Prime Minister Harper Receives Saul Hayes Human Rights Award

Toronto, Ontario
31 May 2009

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Greetings to all members of the Canadian Jewish Congress and your distinguished guests from the governments of Israel, Poland, the United States, and to my colleagues from the Parliament of Canada and other levels of Canadian government.

Thank you very much Elizabeth Wolfe for your kind and generous introduction.

I am truly humbled and greatly honoured to receive the Saul Hayes Award.

Saul Hayes devoted his life to championing human rights at home and abroad. He was instrumental in the development of formal legal protections for human rights in the post-war era, a period deeply permeated by the hope that nothing like the Holocaust would ever happen again.

Saul Hayes was one of the giants of the Canadian Jewish community, one of countless Jewish men and women who have contributed so much to our country.

Another was the legendary businessman and philanthropist Sam Bronfman. “Mr. Sam” led this organization, the CJC, through the war years and beyond, when it helped Jews find sanctuary in Canada. He was also the inspiration for the fictional Solomon Gursky, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian literature, and the creation of Mordecai Richler, yet another giant of the Canadian Jewish community.

Saul Hayes was a community builder; few did as much as he to make Canada such a hospitable home for Jews.

Sam Bronfman was a business builder, the founder of one of our country’s greatest corporate dynasties.

And Mordecai Richler was a cultural builder; his stories resonated with Canadians from every part of the country and every walk of life – even those who felt the sting of his satire. WASPs, Jews, French-Canadian separatists, English-Canadian nationalists, he skewered us all.

A little known fact is that I met Mordecai Richler once. In fact it was the night of the 1995 referendum in Montreal. We had a beer together in the Peel Pub, and, for all his reputation, he was not just amiable but remarkably sanguine about all that was going on around us that night.

Most days I miss him, but I must admit that some nights I awake in a cold sweat, imagining that he is back at his typewriter, taking aim at the current Prime Minister.

Yet we loved him because he exposed our silly vanities, mocked our petty squabbles and reminded us just how privileged we are to live in such a peaceful and prosperous country.

Richler wore the outraged protests of his victims like badges of honour. “Caustic, controversial and crude,” they called him. “Un ecrivain provocateur.”

I’m told one especially thin-skinned separatist even called for one of his books to be banned, an attempt that I’m glad to say failed, because in Canada, one of the human rights we treasure most is the right to freedom of expression.

Without it, there can be no democracy, no free press, no free enterprise, no provocative polemicists like Mordecai Richler, and no free exchange of ideas, the universal catalyst for human progress.

Saul Hayes understood this. In the 1960s he was a key member of the Cohen Committee, which laid the groundwork for Canada’s first anti-hate law
under the Criminal Code. It became an effective legal weapon against naked hatemongering, without compromising the elemental right to freedom of expression, a fine balance that, quite frankly, we must work harder to maintain in this country.

So it is a special honour to receive the Saul Hayes award, a special honour to meet his family members as well, and a special privilege to be the first serving Prime Minister to receive it.

I know that one set of policies that has led you to confer this honour is the more balanced, consistent and principled stands we have upheld on critical foreign policy issues like the Middle East since taking office more than three years ago.

As you know, our government is not always of one mind with the Government of Israel on the issues of the Middle East. But friends,
I am very troubled by the degree to which opposition to the Government of Israel has become, in some circles, an intellectually respectable cover for anti-Semitic discourse.

It is all too common nowadays for politicians to claim to support Israel and the Jewish people in forums such as these. Yet, when Israel is attacked, for the umpteenth time, because its enemies refuse to accept the right of the Jewish state to exist, these same politicians are quick to condemn Israel, accuse it of war crimes, and demand that it unilaterally suspend its right to self-defence.

You will not hear that kind of double-speak from our Government, ever.

That’s why, under our Government, when the United Nations Durban II Conference against racism became a forum for the promotion of hatred,
Canada was the first country in the world to withdraw from it.

When Hamas formed the government of the Palestinian Authority, refusing to drop its objective to eradicate Israel and its people, Canada was the first country in the world to suspend ties with and assistance to its government.

When some at the Francophonie tried to impose a one-sided anti-Israeli resolution, Canada was the first to refuse to sign their declaration.

And, of course, we remain among the world’s most vocal in opposition to not only the nuclear program of the government of Iran, but also to its malevolent anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish declarations.

In taking these positions, it is important for me to note the tremendous support I have received from my team. 

For instance, when campus radicals viciously harassed Jewish students in Toronto, our Minister Peter Kent was among the first to condemn them.

When those same campus radicals teamed up with some union firebrands
as part of their unrelenting anti-Israel campaign, our Minister Jason Kenney stood firm in defence of academic freedom of expression.

When schools and synagogues faced increasing attacks from anti-Semitic vandals, our Minister Stockwell Day created the Security Infrastructure Pilot Program to protect religious and cultural institutions from hate crimes.

Let me just mention one additional initiative we will be undertaking.

This week in Parliament we will introduce legislation that will give victims of terrorism the power to obtain just compensation from those responsible for their suffering.

By amending the State Immunity Act, the bill will allow victims to sue perpetrators and sponsors of terrorist acts, including foreign states, in Canadian courts.

Of course, our actions in defence of human rights are by no means restricted to foreign policy measures.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud of what our government has done to protect human rights over the last three years. We have been inspired by the tireless efforts of so many members of the Jewish community in Canada, and we have also built upon the traditions of our conservative heritage, in particular on the values and vision of our late Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

The father of Canada’s first Bill of Rights not only enshrined our rights in law, he also enshrined them in practice. It was he who gave aboriginal people the right to vote in this country. He appointed the first female cabinet minister, the first native senator, and the first Jewish Governor of the Bank of Canada, to name but a few of his pioneering efforts to tear down barriers to equality in Canadian life.

It is in this tradition of conservatism that we have placed a priority on advancing knowledge about the history of anti-Semitism and human rights abuses.

We have, for example, provided support for the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.

We have also provided funds to recognize and remember the travesties and the tragedies of the S.S. St. Louis, the Komagata Maru and wartime internment policies.

In some case, we have been fortunate in being able to deal with historical wrongs through reconciliation; in other words while some of the victims are still living. I speak, of course, of the redress of the Chinese Head Tax and the apology for the system of Indian Residential Schools, actions that have been supported by all of my colleagues from all parties in the Parliament of Canada.

We do all these things not to decry the past, but to learn from it and build a better future for all of us, which is why we have finally – for the first time in Canadian history – given our aboriginal people living on reserves access to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and why we are trying to create matrimonial property rights for aboriginal women today.

One of the most lasting and tangible of all our actions is one in which the Jewish community has played a very large role, particularly the Asper family of Winnipeg, and that is, of course, the establishment of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

This will be not just the first national museum outside of the Ottawa-Gatineau region, but also the first national museum funded by all three levels of government and the private sector. I cannot wait to see it open.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me just conclude by observing that the actions I have just enumerated on human rights have been among the most personally satisfying we have undertaken in my time as Prime Minister.

A Prime Minister has to do a lot of difficult things, especially during the economic times in which we live, but these actions really are their own reward.

I am doubly honoured and overwhelmed by your kindness and generosity in giving me the Saul Hayes Award as well.

Thank you.

Shalom