Wednesday 10 December 2014

Canada and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Canada and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This blog was originally posted on the website of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Canada), December 9, 2014

December 10, 2014 is the 66th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

 In his Why Canada Cares (McGill-Queen`s University Press, 2012, pp. 4-5), Andrew Lui shows that Canada`s initial response to the formulation of the UDHR was extremely negative.  Canada was worried the UDHR would give rights to Communists, Jehovah`s Witnesses, Japanese Canadians and Aboriginal Canadians. Canada also opposed economic and social rights. Indeed, Canada actually abstained on December 7, 1948 in a preliminary vote for the UDHR, along with the Soviet Bloc. It only voted for the actual Declaration on December 10 because its earlier abstention was so embarrassing.

Since 1948, Canada has shown a steadily increasing commitment to the principles enunciated in the UDHR, starting with the 1960 Bill of Rights and followed by the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  In legal terms, women have been fully equal to men for 30 years. The racialized criteria of our immigration program were removed in the 1960s

With regard to economic human rights, such as the rights to food, housing, health care and security enumerated in Article 25 of the UDHR, though, the situation is not as good. Although Canada is a welfare state with many poverty-alleviation programs, it does not rank as one of the most generous, especially compared with the Nordic states.  

Our biggest shame remains Aboriginal rights, where our founding as a settler colonial state still resonates.  Aboriginal Canadians have more rights than they did before 1948: for example, they can vote and organize themselves, But they endure extremely high rates of incarceration. Their employment rate is concomitantly low. They have far higher rates of malnutrition than other Canadians. Aboriginal women and girls are far more likely to go missing—or be murdered—than other women and girls.

Troop movements during the surrender of the Chenier Cell during the 1970 FLQ crisis in Montreal ,
wiki commons
And we still have to protect basic civil rights such as the right to a fair trial, easily over-ridden by our governments in emergencies such as the 1970 crisis in Quebec or the atmosphere of paranoia since 9/11.

In its foreign policies, Canada has shown a reasonably strong commitment to international human rights during the last 30 years. In Article 2, the UDHR prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race. In the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney helped lead international condemnation of apartheid, though not at the cost of Canada’s trade with South Africa.

Under the Liberal government of Jean Chr├ętien, Canada was active in introducing the land mines treaty, in promoting the International Criminal Court, and in devising the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, among other measures.

Our current government under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper promotes LGBT rights worldwide. LGBT rights are a fairly recent addition to the human rights canon, unheard of when the UDHR was proclaimed in 1948.

a homeless woman in Toronto, wiki commons
Harper has also opened an office of religious freedom. Protected by Article 18 of the UDHR, freedom of religion is especially important now that IS in Iraq and Syria is “cleansing” entire regions of Christians, of groups such as the Yazidi whom it considers heretics, and even of  some Muslims through murder, rape, enslavement and expulsion.

Harper also promotes a maternal and child health initiative; maternal and child health is an important economic human right, first mentioned in the UDHR’s Article 25, 2, requiring “special care and assistance” in motherhood and childhood. However, Harper’s initiative excludes access to abortion, guaranteed by Canadian law but not guaranteed by any international human rights law.

Canada’s human rights record is far from perfect, both internally and internationally. Canadians must be eternally vigilant in protecting their rights.  And they must hold their governors to account to make sure our foreign policy always includes human rights.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Aboriginal Cultural Rights versus a Child's Life: A Canadian Case

