What do Canadians who lived through communism think of Ottawa's proposed monument?
Victims of communism weigh in on Ottawa's controversial memorial
"In times of never-ending economic and political turmoil in the world, our country is an island of stability," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week as he addressed the crowd in Ottawa about what makes Canada the best place in the world to live.
For decades, Canada has welcomed people fleeing persecution of all kinds, including violence under communist regimes. According to a group called Tribute to Liberty, more than eight million Canadians trace their roots to communist countries. That's why the group is pushing to build a monument to honour those who have suffered under communist tyranny. But things aren't exactly going smoothly.
Opponents of the monument have filed a lawsuit against it. Among their concerns, they take issue with its proposed the location, right next to the Supreme Court and Department of Justice buildings. And NDP MP Paul Dewar says Tory cabinet ministers didn't properly consult the public before deciding on that location. The scale and size of the monument's design also came under fire, before the National Capital Commission (NCC) significantly scaled it back.
But what do Canadians who have fled communist countries make of all of this controversy? Brent Bambury talks with Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, the founding member of Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine, Maggie Hou, a Chinese human rights activist, and Gabor Maté, a physician and author who specializes in addiction treatment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Oksana let me start with you. How has your life been affected by communism?
O: I wouldn't be in Canada if we had not in Ukraine had two horrible atrocious invaders: the Nazis and the communists. My father was incarcerated in Auschwitz and my mother and I were left alone. Everything was burning around us, we were put against the wall to be shot. And finally she managed to escape with me and we were reunited with my father in Europe. We were fortunate enough to then come to Canada
So that's a dramatic life story. Do you support this monument Oksana?
Maggie, what kind of impact has communism had on your life?
M: When I was 19, I experienced the 1989 student demonstrations. I witnessed how outrageously China's leaders treated students. And I knew they were murdering people in Tiananmen. I came to Canada in 2009 after a few weeks in China's prison. Being pregnant at the time, I sought refugee status in Canada.
So Canada welcomed you, do you welcome this monument?
M: That's absolutely true, yes.
Gabor, what about you?
G: I grew up under communism in Budapest, Hungary. The Soviet army saved my life, being a Jewish infant. We would have died had they not chased out the Nazis. I believed in the system quite fervently until October 1956 when the Hungarian revolution against Soviet occupation and communist oppression took place. Overnight my eyes opened. I just saw that everything I believed in was a lie, that the system that I thought offered freedom actually offered severe oppression. And of course my parents and teachers who knew better, they were all afraid to say anything as I was growing up. So the awakening was very shocking and very quick. We left the country along with other Hungarian refugees and were welcomed in Canada by the Canadian people.
And Gabor, as a Hungarian refugee from communism, do you support the monument?
G: No, I think it's a travesty. There's nothing democratic about the whole thing. As far as I understand, it happened on the personal initiative of a very well-to-do Toronto architect who happens to come from Poland, the place of communism, who himself is an architect with a fair bit of hubris, I think. He suggested a very Stalinist kind of structure; gigantic and monolithic. And in a place that the government decided arbitrarily was going to be in a location, which is very important to Canadians in general, for heritage and other reasons. The controversy has come to public view and public attention now, and I think that's a really good thing.
So Oksana, this monument has been mired in controversy over its site and its scale and the political involvement. That's made it very contentious. Do you wish that this had been handled differently?
O: Well, of course, I would like the focus to be on the evils of communism, on Canada's liberty, on Canada as a place that takes in displaced people like me. However, the controversy may be because there is that word "communism." There are very many people that want to whitewash communist crimes. Communism is still with us. It is still a dictatorial perverse kind of ideology that aims to run the world.
But that isn't what people are addressing when they talk about the controversy.
O: They are not informed. This is why this tribute to liberty is important. It will be a reminder to Canadians that there was and still is another criminal other than the Nazis.
But had it been put on another site or had it been put together with different funding or had the scale been different, then these controversies wouldn't have existed.
O: That may well be, that may well be. We are now confronted with what we have. I hope the controversies are resolved, but I hope that they are not resolved at the expense of not having the monument or postponing it at infinitum. That is a tactic that I, as a Ukrainian, and following the situation in Ukraine very closely today, know. You obfuscate, you throw up obstacles, you want peace but you create war because you do not want something to happen.
