Tony Comper is co-founder of FAST and the former president and chief executive officer of Bank of Montreal
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney recently laid out a 10-point Agenda for Canadian Greatness.
You may think his calls for the dismantlement of interprovincial trade barriers, a free-trade area of the Americas and a productivity enhancement program for Canadian industry would warm this former banker’s heart.
But it was his call for “greater fairness and opportunities for our Black, Indigenous and people of colour, together with a national commitment to the eradication of systemic racism and anti-Semitism in Canada,” that stirred me.
In 2004, there had been a wave of terrible anti-Semitic incidents in Montreal and Toronto. One morning, when I was shaving before heading off to work, my dearly beloved wife, Elizabeth, cornered me. She said, “Tony, we’ve got to do something about this.”
She was right. As we started thinking about what could be done, we concluded that anti-Semitism was not an issue for the Jewish community to solve; it was an issue for all of us to solve. So, we launched FAST, which stands for Fighting Antisemitism Together. As the cornerstone of this initiative, I assembled a group of prominent and pointedly non-Jewish business and community leaders to stand up and speak out against anti-Semitism.
As a condition of joining our coalition, each of them committed $10,000 in funding. Much more important than the money, they agreed to lend their names and their organizations’ name. We ran full page advertisements in newspapers across Canada. The ads stated: “We created FAST in honour of the right of Jewish children to live secure and unafraid, and with a solemn promise that Jews are no longer on their own in this great nation in this new century.”
While we believed it was important to send a signal to the Jewish community – especially the children – that they were not alone, we also knew that simply taking a stand was not enough.
Elizabeth, a former teacher who had taught at a Jewish parochial school in Montreal, believed that education was the only way to tackle the root of the problem – the intrafamilial transmission of hate.
Working with educators, FAST eventually developed two educational programs that met provincial curriculum guidelines in all 10 provinces to help teachers. Choose Your Voice is aimed at students 11 to 14 in grades 6, 7 and 8. Voices into Action is aimed at students in grades 9 to 12, and it is also used for adult education.
So far, 4.4 million Canadian students have learned about prejudice, human rights and social justice through our free curriculum-based teaching resources, which are available in English and French.
When I was chief executive officer of Bank of Montreal, I spent a great deal of time on succession planning. That’s a unique responsibility when you are charged with running a 200-year-old bank. This year, as I turned 75 during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt that the time was right for FAST to join forces with Catherine Chatterley of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism to ensure FAST’s important mission continues for many years to come.
The events of the past few months have served as a stark reminder that there is systemic racism and prejudice in every facet of our society. The tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered something inside many around the globe that the time has long passed for silence in the face of hatred and bigotry.
Everyone in Canada, regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, should always live secure, be unafraid and feel welcome and included.
In 2020, let us commit, as a country, never to be bystanders. Let us no longer permit the haters and their like-minded kin to spread their poison unscathed. Let us embolden and encourage those with still-open hearts and minds to stand up and speak out.
Let us support our school teachers and ensure they have the training and tools they need, so we can provide a positive counternarrative to children who are exposed to hate. By marginalizing the haters, bigots, racists and bullies, we can take away their power to intimidate.
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