Aboriginal Cultural Rights versus a Child’s Life: A Canadian Case
Over the last few months an interesting legal case has been going on in Brantford, Ontario, a small city near where I live. The judge’s ruling is likely to generate much commentary and lots of legal articles.
Makayla Sault (on the right), picture taken froom facebook
Brantford is near two Aboriginal reserves, the New Credit First Nation and Six Nations Reserve. (Reserves are the bits of land that the Canadian government left for Aboriginal use during its colonization of this country). In the last year, two11-year-old  girls from these reserves were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (cancer) at the McMaster Children’s Hospital, the hospital connected to the McMaster University medical school in Hamilton, Ontario. With their parents, both girls have refused chemotherapy. The first girl was identified as Makayla Sault from New Credit First Nation (Aboriginal groups are identified as “nations” in Canada in recognition of their pre-colonial sovereignty). She is a very sweet-looking girl and it is heartbreaking to think of how ill she is.
By court order, the second girl, from Six Nations, has not been identified, although she is referred to as J.J. With J.J.’s agreement, her mother withdrew her from chemotherapy at the McMaster Children’s Hospital and took her to an organization called the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida for “alternative” medical treatment that she believed was compatible with indigenous Six Nations traditional medicine; the Florida treatment consisted of nutrition and naturopathic therapy.
The individual in charge of the Florida centre is not a physician: the Institute is licensed by the state of Florida only to provide massage therapy, while its director is licensed to provide nutritional counselling. However, the director has been at Six Nations Reserve to advocate his form of treatment, although I’m not sure from the reports I read when this happened.  Presumably treatment at the Hippocrates Institute is not free. This is the same centre Makayla’s parents took her to. At first, after she went there, she felt much better, but on November 14, 2014 it was reported that she was now very ill and her father was asking the world for prayers.
Neither the hospital nor Brant Family and Children’s Services (BFCS), the agency responsible for children’s welfare at the two reserves, took any action to prevent Makayla’s removal from chemotherapy. But in the second case, when the BFCS refused to act, the hospital went to court, asking a judge to order the BFCS to seize J.J. and force treatment upon her. This is a common type of action, for example when a Jehovah’s Witness child is deemed by doctors to need a blood transfusion and the parents refuse (Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious group that do not believe in blood transfusions). 
On November 14, 2014, the judge rendered his decision. He ruled that Aboriginal people’s constitutional rights overrode the hospital’s right to demand co-operation from the BFCS to force the child to undergo treatment. On October 16 the judge was quoted as saying “Maybe First Nations culture doesn’t require every child to be treated with chemotherapy and to survive for that culture to have value.” (Tom Blackwell, Financial Post, “Judge says forcing aboriginal girl to stay in chemo is to ‘impose our world view on First Nation culture’”, October 16, 2014). The judge also said that the aboriginal right to practice traditional medicine could not be “qualified as a right only if it is proven to work by employing a Western medical paradigm.” (Kelly Grant, “Ontario court judge rules hospital can’t force chemo on native girl,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 15, 2014, p. A20).
I am not a lawyer or a legal scholar, so I don’t know the details of Aboriginal rights. Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms does say in Article  “The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” Apparently the judge interpreted this to mean that Aboriginal people have the right to choose what medicines they wish to use, even if the best advice from what he called “Western” medicine suggests they won’t work.
The doctors at the McMaster children’s hospital said that with chemotherapy, the two girls have an 80-95 per cent chance of survival. They also said that there are no known cases of children surviving this type of cancer without chemotherapy.
 I am a mother too, and I can imagine how terrible it must be for the mothers of these girl
the McMaster Children’s hospital
s to watch them endure the pain of chemotherapy. If my son had contracted cancer at age 11 and required two years of chemotherapy, I might also have wanted to look for alternative treatments. In J.J.’s case, the mother’s claim is that the alternative therapy she has chosen in Florida is compatible with Aboriginal medicine. The judge seems to have decided that whether it is truly aboriginal, in the sense of having been a traditional medicine within that culture, is irrelevant. Whatever an Aboriginal person declares is traditional medicine is so, even if it is a treatment offered by presumably non-aboriginal people in Florida.
In other contexts, I think very few human rights activists would accept that a child’s life could be sacrificed for cultural reasons. Children, like all human beings, have a right to life. Perhaps we could prevaricate and say that not giving a child medical treatment that she says she doesn’t want is an act of omission, not comparable to denying her treatment she does want. But I do not think an 11-year-old is capable of independent judgment or understanding of the consequences of withdrawing the treatment.
I also have some questions about all this. First, why the judge did call recognized international medical practice “Western?” Does he have evidence that people living in, or from, places such as China, India or Africa successfully undergo treatments other than chemotherapy when they contract cancer?  I thought scientific medicine was international. 
Another question is about the laws that govern people who purport to practice medicine without a license. I have a hard time understanding how an individual from Florida who is licensed only as a nutrition counselor can be permitted into Canada to give talks in which he claims to know ways to cure cancer other than chemotherapy.
The mother of the second girl was quoted as saying “I will not have my daughter treated with poison…She has to become a healthy mother and grandmother.” (Connie Walter, CBC News, October 1, 2014. “First Nations girl’s family rejects chemo, hospital goes to court to force treatment”).  The poison she was referring to was chemotherapy, which is designed to kill cancerous cells so that healthy cells can grow. I hope the mother’s ambitions are realized and that J.J. has a long and healthy life, but I fear that by rejecting “Western” medicine the mother and her daughter have made a fatal choice.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Terrorism vs. "Mischief": Canada's Double Standard

Terrorism vs. “Mischief”: Canada’s Double Standard

On October 22, 2014, a young Canadian named Michael Zahaf Bibeau attacked Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.  He managed to evade the (very light) security controlling access to the building and entered it, carrying a shotgun. Fortunately, he was shot and killed by security forces before he managed to reach the rooms where Canada’s ruling party, the Conservatives, as well as the opposition New Democratic Party were holding their caucuses. Had he entered the building an hour later, he might have been able to kill the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, or members of Cabinet or ordinary Members of Parliament as they left their caucus room.

Before reaching Parliament, Zahaf Bibeau approached the National War Memorial just outside it. There he shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, one of the unarmed soldiers standing guard over the memorial.

Corporal Cirillo became the country’s symbol of grief over what many people considered a terrorist attack. The murderer’s name suggested his origins were Arabic and French-Canadian. H
The late Nathan Cirillo, taken from Cirillio instegram account
e had tried to obtain a Libyan passport (his father was from Libya) shortly before the attack on Parliament but had been refused. He identified as a Muslim and had made a video shortly before the attack, mentioning Allah. But other Muslims considered him dangerous and a mosque in Vancouver which he had once attended had had its locks changed to keep him out.

