Irwin Cotler named special envoy for Holocaust remembrance and the fight against anti-Semitism

The federal government has named former Liberal justice minister and internationally-known human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler as Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating anti-Semitism.

Former Liberal justice minister is an internationally respected human rights lawyer

Former Liberal MP and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has been named Canada's special envoy on Holocaust remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal government has named former Liberal justice minister and internationally-known human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler as Canada's special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating anti-Semitism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment today, stating that the government is committed to strengthening Canada's efforts to advance education, research and remembrance at home and abroad.

"We must never forget the painful lessons of the Holocaust, or the memories of those who lived through it, because anti-Semitism has no place in Canada, or anywhere else," Trudeau said in a media statement. 

Anti-Semitism on the rise

The position is not paid but Cotler's expenses will be reimbursed, said the PMO.

Calling the Holocaust "one of the darkest chapters in human history," a government news release said Jewish communities in Canada and around the world are facing a rising number of anti-Semitic incidents 75 years after the liberation of Nazi concentration and extermination camps revealed the full horrors of the Holocaust.

"The government of Canada will always stand with the Jewish community and fight the anti-Semitism, hatred and racism that incites such despicable acts," the release reads. 

"We will also continue to preserve the stories of survivors through younger generations, and work to promote and defend pluralism, inclusion, and human rights."

The PMO pointed to Cotler's record on fighting racism and his experience in defending human rights through legal cases, including some related to mass atrocities.

Appointment welcomed

Cotler will lead the government's delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), working with 33 other member countries while reaching out to Canadians, civil society groups and academics.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center human rights advocacy group welcomed the appointment, calling the role "tremendously important."

"At a time of rising anti-Semitism and dwindling awareness of the Holocaust, this initiative is more important than ever," the organization's president and CEO Michael Levitt said in a statement.

Levitt said it's important that Cotler will have a mandate that gives him responsibility for advancing the implementation and adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism in institutions across Canada and internationally, including at the United Nations and other international institutions.

B'nai Brith Canada also applauded the appointment.

"This announcement is a major step forward in the fight against anti-Semitism in Canada and shows a much-needed seriousness in our government's commitment to this promise," said the organization's CEO Michael Mostyn.

Cotler called 'icon'

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) also weighed in, calling Cotler an "icon" who has fought for human rights for decades.

"Anti-Jewish racism is a cancer, and there is no one more qualified than Mr. Cotler to lead the fight against it on Canada's behalf on the international stage," said Jeffrey Rosenthal, co-chair of CIJA's board of directors.

But Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) issued a statement saying the group is deeply troubled by Cotler's appointment. IJV said the move shows the Canadian government is aligning itself with a "highly controversial" IHRA definition of anti-Semitism it claims is being used to portray supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic.

IJV's national coordinator Corey Balsam called on provincial and municipal governments, universities and other institutions to oppose the IHRA definition, arguing that anti-Semitism cannot be fought at the expense of legitimate criticism of Israeli human rights violations.

"It is vital that the memory of the Holocaust be preserved and that anti-Semitism be taken on forcefully," Balsam said. "However, the appointment of Cotler to such a post virtually guarantees that the Canadian government will go about this in the wrong way.

"Cotler's approach is likely to be counterproductive to the fight against anti-Semitism because it seeks to muddy the waters and will ultimately confuse people as to what is and is not anti-Semitic."

Cotler is the founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and emeritus professor of law at Montreal's McGill University.