Cashra Conference

Good morning. It is an honour to be with all of you here today, in such beautiful surroundings.

When the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission contacted me, months ago, to speak before you this morning, there was good news and bad news.

The good news was that the conference was going to be taking place in Banff, when there was still a possibility to ski on some real hills – not the little bumps we have near Toronto. That was the good news.

The bad news was the huge piece of real estate they asked me to canvass with you this morning. “Understanding our attitudes and the pathology of hate” is the official name for this session. “Understanding our attitudes and the pathology of hate.” That’s a pretty big order to fill, but I will do my best.

Pathology, I have decided, is a good word to describe hate. Pathology, as all of you already know, is the branch of medical science that studies the causes and nature and effects of diseases. And that is certainly what hate is – systemic or organized hate.

A disease. Today I will speak about one component of the disease, and what we should do to cure it.

But first, let me tell you a story. It’s the story of how I came to write this book, Web of Hate. It’s the story of why I am here before you today.

Now, I don’t know how respectable I look to you. Do I look very respectable? I probably look more respectable today than I did one night twenty years ago.

More than twenty years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, I was still a teenager. Back then, I had a lot more hair, and I was a member of a Calgary rock band. Our band – I won’t tell you our name, because it’s far too embarrassing – was backing up a well-known British group at the University of Calgary, my alma mater.

After we played our set of songs, we climbed off the stage – and I came face-to-face with organized racism for the first time.

Picture this: standing there before me and my friends were three large young men. All of them were making salutes – fascist salutes. And one of the young men, presumably their leader, was wearing a T-shirt that read: “DROWN THE BOAT PEOPLE.”

Drown the boat people. I could not believe my eyes. I could not believe it.

I was an average kid who had grown up in Calgary: white, middle-class, Catholic, dated girls. Never before had I seen something like that. Never before – outside of a movie, or a play, or a documentary – had I seen someone give a Nazi salute.

After the initial shock wore off – and it was a shock, believe me – I told the guy in the T-shirt to stop making Nazi salutes. Angry words were exchanged. A fight broke out.

On that night, our side won the battle. But, later on, as we were leaving the concert, the guy in the T-shirt – looking bruised and dishevelled – pointed at us and yelled: “We’ll be back!”

We’ll be back.

You know what? He was telling the truth. They are back.

They are here. They never went away, in fact.

In the many years since that fateful encounter, organized racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia have grown into a significant social problem in Canada. In every city. In every region. From coast to coast – Canada’s far right leader’s have shown us that they are a tenacious lot, possessing ample resources and a fierce commitment to the ideology of bigotry.

They are known to us by different names – anti-Semites, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racial separatists, Identity Christians, Klansmen, Creators, Dualists, Odinists, Revisionists, or any one of a score of other variations. They come together to form groups like the Aryan Nations, or the Heritage Front, or the Canadian Liberty Net, or the Northern Hammerskins.

Their organizations come and go. But they – the men and women who hate – mostly do not.

Year after year after year, they persist. From one end of Canada to another. In small towns and big cities. On school grounds and in army barracks. In innocuous-sounding think-tanks and in supposedly mainstream political parties. In the media, even – which I want to discuss in detail, in a moment.

They defiantly cling to the tenets of hate, and they organize. They pass out leaflets on street corners. They burn crosses in rural fields. They set up hate messages on phone lines and the Internet.

Sometimes they beat people up. Sometimes, they kill people.

Through the years, my encounter with that young man in the T-shirt on St. Patrick’s Day has stayed with me.

As a journalist, as a lawyer, I continued to be haunted by that encounter. I studied the subject of racism. I interviewed people about it, from one end of Canada to the other.

I saw their cross-burnings. I read their vile hate propaganda. I listened to their leaders’ rantings. Along the way, I’ve had rifles jammed in my chest – and my family and I have been threatened with beatings, bombings and drive-by shootings.

And over and over, people have asked me – and friends and family, too – “Why, Warren? Why do you write about these haters? Why don’t you just ignore them? Aren’t you just giving them publicity? Why take the risk?”

Those are fair questions. Why give these hate groups publicity? Why not just ignore the people who promote intolerance? If we just ignore them, I am often told, these people will just go away.

With respect, I disagree. Often, when we ignore those who hate, they grow stronger. They grow more bold. Let me give you an example.

There is a man who you may know. He is an educated man. He is a successful man. He has received many citations and awards. He is a writer – a well-known writer. Here are some of the things he writes – and I apologize in advance for the for the crudity of some of these quotations:

Read where he writes that Jews are “intolerant” and they are “the biggest threat to freedom of speech.” That Jews “steal.”

Read where he writes that the Holocaust – the systematic killing of millions of Jews and gypsies and gays and dissidents and disabled people – was “impossible.” That it makes no “difference” whether millions were slaughtered or not. That trying to prosecute war criminals – the murderers of those millions – is “a witch hunt.” That Adolf Hitler, the man we know devised the Holocaust, actually “disapproved” of murders and attacks on Jews.

Read where he writes that women who believe in gender are “feminazis.” Read where he writes that, in Canada’s universities, “the bitch culture ensures that fems lead the band.”

Read where this man writes that the Heritage Front, the largest and most violent neo-Nazi group in recent Canadian history, is a “target” of minority groups. Read where he writes that neo-Nazi skinheads “are simply mixed-up kiddies whose daddies let them stay out too late.” Read where he writes that the Canadian League of Rights, the country’s oldest anti-Semitic group, “fights for traditional Canada.” Read where he writes that a man who has written that Jews are not human is “a fine fellow.” That the world’s largest Holocaust-denying group is “scholarly.”