This was enough evidence for many people to decide the attack was terrorism. Two days earlier, one Martin Couture-Rouleau, a convert to Islam, had attacked two soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu near Montreal, killing one. He was then shot dead by police. It appeared he had been “radicalized’ during his conversion. Many Canadians, including me, wondered if the two events had been co-ordinated, especially as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) in Iraq had threatened Canada a short while earlier.

But now it seems that both these attacks were the work of mentally disturbed Canadians. Indeed this was the position of the level-headed leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair. It’s also my position. Had they been around twenty years earlier, these two men might have become neo-Nazis, or crazed survivalists, or they might have murdered for incomprehensible reasons, like the young man who murdered twenty schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, before committing suicide (and after killing his own mother).

Corporal Cirillo was from Hamilton, Ontario, where I live, and was buried there on October 29. It was a national event, with the Prime Minister in attendance. It was also front-page news in my local newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator. There was much talk of how he was the victim of a terrorist attack.

Hamilton’s Hindu Saraj Temple after the attack, wiki commons
That very same day, on the same front page of The Hamilton Spectator, another event was reported without a word about terrorism. On September 15, 2001, a few days after the Al-Qaeda attack on New York City, a mosque in Hamilton was defaced and Hamilton’s Hindu Saraj Temple was firebombed. The firebombing happened at night and, fortunately, no one was in the building. The temple was reduced to cinders and the perpetrators were never caught. However, 12 years later police received information that led them to arrest Christopher Pollard, Damien Marsh, and Scott Ryan, by then all in their mid-30s. Pollard and Marsh were convicted on a charge of mischief. They were fined a mere $10,000 each and sentenced to 80 hours of community service, with no jail time. Pollard expressed remorse to the police. The case against Ryan was still before the courts.

My question is, why wasn’t the firebombing of Hamilton’s Hindu Temple considered a terrorist act? Perhaps Canada’s terrorism laws do not apply retroactively to crimes committed on September 15, 2001. I am sure, nevertheless, that members of the temple must have felt terrorized. According to a victim impact statement read by one of its members at the trial of Pollard and Marsh, the firebombing was “our very own 9/11.” She continued, “The message that this hate crime spoke in volumes was ‘you do not belong here’ and ‘This is not your place.” (Molly Hayes, The Hamilton Spectator, October 29, 2014, p. A5)

But popular and media discussion did not describe these men as terrorists. Perhaps it was because they were white (or so their pictures in the paper suggest) or perhaps because their motive was not religious but merely racist. Or did they get a pass because they didn’t actually kill anyone (by sheer luck) or because stupidity is considered more understandable than mental illness? Their defence lawyer said they were young and stupid: they were also drunk at the time.

Why is it merely mischief when three white men bomb a Hindu temple, burning
Tom Mulcair, wiki commons
it to the ground? If three stupid, drunk young Muslim Canadians (yes, some Muslims do drink) had firebombed a Christian church in Hamilton on September 15, 2001 and then got away with it for 12 years before being caught, would they now be convicted merely of mischief?

Or would they be considered proof of a deep and long-lasting conspiracy against their own country?

Monday 20 October 2014

Memoir of a Stateless Person: Helmut Hassmann

Memoir of a Stateless Person: Helmut Hassmann

About 25 years ago, when “citizenship studies” was just beginning as an academic discipline, a colleague from the University of Toronto asked me if I knew that there were people in the world who were stateless. I replied that I did, as my father had been stateless for over 30 years. Now I have just co-edited a book with my colleague at Wilfrid Laurier University, Margaret Walton-Roberts, called The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept; it will be published soon by University of Pennsylvania Press. There’s a section on statelessness in it.

Most people who study statelessness refer to Hannah Arendt’s discussion of it in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (pages 276-281). Arendt herself was a German Jew rendered stateless by the Nazis, and German Jews were one of the groups she was referring to in her discussion.

My father was a “half-Jew” from Germany, but he had been stateless all his life, for reasons that he reveals below.  This is a short memoir that he either wrote or dictated after he arrived in Switzerland in early 1939.  It describes the odyssey of one stateless man seeking refuge from the Nazis.  I used this memoir in my introduction to The Human Right to Citizenship because of its poignant plea for human rights, a plea I discovered only some years after my father’s death, despite my own lifetime of writing about human rights. My father wrote “you’re so utterly powerless, so impotent… What ever happened to human rights? Is there such a thing anymore? Is it not a mockery of all humanity, when, today, millions are forced to wander about aimlessly, at the behest of a megalomaniacal criminal!? [Hitler] When every country spits them out again like outcasts....”

