Canada needs today’s graduates, their ideas and their contributions, to protect the country’s cultural mosaic, Irving Abella, eminent historian and president of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada, told graduates at the Thursday afternoon session of Western’s 304th Convocation.
Abella spoke to graduates from Brescia University College, Huron University College, the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Ivey Business School, as well as the faculties of Engineering, Health Sciences and Science.
Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LL.D.) upon Abella in recognition of his distinguished career as a historian during which his commitment to social justice has been exemplary.
“Justice and tolerance have a long history in this country, but so do injustice and intolerance,” Abella said.
He reminded graduates of a time before the 1960s when Canada’s immigration laws were xenophobic, even downright racist, stringently exclusive to persons of Asian and African countries specifically, Abella explained.
“Justice was a distant dream for minorities, and for much of our history, Canadian immigration policy has been racist and exclusionary. We knew what kind of people we wanted, and how to keep out those we didn’t want.”
Once Canadian immigration laws relaxed in the 1960s, ironically, there came a flood of immigrants from countries we tried to ban before, Abella continued.
These new immigrants, who settled and worked hard and created a new life in Canada, likewise formed a new nation, one of tolerance, he said.
“Your task as graduates is to protect and enhance their achievements.”
Born and educated in Toronto, Abella, who teaches history at York University, is renowned for his commitment to the principles of social justice and tolerance.
His work on the Canadian labour movement and the history of Jewish Canadians is widely praised. Abella is best known for his book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948, which he co-authored with Harold Troper. First published in 1983, and re-issued most recently in 2013, the book highlights how little the Canadian government did for Jewish refugees between 1933-48.
“What is important about the Abella and Troper book is not only the historical detail it provides, but the message it presents to Canadians,” said Psychology professor Victoria Esses in her citation.
“As a country with relatively favourable attitudes toward immigrants and immigration, we may pride ourselves on our tolerance. But we must not become too complaisant in an era in which refugee claimants are still dehumanized and viewed with suspicion and distrust by many Canadians. In response to the arrival in British Columbia of a ship carrying Tamil refugee claimants from Sri Lanka in 2010, a national poll found that a full 63 per cent of Canadians endorsed the view that the ship should have been turned back and not allowed to reach Canada – this despite the fact that most Canadians had little knowledge of who these refugee claimants were and why they were willing to put their lives at risk to come to Canada. Perhaps None is Too Many should be required reading for all Canadians,” she continued.
In addition to None is Too Many, Abella has published more than 100 articles as well as six other books. He is a Member of the Order of Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Member of the Order of Ontario. Abella is the current president of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada, and former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and of the Canadian Historical Association, as well as former chair of Vision TV and of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East.
“Over the past generation or two, we have created a unique country, a pluralist country. The Canadian mosaic is the single most important aspect we have,” Abella said.
What makes Canada so special, he continued, is the unwritten code that bigotry will not be allowed. We have freedom of speech and we have freedom from speech – we do not allow hate mongers to spew their opinions in a public forum. We protect one another and we protect our freedom.
“Sadly, those values that define our nation are under attack,” Abella said, with a nod to this week’s tragedies attributed to terrorism on Canadian soil.
“Intolerance, it seems, is the growth industry of the new century,” he said.
But recent events cannot muddy Canada’s tolerant waters. We must not allow legitimate concerns of security to allow intolerance, Abella warned.
Let history be your guide. It will be your judge, he said.
“Be proud of what you have achieved, and be proud of the country of which you achieved it in. Defend its values, expand its vision, never forget its history.”