Read where this man writes that gays are “homos,” and “filth” and “dirt” and “a health menace” and that they deserve to die of AIDS. Read where he writes that “immigrants” should be kept out of Canada, because they carry AIDS.

Read where he writes that immigrants are “atrocities” and “scum.” Read where he writes that “blacks don’t seem capable of helping themselves.” That blacks “would really like to be whites.” Read where he urges the Reform Party – the party he tried to run for, and he regularly promotes – to “play the race card” and keep out non-white immigrants and refugees.

Read where he states that Canada “needs a little apartheid.” Read where he states that it is “good” to be intolerant.

Good to be intolerant. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

These words do not come from the pamphlets of some hate group in Toronto. They are not taken from the speeches of a Ku Klux Klan leader in Saskatchewan.

No. These words come from a newspaper columnist, who was employed – for a long time – by the same people who own the Calgary Herald, and most other major daily newspapers in Canada. These words come from a man named Doug Collins, columnist for the North Shore News.

None of the things I just read to you are unique. They are nothing new. Doug Collins churned out this kind of crap in the North Shore News for year after year after year. With impunity. With pride.

I can tell you – with absolute certainty and conviction – that ignoring Doug Collins and hoping he would just go away, did not work. Dismissing him as a harmless crank did not moderate his opinions in any way.

No. Doug Collins has not seen the error of his ways. On the contrary: over the years, he has become more extreme.

He has testified in court on behalf of Ernst Zundel, a man who wrote a book called “The Hitler We Loved and Why.” He can be found featured on the web site of Stormfront, the largest Nazi Internet site in North America. He writes a regular column now for Freedom Site, Canada’s largest neo-Nazi web address. He has travelled around North America, associating with – and promoting – Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazi leaders, year after year after year.

In all of that time, Southam News did nothing – absolutely nothing – about Doug Collins. Instead, they sent him a paycheque, and they plastered his face on advertisements all over Vancouver. When the Canadian Jewish Congress took him to task for his infamous “Swindler’s List” column, Southam paid his legal bills and continued to look the other way.

Only after he retired – only after he was long gone – did we learn, for the first time, that Southam apparently disapproved of Doug Collins.

On Marc Lemire’s Freedom Site, there is a revealing exchange of letters between Collins and Southam’s owner, Conrad Black. In one letter, Mr. Black tells Doug Collins – and I quote – “Unfortunately, some of your editorial reflections are such that, while we don’t contest your right to your opinions, we are not prepared to publish or underwrite them ourselves.” End quote.

Bravo, I say. Bravo. Just one question, Mr. Black: what took you so long? Where were you a couple of years ago, when Doug Collins was calling gays “dirt” and immigrants “scum?” Where were you then?

Given the sort of garbage he offered up as editorial commentary, it is unsurprising that Collins regularly gives speeches, or receives monies, from anti-Semitic and racist organizations. What was surprising, however, was this: the reaction, or lack of it, of most major Canadian media commentators to Collins. Almost to a one, they have spent considerably more column space defending Collins right to express himself – and considerably less energy using facts to counter the racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia that characterized his writings.

But this is nothing new. An entire volume could be filled with the moronoic approach the Canadian mass media have taken with the racists and neo-Nazis for whom Doug Collins is an apologist. In the first Zundel trial, for example, we all watched – with horror – the willingness of Canadian reporters and editors to provide an uncritical platform for a parade of Holocaust-denying witnesses, including Doug Collins and David Irving.

In the process, the Canadian media gave a far wider circulation to the Holocaust-denying propaganda than Zundel had been able to achieve on his own.

Now, we are never going to eliminate this problem entirely. In Canada, as elsewhere, media pulpits are always going to be eagerly sought by those who preach discord and division – and, unless we are on guard, intolerant messages will be widely disseminated. The Doug Collins case, however, demonstrates that – in Canada, at least – one important institution upon which we have traditionally relied to warn us about against threats to this nation’s liberal democracy is completely under-equipped for the task. In order to safeguard the values which Canadians cherish – and the values which the international community associates with us – we need to get tougher with our media. We need to challenge their lapses, inadvertent or otherwise, with quick letters to the editor, or Op Eds, or calls to editors. We need to ensure that journalism schools, and aspiring journalists, are equipped with briefing packages about the insidious threat posed by organized racism.

And, if need be, we have to be ready to take on the media – at Press Councils, with Ombudsmen, with whatever it takes. The stakes are too high to look the other way, as Conrad Black and Southam News did for so long with Doug Collins.

At the end of the day, however, we need to know one other thing. As frustrating as it might be – as tragic as it is – none of us is going to change Doug Collins’ mind. The things he has written – the hateful people he promotes – are between he and his God, if he has one.

Besides: Doug Collins, in a very odd way, is not the issue here.

The issue is us. The issue is what have we done to raise our voices against the likes of Doug Collins – and against Southam News’ bewildering decision to publish him. The issue is what we say to our children, or our neighbours, when they express astonishment that such hurtful words are published here in Canada, in our homes, at the start of a new millennium.

We will never fully eradicate the threat posed by the propagandizing of the racist right. The jurisdictionless nature of the Internet has ensured that.

But in our mainstream media – in the newspapers which land on our doorsteps, and which our children read, too – we can do something. We must do something.

Right here, right now, let’s make a collective decision – to fight racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia and intolerance, wherever they are found. If that means taking on someone like Conrad Black, so be it. The stakes are too high to look the other way.

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