In my last blog, (, posted October 3, 2014, I wrote about our life in Canada after we arrived here from Britain in 1951. My father arrived in Britain two weeks before World War II, thanks to the assistance of the Swiss Quaker (Sister Annie Pfugler) who took him in when he arrived in Zurich, and some English Quakers named Backhouse. In 1940 the British interned him as an enemy alien for six months on the Isle of Mann, and then sent him to Canada for another year or so of internment. (You can read about the internment in Canada of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Axis countries in Eric Koch, Deemed Suspect, Toronto, Methuen, 1980). Then my father returned to Britain and joined the British army, married my mother, and became a British citizen in 1947.  He held on to his British passport the rest of his life, even when he became Canadian.

 Here is the memoir. Note my father had absorbed the Nazi racist term “Aryan.”

 Michael Howard (born Helmut Hassmann):

account of his escape from Germany, apparently written or transcribed in Switzerland, 1939

Translated by Dr. Mathias Guenther, February 2009

“I was born in 1913, son to a family physician. My father succumbed to pneumonia in 1918, which he had contracted on the battle field. He was Jewish; my mother is Aryan.

I spent four years at primary school and the following six years I attended secondary school [Gymnasium]. In 1930 I matriculated, having placed first among the graduating students. I left school in order to begin an apprenticeship at an oil manufacturing firm in Leipzig. After a two-year training period the last half -year was credited to me and I was appointed by the same firm to the post of Spanish correspondent. I was dismissed from my position in 1933, due to the upheavals that had in the meanwhile broken out in Germany. However, shortly thereafter I was able to obtain a position at the Leipzig sales office of  I. G. paints industry, which was still politically unconnected at the time. I worked there for five years, as a technical sales correspondent.

 However, the Nazi industrial cell [? Betriebszelle?] had in the meanwhile gathered information about myself and found out that I am of non-Aryan descent, something my well-intentioned boss had not revealed.  This, around 1936, was the beginning of the action against myself, which, between 1937 and 1938, had come to such a point that I decided “voluntarily” to quit my position.  All the more so, as my employers were in absolutely no position to offer me protection, as they would then be in danger of themselves being politically suspect.

 Being stateless–my grandfather was Russian, as was my father, even though his country of birth was Germany–I was unable to obtain any residence or work permit abroad. I thus went to Italy, as a visitor, in order to seek to obtain a residence permit in that country for a protracted length of time. However, on October 4th, 1938, I was verbally informed by the vice-prefect of Milan that, unless I had departed Italy by October 9th, I would be escorted to the German border by two carabinieri.  I then spent another two months in Italy illegally and during that time I sought to obtain immigration permits from all of the consulates. However, because of my stateless status the answer everywhere was negative; alternatively, the landing fees in the states overseas were so steep as to be unaffordable. At that time I had about 1000 lire, which evaporated throughout my subsequent wanderings. After some well-meant advice from elderly Italian friends, and unable to find any lodging in Milan because of my illegal status, on December 8th I left for Yugoslavia. After walking for eight hours I got to the Yugoslav border, in a heavy snow squall. There I was picked up; however, I was treated with great kindness and was passed along, from one place to another, over a distance of about 12 kilometres. Throughout I was accompanied by a soldier, carrying a loaded and cocked rifle.  This pleasant company was to stay at my side until February 12th. At the fifth station I eventually was made to stay, for two days. While I was not locked up and was fed very well, I was not allowed to take one step into the open air.  The next thing I was told: back to Italy!  Back we went for five hours, in silence, beside the soldier with rifle and mounted bayonet. All this because I am stateless. Fortunately my guide had the day previous received three Veramon-powders [a painkiller?] from me, [end of page 1] for his intense tooth ache. He thus stopped right at the border and said: “ Fujine - frontiera-Italia-Rakek.”, that is to say, “Run back to Italy and then take the train back again to Rakek” (Yugoslavia).  I thus walked for about 100 metres in a straight direction and then turned around again right back to Yugoslavia, skirting the customs building. I then hiked for five hours, up the highest heights of the Yugoslavian frontier mountains, heading inland. Snow had freshly fallen and was about 60 cm high; I wore dress shoes and got one foot bath after another. I couldn’t walk along any roads as I had a hellish fear of being nabbed once again. However, even the strongest will fails in the face of exhaustion and excessive exertion and in the end I was so spent that I just didn’t care about anything anymore. In order to avoid drawing attention to myself I had already sacrificed my small suitcase and briefcase containing much nice underwear and I now walked straight into the next larger village, along the middle of the main road. A policeman who walked my way didn’t glance at me once, for which I was very grateful to him. To my dismay the train station to which I wanted to go was in exactly the opposite direction that I had walked. I thus had to walk back 12 kilometres; I was very dejected and my legs failed me.  Coincidentally, a peasant with horse and wagon appears behind me just at that moment, who understands a bit of Italian. I ask him if he would take me along. Yes, with pleasure; I climb up the box beside him, shivering and cold. We drive for about 20 minutes when I notice with a start that we are heading straight for the customs house, from which I had been sent off this morning. .... I promise my peasant 50 dinar if he can get me by the place without being detected. He is unflappable: “We’ll get by alright.” And he is right! Nobody come from the building, no guard comes our way. I heave a sigh of relief. We finally get to the stop from which the bus is supposed to take me to the next larger village or town with a train connection. However, the bus won’t arrive for another two hours. Eventually I am taken by bus to S. At every stop in between five policemen–however, everything is in order. By train I drive to Maribor, where a friend of an Italian acquaintance of mine, a Slovene, would be setting things in order for me.  Unfortunately, he was too much of a coward to do even the barest minimum for me.

