© 2001  Karen Selick
Invoking Those Great Dictators

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

There’s a dangerous new trend developing in Canada—all the more dangerous because even the act of identifying it exposes the speaker or writer to the risk of becoming another of its victims.  I’m referring to the taboo on comparing the actions of a current government or politician with something that some notorious dictator might have done.

The most recent example occurred in May [2001], 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 power."

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 1996, federal Liberal MP Anna Terrana apologized after suggesting that Quebec was following Hitler-like policies by trying to rid the province of its minorities.

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 under appeal.

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 arrested.

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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March 2, 2003