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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Don't let diaspora politics twist Canada's foreign policy Add to ...

Ujjal Dosanjh, a former NDP premier of British Columbia and since 2004 a Liberal MP, said something sensible and brave this week.

Mr. Dosanjh was physically assaulted in 1985 after he denounced religious violence in the Sikh community. Recently, he and another Sikh-Canadian politician were told to stay away from an annual Sikh festival in Surrey. Always a voice for moderation, Mr. Dosanjh observed this week that religious intolerance remains a problem in parts of that community. Separatist extremism for an independent Punjab is stronger in some Canadian Sikh communities than in the Punjab itself, he said.

Multiculturalism, he warned, can be dangerous if "there is no adherence to core values, the core Canadian values which [are] That you don't threaten people who differ with you; you don't attack them personally; you don't terrorize the populace." His comments about Sikh extremism provoked several death threats against him.

Multiculturalism has greatly enriched Canada, making it a more interesting, vibrant and outward-looking country. But multiculturalism can be dangerous if diaspora politics twist Canada's foreign policies to suit ethnic demands.

For starters, Canadian federalism has had, and will likely have again, its own unity problems. The last thing Canada needs to encourage, or be seen to be encouraging, is the breakup of other multiethnic or multilingual federations.

Except under circumstances of mass oppression or systematic denials of human rights elsewhere, Canada should want non-unitary states to remain together. That means Canadian governments should not give in to ethnic pressures here from groups that want separate states carved from within existing ones. At the very least, Canada should wait until events play themselves out in these sorts of places, and not rush to sanction secessions or breakups.

Sometimes, it appears Canadian politicians understand this lesson. When thousands of Tamils descended on Ottawa demanding that the government do "something" to stop the war in Sri Lanka that their side was about to lose, and to support an independent Tamil state, politicians from every party kept their distance.

No political party in Canada supports those in the Sikh diaspora calling for the creation of an independent Punjabi state, or Khalistan. That such voices continue to be heard in the Canadian Sikh community, and that some Canadian-grown terrorists who favour Khalistan might be living here, was raised by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he met Prime Minister Stephen Harper last fall.

Ethnic disputes elsewhere should stay elsewhere, although this often is easier said than done. Remember that in the 19th century, lots of Irish immigrants to Canada agitated for an independent Ireland. A few radicals associated with the radical Fenian movement, seeking an independent Ireland, lived in Canada. One suspected member of that group assassinated Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a father of Confederation.

Certain groups harbour collective memories of things done to their ancestors and want the Canadian government to take sides in historical disputes. The Armenian disapora is particularly mobilized to press governments to denounce the events during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and World War One, even though what happened did not involve Canada, and does not involve Canada today.

Unwisely, the Harper government took a position recognizing the Armenian "genocide," then somewhat altered its position, then changed it back again. Today, elements of the Armenian diaspora around the world are very loudly and unhelpfully condemning efforts by Turkey and Armenia to talk about settling their many disputes - a classic case of diaspora politics having a wholly negative influence.

Absolutely no good can come from Canadian governments and parliaments passing retrospective judgment on historical events that did not concern us because diasporas here are exercised about them. If that ever became the norm, terrible events about which governments and parliaments could pass judgment would never end, nor would the disputes about them in Canada. Such retrospective judgments make it harder for ethnic conflicts to be forgotten in Canada.

Moreover, Canada was present at the creation of "peacekeeping" and has participated in many overseas missions to keep warring parties apart, whether in the Middle East (Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip) or Cyprus or the Balkans. We ought to know from experience overseas what ethnic conflict can breed, and how unhelpful it can be to take sides in many instances.

Perhaps the most intense split of all is that between Israel and Palestine, at least in terms of length and breadth. Supporters of Israel and the Palestinians argue their respective cases, and put their opposing narratives of history and current reality, before the Canadian government and public. Supporters of both sides quarrel at universities where anti-Israeli groups have drowned out voices they do not like in institutions where free speech is supposed to be respected, indeed cherished.

Both sides want Canadian governments to accept their narrative, and vote at the United Nations accordingly. Previous governments had tried to maintain some semblance of a balanced position in this entrenched dispute, always supporting Israel but urging a two-state solution. The Harper government, by contrast, has tilted unconditionally toward Israel.

If Canada ever had a small bit of credibility in the region as an honest broker, or at least a country both sides could talk to and be understood, those days are over, at least for a while.

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