 After 2 days I drive to Belgrade. I was to rue my notion that I might be able to go underground more easily in this large city. I was seized after no more than five days of freedom. “So, you emigrated without a visa! What are you doing here anyway?” “My passport has been taken from me.” “Unless you take a ticket to the border and are away from here by 5 ‘o’clock you will be arrested.” In the course of my search for a room in Belgrade I had met a Russian woman, who had fled Russia back at the time of the Russian revolution. She showed much sympathy for my situation. “Well, you state that you have no money to drive back; the least the state can do is pay for your return journey”, was her opinion. I go back to the office and inform the bureaucrat working there, a most unlikable person with a malicious expression. A lengthy report is taken, where are you from? Why? Aha, half-Jew etc.  “Well, for the time being you’ll have to stay here, for a couple of days. Of course, you will get room and board.” The room was—a prison cell, 1.5 x 3 m.  The board consisted of water and a kg. of bread per day. Christmas passed, and then the new year; early at 7 o’clock a walk, always in a circle, a horde of ragged, coarse guards, who were generous with their face slapping and kicking. Reading forbidden, newspapers forbidden. I didn’t understand any Serbian. The light was kept on all night long, there were no mattresses for sleeping but only the hard wooden floor, for 4 weeks.  For no other reason but because you are stateless and do not have any right to live and work anywhere, because you are “non-Aryan” and regarded as a second-class human being. The only admirable thing was companionship. Nowhere is there better companionship than in prison. There were men there, genuine men, who wasted away in prison for their convictions and who were tortured. Yes, tortured! Hit on the soles of their bare feet, with ox reams braided with wire, 50, 100 times or more! I saw a man, 55 years of age, who had been denounced as Macedonian: at 5 o’clock in the evening he was summoned for “questioning”; he returned at 8 o’clock, led by two policemen, as he was no longer able to walk on his own. He had to endure the caning of the soles of his feet on the grounds merely of a suspicion: to watch all of this was worse than anything else... I had stomach cramps for 3 days; you could relieve yourself only during the walking hours. Otherwise there was a bucket; no one, of course, wanted to use it, in consideration of his comrades. Later on we shared one large room with 15 political prisoners. I had been brought in on December 17th; at midnight on January 14th a gendarme took me to the Italian border. The darkness was pitch black and rain was streaming down. Suddenly, a flashlight flares. “Alti le mani!”  (Hands up!) I look into the barrel of a revolver and am in the hands of the Italians.

At times the border guards can be simply touching. I immediately started to speak Italian, was given a glass of wine, a cup of espresso, and was allowed before anything else to lie down for a sleep. After lying down for perhaps 15 minutes, I notice how the Italian, the same one who had confronted me with his revolver, placed a warm fur coat over my thin blanket. However, my luck was to last for only one day; the day following I found myself in Abbazzia, a nice resort town, in prison.  No sign anywhere of the ocean, of course, as where I lie, together with three others, is in a cellar. I was unable to sleep a wink, because of fleas and bed bugs. My bed consists of a straw mattress and old sacks, too torn even to be used to carry coals. My arms and legs are completely covered with bites, literally, blister upon blister. It is a horrendous torment. I sleep in my clothing, winter coat, gloves, partly because of the cold–there is no stove–partly so as not to scratch myself like mad all the time.  Four weeks imprisonment in Abbrazzia. At 7:30 in the evening the light is turned off, which is worse than elsewhere, when it was kept lit. You’re already fully done sleeping at midnight and the hours drag on without end. Come dawn, it gets worse again, in another way: the bare “white” walls, up which crawl the bed bugs; this iron bedstead with its linens that haven’t been laundered for years, the barred small windows, high up, the constantly locked door, the bucket, the dirt on the floor, the vermin in the “bed”.  And you’re so utterly powerless, so impotent, at the mercy of the arbitrariness of Italian officialdom. What ever happened to human rights? Is there such a thing anymore? Is it not a mockery of all humanity, when, today, millions are forced to wander about aimlessly, at the behest of a megalomaniacal criminal!? [Hitler] When every country spits them out again like outcasts....

Finally, bound with handcuffs, I was brought to Trieste, from there, via Venice, to Milan; then, after eight days of  louse-ridden arrest, on to Como, from there to Chiasso, always manacled, always in a single cell, mostly without any window. That was my fate until February 22nd, 1939. I spent 12 anxious hours on the mountain at Lake Como, which forms the border to Switzerland. I sent a short fervent prayer to heaven to get there, for my freedom. And HE helped me. .. I am now here, in Zurich, without any means and illegally, but I feel well all the same as good people have afforded me help.”

Friday 3 October 2014

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism.  

