada as a first generation Canadian. However, that small gesture of love for a nation that embraced my parents and grandparents is something that like many others with my felt experience, we will always cherish. Happy birthday Canada!
Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.
“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.