An edited version of this article first appeared in the August, 2001 issue of Canadian Lawyer. If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.
Invoking Those Great Dictators
The most recent example occurred in May , when Liberal MP
backbencher Andrew Telegdi alleged that revoking Canadian citizenship by
cabinet decision, without right of appeal, "is what Hitler did to Jews, Gypsies,
and many others. That is what Stalin did to millions."
Within days, Telegdi was apologizing in the House of Commons, backpedalling
furiously: "I had no intention to imply or suggest that our country
or our judiciary is in any way to be compared with Nazis or Stalinism," he
said. Hmph. Could have fooled me.
Only a month before, Canadian Alliance MP Diane Ablonczy created
a similar uproar during the debate on Prime Minister Chretien’s conduct over
the Auberge Grand-Mere loan. Ms. Ablonczy quoted an unnamed "Balkan
expert" who had written, "Why did Milosevic do what he did? Power,
money, greed. It is that simple. He was motivated by a desire to stay in
Two days later, she apologized in the House for her "error in judgment"
in comparing Chretien to the dictatorial Milosevic.
Meanwhile, Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish had retaliated by labelling
the Canadian Alliance caucus "the scum of the earth" over the Milosevic remark.
Ms. Parrish confirmed to me by e-mail that she never apologized for or retracted
this scathing insult. Apparently it’s perfectly okay to call someone—even
a whole group of people—the scum of the earth so long as you don’t say in
the same breath that Hitler, Stalin or Milosevic was also part of the same
crud—I mean, crowd.
Other Hitler eruptions have occurred sporadically over the years.
In 1992, former Ontario premier David Peterson made news by suggesting that
an unfavourable outcome in the Charlottetown accord referendum could be used
by Quebec nationalists to talk about "humiliation", an argument similar to
one Hitler had made.
In 1998, Ontario Liberal MPP Sandra Pupatello apologized after a
particularly bizarre comparison of premier Mike Harris to Mussolini, Hitler
and Napoleon because of an alleged shared fondness for referenda.
In March, 2000 the Quebec Superior Court actually awarded libel
damages to Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau after an investment newsletter
compared Quebec nationalism to Hitler-style demagoguery. The case is
The Canadian Jewish Congress has been particularly active
in decrying comparisons to Hitler. Although I too am ethnically Jewish, I
don’t agree with their reasoning. They claim that such comparisons
are hurtful to survivors of concentration camps. Presumably, the survivors
feel that these comparisons trivialize the monstrous wrongs inflicted on
them by the Nazis.
But there’s another way of looking at the issue—Thomas Jefferson’s
way: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."
Hitler did not begin the mass murder of Jews the moment he took
office. He did, however, start implementing the legal changes and
sowing the propaganda which would eventually make mass murder possible.
No-one will ever know when he reached the point of no return, but there are
some who believe that history might have been different if someone had recognized
the warning signs at an early stage and spoken out.
Consider the famous words of theologian Martin Niemoeller (himself
a concentration camp survivor): "In Germany they came first for the
Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then
they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t
a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak
up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time
no one was left to speak up."
Who knows? Perhaps if there had been some earlier dictator
whose horrendous thoughts and deeds could have been held up by the German
people as a permanent yardstick with which to measure the Nazi party, Hitler
might have been stopped in his tracks well before any innocent person was
In my view, it is a tribute to Holocaust victims and to those who
perished in the camps that the horror of Hitler’s actions has become so indelibly
stamped upon the minds of the populace that we are anxious to root out anything
that even remotely resembles them.
Meanwhile, the appropriate response by a politician accused of behaving
like a dictator is to step back and examine his or her actions and beliefs
to see whether perhaps there’s a grain of truth to the accusation.
Some—one hopes, most—such accusations will be unfounded. But it is
far better that Canadians feel free to scrutinize our leaders’ actions in
broad daylight than that we find ourselves chilled into silence by a distorted
sense of etiquette and libel lawsuits.
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