This year marks the 15th anniversary of my decision to change my name from Rhoda Howard to Rhoda Hassmann. I still have to use the clumsy “Howard-Hassmann” for professional reasons, as from 1976 to 1999 I published as Rhoda Howard, but my legal name is just Rhoda Hassmann. Throughout the years, people have occasionally assumed that I changed my name because I married or re-married, but that is not so. I married in 1978 and remain married to the same man, who is named neither Howard nor Hassmann. I changed my name for political reasons.

The story below is a story about genocide and racism, and what it can do to those who escape or survive it, as well as their descendants.  It was published in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on May 24, 2000, p. A20. A colleague from the then University of Western Ontario (now Western University) sent me a message shortly thereafter saying he’d made it an assigned reading in his course on racism.

It’s taken me a long time to decide to post this private story, but I have decided it is a contribution to the literature on memory and genocide, and thus worth the post. I have not made any changes to the original article, although I now know that some details of my father’s escape from Germany may be inaccurate.



The Globe and Mail (Toronto) May 24, 2000 pA20


The certificate of name change arrived on September 2, 1999: I was now Rhoda Hassmann, no longer Rhoda Howard. September 3 was my fifty-first birthday. I spent it at banks, human resources offices, the automobile club.  By the end of the day my new name was secure.

The name I adopted was that of my paternal ancestors. My father, born Helmut Hassmann in Germany, changed his name in Britain to Michael Howard in 1947. Hassmann was a German transliteration of my great-grandfather’s Russian-Jewish name, something like Chazman. My grandfather, born Bruno Hassmann, died “for the Fatherland”, as the memorial in the Jewish graveyard in Leipzig puts it: he was a doctor in the German army during the First World War.  My father was a “half-Jew”, to use Nazi terminology. 

My father escaped from Germany in 1938; the Gestapo was looking for him after he criticized Hitler at a company banquet.  Forged passport, stays in nasty prisons in Yugoslavia and Italy, a fortuitous encounter with a Swiss Quaker who protected him from deportation and helped him go to England. Then internment camps, on the Isle of Mann and in Canada; a stint in the Pioneer Corps of the British army; marriage to my mother, a Scottish gentile; and eventual immigration to Canada.

This would be a happy story of survival, were it not for my father’s profound inability to cope with what had happened to him. There is a diagnosis for people like him now: post-traumatic stress disorder. Throughout my childhood, he had  nightmares. He was unbearably angry, trusted no one except my mother.

Above all, he never told anyone who he “really” was.  The official story when we first came to Canada in 1951 was that he was a German (gentile) anti-Nazi refugee; this story changed after my parents realized the extent of anti-German prejudice in Canada. Then the official story became that my father was English. Despite his heavy European accent, we stuck to that story for years.

My sister, who is older than I, remembers being instructed on her first day of school never to tell anyone where my father came from. School forms asking for parents’ place of birth caused us distress. Our mother told me and my sister that there were some Jews in our father’s family, but instructed us never to let him know that we knew. Our father’s past was a taboo subject. My parents made a few Jewish friends: my mother would whisper to us that so-and-so was Jewish, so that we knew we could trust her.  But at dinner parties we all had to pretend that no one at the dining room table was Jewish.

In the early 1960s my father watched television reports of the Eichmann trials with another “half-Jew”, a man from Poland whose first wife and two children had been gassed. He claimed to be South African, and like my father had an adopted English name. Although each of their wives had whispered her husband’s secret to the other, neither man ever spoke of his background.

When I was fifteen, my father told me he had “something to confess: I am a half Jew”.  He “confessed” this to me because his mother, a German Christian, was coming to Canada to visit us, the first time she would meet us children. Many years later, I learned from a distant Jewish cousin that she had announced her intention to tell us who we were.  But even after my father “confessed”, we were still under strict instructions to hide. Only when I went to McGill University at seventeen did I learn to my great surprise that there were many Jews who actually were open about their identity. 

My father never came to terms with his past. Very rarely he mentioned something about it: on my last visit with him, he told me how upset he had been when he was denied access around 1935 to his local swimming pool. He felt guilty that he had not been able to save the life of a favorite Jewish aunt, even though he could not possibly have done so. Sometime in the 1970s he listened to his employer’s advice never to trust a Jew, without revealing his identity.

Just prior to his death in 1998, at the age of 84, my father was taking a course in Italian at McGill. As an oral report he told his young colleagues about his adventures in Europe, concluding that all his problems had been because his step-father was Jewish.  Even then, 60 years after escaping from Germany, he could not bring himself to say in public that his own father had been a Jew. He told me on our last visit that if someone asked him a direct question, he would not lie: but otherwise, he said, it was “not worth it” to reveal the truth.

 For many years I wanted to change my name back, but as long as my father lived, I could not.  He would have been angry and afraid.  He might have asked me to keep my “old” name for the return address on my letters, just as many years ago he asked his mother to put “Collin” not “Cohn” on her letters (she refused). So I waited, always irritated by the effects of  bearing a fraudulent English name.

