Wiesel, Jewish leaders rap changes to Canada’s refugee policy

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel joined a growing list of Jewish leaders who are calling on Canada to reverse changes to legislation that denies health care to refugee claimants.

In a letter released last week to the Globe and Mail newspaper, Wiesel said he supports the Toronto Board of Rabbis, which has called on Canada’s federal government to abandon the changes, which end most health benefits to certain refugees.

“As a former refugee, together with the Toronto Board of Rabbis, I feel morally compelled to remain on the side of other uprooted men and women everywhere,” Wiesel wrote. “Today, as yesterday, a nation is judged by its attitude towards refugees.”

The Globe noted that Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was a keynote speaker two years ago at a conference on anti-Semitism in Ottawa that was organized with the help of Canadian immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is behind the refugee reforms.

Under the changes that took effect June 30, all benefits and payments for supplemental medical treatment formerly provided by the federal government are denied to refugees who come from a country that Canada deems “safe.” The list of countries has yet to be announced, but it is expected to include Hungary, and critics say the changes target Roma refugees.

In an unusual move for a group that rarely speaks out on political issues, the Toronto Board of Rabbis wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 18 urging him to drop the measure.

Last month, three prominent members of the Jewish community, including a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, published a letter in the Globe pointing out parallels between the law and earlier measures designed to keep Jews out of the country.

Similarly, in a column in the Gazette, the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre urged Ottawa “to apply these new reforms with extreme caution, given the resurgence of racist and anti-Semitic threats in certain European countries.”

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said his organization agrees with many of the changes that the Conservative government has made to refugee policy intended to prevent bogus claims. But with regard to the health benefits, he said that “we have some concerns, and we have registered some of them with the government.”

Ottowa municipal building named for mayor called anti-Semitic

Despite opposition from Jewish groups, a municipal committee in Ottawa voted to name a new building after a former mayor described as an unrepentant anti-Semite.

In a controversial vote May 3, a city of Ottawa subcommittee voted to rename a new archives and library building after Charlotte Whitton, the Canadian capital’s first female mayor.

Whitton was first elected in 1951 but historians and some Jewish leaders have pointed out that, during World War II, she actively lobbied against admitting Jewish orphans to Canada.

“Our opposition of Charlotte Whitton is because of the critical role she played in making sure that Canada didn’t accept any Jewish refugees trying to escape the atrocities in Nazi Germany,” Mitchell Bellman, president of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, told CBC News.

Bellman added that Whitton campaigned coast to coast against “anyone who was not British – so that included French-Canadians, Armenians, Italians.”

Canadian Jewish Congress also opposed the honor for Whitton.

Whitton’s role in blocking non-British refugee children – 80 percent of whom were Jewish – is cited in the 1982 book “None is Too Many,” by Canadian historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper.

Then a social worker, Whitton was an “influential voice” in the early 1940s, when she served on two key committees, the book states.

She “nearly broke up” the inaugural meeting of a committee on war-era refugees “by her insistent opposition and very apparent anti-Semitism,” the book says. The CJC, it adds, considered Whitton, who died in 1975, “an enemy of Jewish immigration.”

Ottawa’s full municipal council will still have to support the motion in another vote on May 12 before any name change is approved.