The illustration for this article is by copy editor Zafer Izer.
In light of current domestic and foreign affairs, we are being inundated with an overwhelming amount of information centered about our collective security and the preservation of personal rights and freedoms in Canada. The sheer volume of reporting can be taxing, contradictory, and lead many people to turn off the news and become free from the burden, indifferent yet uncommitted and willing to have others make critical decisions for them blindly. What every Canadian should consider instead is to spend some time informing themselves about 20th century Canadian history; listening to the advice of elders; and immersing themselves into the arena of proactive civics.
A central point to think about is recognizing the fact that becoming educated about our past may enlighten us to pause, reflect and not cyclically repeat the mistakes of the past. Our Canadian history is compiled from archival documents and first-hand testimonials from people who lived during a period of time, saw society evolve over the course of their lives, experienced occasions where governments attempted to curtail civil liberties, and felt the effects of deleterious restrictions. Reading about our history and actively listening to those surviving elders are valuable, fundamental blueprints toward shaping a rich and meaningful society, in a sense creating our own chapter in history and future for other generations.
A dual spike in the volume of information, stemming from live cable news reporting and the surge of the Internet, coupled with the vast and complex challenges facing the 7.4 billion people inhabiting such a finite planet can give us the feeling of being stuck primarily in the present. “Here and now” seems to be the prevailing focus and rapid, sometimes ill-planned, responses to issues take form and spread roots. Alternatively, there should be an intelligent, ingrained sense of reflecting upon our historical past and facts throughout the decision making process.
Rightfully so, we are concerned about terrorism, hate-inspired crimes and other threats and, while we live in such a turbulent era, we depend upon our governments to ensure public safety. Should we simply assume, in the past and future, they always have our best interests in mind and accept policies devised to keep us safe, regardless of the formulation? We see the United States devolving from true democracy and we may ask ourselves: “Has anything like this happened in Canada?” The answer is, yes, it has.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, there was unregulated and repeated repression of free speech and assembly throughout the provinces for over 18 years. Various individuals in offices of high power were concerned about the emergence and mobilization of the Communist Party and trade unionism, resulting in the police adopting sweeping powers to curb what they perceived as threats to democracy.
Although officially recognized as a legitimate organization in 1929, on August 13th of that year, a communist party rally of 60 people was violently broken up by police at Queen’s Park, Toronto. Using the pretext of the group having neither permission to rent a hall nor to engage in an outdoor demonstration, Toronto Police Chief Dennis Draper put down the peaceful rally with excessive force. In 1931, 600 miners from the Souris coalfield near Bienfait, Saskatchewan organized a union through the Workers Unity League and lead a strike protesting living and working conditions on 29 September, 1931 at the nearby town of Estevan. The RCMP intervened,resulting in the deaths of three miners and injury of another eleven; four injured local citizens, and five wounded police. The subsequent Royal Commission of Estevan on 2 November 1931, put eight people on trial with seven receiving sentences of five years’ hard labour plus an additional two years for sedition. The commission utilized Section 98 of the Criminal Code, citing restricted right to assembly, discussion and dissemination of literature leading to sedition and division of the population. Therefore, Canada became one of the first nations to outlaw the communist party. A suppression of civil liberties which many historians now agree was ultra vires, or beyond the scope of what the law allows.
After the 7 December 1941 attack on Hong Kong, Malaya and Hawaii, Canada announced on 8 December that a state of war had existed between Canada and the Empire of Japan as of December 7th. On 14 January 1942, the federal government passed an order requiring the removal of Canadian males of Japanese origin aged 18-45 from areas 100 miles inland from the British Columbia coast. On 24 February 1942, the government passed order in council PC 1468 under the War Measures Act removing all persons of Japanese descent to internment camps in the BC interior, Alberta and the Prairies. A Japanese-Canadian had two choices in 1942: agree to internment, or be repatriated back to Japan. A reflex response to a fear that was morally corrupt, this policy lasted until 1949 and was finally apologized for by Brian Mulroney in 1988.
A conscientious, path-dependent process needs to be taken into account when devising strategies to deal with specific problems we are faced with at present and they should be assessed on the basis of whether they are fair and respectful of basic human rights. Following a flawed past does not lead to prosperity, just retrograde stagnation. As citizens, we have a responsibility to follow the direction we are being taken and hold our governments accountable by actively voicing our opposition whenever we feel violations are self-evident. There is no greater strength than the power of the pen and using our voices to affect real change.