So now I have done it: I have my “real” name. The profound effects of the Holocaust on my attitudes, thinking, and scholarship at last have some tangible expression. I no longer bear a name adopted because of fear. It’s a bit late in the game, after 51 years with the other name: what if I die young, I asked myself last September, after all this hassle of making the change?  But I decided that if I do die young, I want to die as who I am.





Thursday 25 September 2014

Forgiveness: A Somewhat Dissenting View

Forgiveness:  A Somewhat Dissenting View
A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth. This film is loosely adapted from a memoir of the same title by Eric Lomax, an Englishman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII and had been enslaved to work on the Burma railway.
In the film, set in 1980, Eric Lomax is a tormented veteran whose hobby, dating from before he became a prisoner of war (POW), is to follow railway routes and schedules. The film goes back and forth between the elder Lomax and his younger self as a POW. After he is taken prisoner, he draws a map for his fellow POWs to show them where he thinks they are. The Japanese find the map and torture him to reveal for whom he drew it, convinced he is a spy for the Chinese. After the war, he becomes obsessed with revenge against the Japanese. Then one day he discovers that the interpreter for his torturers is still alive and is guiding tours of his former prison camp. He sets off to take revenge on the interpreter but ends up forgiving him.
In real life, Eric Lomax did indeed discover that the interpreter, Nagase Takasi, had been trying to atone for his sins during the war. In the real story, Lomax first obtained counseling, then when he discovered Nagase was still alive wrote to him, eventually meeting after several years of corresponding. Lomax did formally forgive Nagase, and they remained friends until their deaths. This story was told in Michael Henderson’s Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate (Book Partners, Wilsonville, Oregon, 1999), pp. 117-20.
After we watched the film, my husband expressed surprise that Lomax forgave Nagase. Under international law in force at the time of WWII, POWs were not supposed to be enslaved, starved, tortured or murdered. Why would you forgive a war criminal who tortured you?
Discussion of forgiveness has become popular in the burgeoning academic literature on post-conflict resolution. There is a much criticism of Bishop Tutu, the Anglican South African bishop who sat on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Tutu appeared to subtly pressure victims of apartheid-era human rights abuses who testified before the Commission to forgive the perpetrators of these violations. In the documentary film A Long Night’s Journey into Day (if I remember correctly), about the TRC, there is a scene where four black women are asked to forgive the black policemen who murdered their sons, on the orders of his presumably white superiors. The four women discuss forgiveness, noting that they are all Christians, and decide to forgive him. 
Prisoners of war working on the Burma railway, 1943 Wiki Commons
When I saw this film I was horrified. I though the women should not have forgiven the former policeman. It seemed that what he had done was too severe for forgiveness. I realize that forgiveness is valued in Christianity, as it also is in Judaism and probably in all other religions, but I still thought that the women should not forgive and that once they got over their momentary impulse to forgive they would regret it. In the TRC Commissioners’ defense, I believe, once this subtle pressure was brought to their attention they tried to avoid it in the future.
I thought a lot about forgiveness when I wrote my article about Official Apologies, which you can find in the open access journal, Transitional Justice Review  (vol.1, no.1, 2013), which was founded and is edited by my former student, Joanne Quinn, I believe strongly that despite Eric Lomax and others like him, victims of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other such horrors should never be pressured to forgive.
As I argued in my article, I think we should distinguish between interpersonal and political apologies and reconciliation. In the ideal model of interpersonal apologies, something like the following occurs:
Apology (acknowledgement of the facts, taking responsibility for the harm done, expression of sorrow and remorse, promise of non-repetition) → forgiveness→ restored good relations→ increased interpersonal trust→ reconciliation.
Forgiveness may well be necessary in an interpersonal apology, and it may well be good for the victim of a wrong to forgive. But I don’t believe, as so many people seem to, that the opposite of non-forgiveness in the desire for revenge, nor do I think that without forgiveness, the victim is eaten up by bitterness. Rather, the victim can simply ignore the perpetrator, or treat him with the contempt he deserves. Many Holocaust victims, for example, simply got on with their lives.
I think that for political reconciliation, the model is something like the one below.
Apology → victims’ restored sense of self-worth→ restored good relations→ increased social trust→ reconciliation.
 There is no need for forgiveness in this model. The perpetrator apologies, the victim accepts the apology but does not forgive, and good relations consist of the victims’ not wanting revenge. Perpetrator and victim can interact in the public sphere without further contact. The Eric Lomax’s of the world are few and far between, and victims should not be pressured to act as he did.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