Oksana, are you saying that the people who filed this lawsuit are opposing this because they object to a monument to the victims of communism?
O: I don't know, you'll have to ask them.
But that seems to be what you're implying.
O: I am saying this, that at the 11th hour there are people that are filing a suit against process. The important thing is not where it is or what it looks like. The most important thing is that we have this monument. We don't have a monument anywhere in Canada that is a place where we can take refuge, where we can celebrate our families that have died.
Maggie what do you make of the controversy around the monument — over its site, over the funding of the monument, and over the scale?
M: I would say, "Bravo Canada! Thank you for choosing to make this site in the capital of Canada a place for memories of the names of numerous people who have died." Numerous people, not only in China but worldwide, would be extremely grateful for Canada's stand on this place.
But Maggie let me ask you about the implementation. It's the implementation of the monument that's controversial, it's not the gesture of the monument itself. Do you believe that the implementation of the monument has been handled in a way that's respectful to the people who it's memorializing?
M: I think it went through the Parliament and it went through NCC, it went through public consultation. Of course whenever you do such a thing, whether you recognize the victims of communism, there will definitely be public discussions. There are people who tried to manoeuvre it from different directions. I think it's actually a positive thing about democracy. It wouldn't happen in China if that were the case.
Gabor, let me ask you what do you think of what Maggie and Oksana just said in their support of the monument?
G: Well I totally understand how based on their personal suffering and the suffering of the people from which they've sprung, they'd want that suffering acknowledged. That's a natural human desire. As a physician, as a medical doctor, I've worked with traumatized people for decades. It's very discouraging and frustrating and painful for people not to have their trauma acknowledged. Nevertheless, I think this monument is a travesty, because it's cheap. It's very easy to build a monument to the victims of other people. How about we look at ourselves first? I deal with First Nations' people a lot. I can tell you about a First Nations child in British Columbia, a woman who's 58 now. When she was four years old she went to residential school, spoke her native tongue and she had a pin stuck in her tongue for a whole hour. And then all the sexual abuse that went on and all the children that died in those schools. I say if you're going to build a monument to victims of oppression and injustice, let's build a monument to our own victims first and then talk about the sins of other people.
But is the monument simply a monument to oppression and injustice? Is it not also, Gabor, a valid symbol for the refuge that Canada gave to thousands of people like you and Maggie and Oksana?
G: I'm completely in favour of acknowledging that role and position that Canada has occupied. But let's also at the same time acknowledge that we've denied that refuge to people that were here before we were. And so for me it's hypocrisy to focus on our good side, which we have, and on the harm that other people have done, which is true, while ignoring our own negative side and the harm that we have done.
Oksana What do you think of what Gabor just said?
O: I worked for Indian Affairs, I know natives quite well. I agree 100 per cent that they need their place in Canada's sun and I would think Canadians support this 100 per cent. We are not "other" Canadians, we are Canadians. We are eight million Canadians that have suffered and come to Canada because of communist persecution. And I think it's high time that these Canadians that have served Canada and love Canada and are the first ones to come out and say, "Canada is the best place in the world." You know why? Because they know other governments.
M: I want to address what Gabor just said.
Yes Maggie, go ahead.
M: I think that this tribute to liberty is a stand against oppression. That's fundamentally what it is — a stand against dictatorship. It's a reminder, particularly by standing beside the Supreme Court and the Justice building, to say the role of our highest authority is to stand for human rights, for ultimate justice, in order so that not only in Canada but worldwide we stand guarded against the ultimate control of ourselves, our body, our mind. I mean the thing about other types of victims, is there's a way to get redress. I'd say the aboriginal people have sought redress and they're almost there. I think in Canada and in many Western countries this is ongoing. But communism so far has had very little chance to get redress. That's what we are speaking for: the voiceless.
Oksana you live in Ottawa, where there are many opponents to this monument: the chief justice of the Supreme Court is one, the mayor of Ottawa is another. How much is the opposition to this monument distorting the message that you want Canadians to get from it?
O: I think the tribute to liberty, a place of refuge is a reminder of what Canada stands for. And I hope the controversy will backfire and have a positive effect and that is, it's causing a fair amount of discussion.