A Poem about North Korean Cannibalism

A Poem about North Korean Cannibalism
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been preoccupied with North Korea over the last few years. Sometimes a poem is a better way to express one’s reactions to horrific events than an academic piece or even a quasi-academic blog.
I have been writing and publishing poetry for the last 35 years: I publish mainly locally, one or two poems a year. The poem below was a runner-up in an Ontario poetry contest.  It was published in Arborealis: A Canadian Anthology of Poetry, edited by K.V. Skane (Toronto: Beret Day and Ontario Poetry Society, 2014) on page 82.  It’s about a dream I had after reading about cannibalism in North Korea, where state-induced famine drives people to such terrible acts.
For more on North Korea, see three of my earlier blogs
1.      “North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)” ,;
2.      “Cannibalism in North Korea” March 20, 2013,
3.       “North Korean Slave Labour, September 11, 2012,
You could also read my article *2012. “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2/3, pp. 147-65.
Here is the poem:

during the day,
feeling comfortably outraged
about events of the distant past
or even what’s happening now
far away

I read gruesome descriptions
of digging up dead bodies
            to eat them before the dogs
            get at them

and killing neighbours’ children
or eating your own kids
once they’ve died
if they still have a little meat on them
I think I’m OK:
in the evenings
I crochet away the images
admire the pink blanket as it grows
imagine the baby it will comfort

But then I dream
of chaos, dirt, anger;
of a large man in an orange shirt
cutting and sawing
sawing and cutting

Friday 22 August 2014

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity
On August 3, 2014, I attended my first gay wedding. It was a very moving event, at which I was privileged to be a witness. The wedding was held on the 16th anniversary of the day the two partners met. They come from a developed, democratic country in which gays cannot marry, but which will recognize their marriage if they have the ceremony performed elsewhere. 
In Ontario, where I live, gay marriage has been legal since 2003. Gay marriage became legal in all of Canada in 2006. For a while, before some US states began to legalize gay marriages, the city of Toronto was the marriage location of choice for many Americans, and travel agencies sprang up specializing in gay wedding packages. Toronto has a big Gay Pride parade every year, and this year hosted World Pride, an enormous event.  I keep thinking that I should join the parade, as part of the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: I have several gay and lesbian friends) but I don’t like crowds.
I asked one of the partners in the wedding I attended if he had taken part in the World Pride event. He replied “Not sure if I am politically for pride (must one celebrate privilege?).My own view is that a World Pride parade is hardly a celebration of privilege, when so many countries still penalize gays and some even execute them for engaging in homosexual acts.  Even here in Canada, gays are not privileged, unless you think marriage is a privilege for anyone (such would be the case in totalitarian countries where no one, gay or straight, can marry anyone without state permission).
Why should the right to marry be so important for gays? Lots of people, gay and straight, criticize the institution of marriage, and others don’t want to marry for personal reasons. Why aren’t civil partnerships enough for gays, giving them rights, for example, to be designated next of kin when one is hospitalized, to inherit from each other, and even to sponsor each other’s immigration?
The answer lies in the definition of human dignity.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in the first paragraph of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The drafters of the UDHR never could agree on what dignity meant, but they knew it was important. They certainly didn’t mean the right of gay marriage back in 1948. Although article 16 of the UDHR says “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and found a family”, the implicit assumption was that men and women would marry each other, not someone of the same sex. In 1948 homosexuality was illegal in most Western countries. People didn’t speak of it. British people of my mother’s generation used the term  “confirmed bachelor” to describe gay men, meaning there was no point in considering them as future heterosexual marriage partners.
In 1995 I was trying to figure out what exactly human dignity meant. I concluded that “dignity requires personal autonomy, societal concern and respect, and treatment by others in society as an equal.’ (see Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Westview Press, 1995, p. 17). The legalization of gay marriage does allow gays and lesbians to autonomously choose to marry, or not.  It implies that they are legally equal to heterosexuals. And it demonstrates some societal concern and respect: it show that others in society want to respect gay relationships and are concerned that gays be treated well,
Doron Shultziner
Another, perhaps better, way top put this is to talk about the need for recognition. My friend and colleague Doron Shultziner wrote an entry on recognition for the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Doron writes: ‘To recognize…means to behave in a manner that satisfies expectations of respect and contributes to a sense of positive self-esteem in those who are recognized.” He explains that philosophers have discussed the concept of recognition since Plato, who spoke of the soul’s need for pride and honor. From slaves to women to minorities, Doron says, people seek this recognition, or honor, both as individuals and as collectivities. Honor means that the individual is no longer stigmatized; he is no longer considered deviant, less than fully human, outside the community of obligation.
This is particularly important in North America, if not elsewhere, because of the intensified persecution of gay teenagers in high schools, not only through traditional face-to-face methods of bullying but also through cyber-bullying. Gay teenagers have extremely high rates of suicide. In my own high school days, gay teenagers were somewhat protected by schools’ and society’s disinclination to speak about sexual matters at all. When I was in grade 12, a couple of boys I knew were quietly separated, one being sent to a different school because they were gay, but I don’t believe they were bullied. Nowadays, we have the paradox that despite homosexuality being more accepted in Canadian society, gay children suffer intensely. And there is nothing in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically protects gay children. This is not surprising, because there is still no United Nations Convention on gay rights.
So the “privilege” of gay marriage is not a privilege at all. It is a method of acknowledging, recognizing, and honoring gay relationships, just as straight relationships have always been honored. It is a furthering of the core human rights mission of human dignity. Gay children need this dignity too.