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Opinion We can’t let Ottawa’s Holocaust monument become an empty symbol

Menachem Freedman sits on the board of directors of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. He is in his final year at the McGill University Faculty of Law and a legal intern at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. He will be presenting a paper on genocide monuments at the International Association of Genocide Scholars conference this July. The opinions in this article are his own.

'Canada is the only allied nation without a Holocaust monument in its capital' admonishes the website of Canada's newly chosen National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa. As a Canadian descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am deeply moved by this gesture on the part of our government.

In the words of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the new monument is meant to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. This is certainly an important goal. But recent events in Canada suggest that we must do more than build monuments to truly honour the memory of those six million Jews and many other victims who perished in the Second World War.

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In fact, Canada will now become the only allied country to have a national Holocaust monument in its capital which is not integrally connected to a Holocaust museum. Institutions like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington are inherently educational institutions dedicated to the dissemination of information. The Canadian monument is closer to a classic national monument than it is to the structures in Washington, London or France. Like other national monuments, it depends entirely on the viewer to imbue it with significance and content – always a risky proposal.

The problem can be illustrated by the George Etienne Cartier Monument in Montreal's Mount Royal. Meant to commemorate one of the fathers of Confederation, it is now know by all but historians as the 'Tamtam statue,' nothing more than a marker for the city's weekly drum circle and picnic spot. In the words of one art historian, monuments risk becoming statements of forgetting, rather than prompts for remembering.

For Ottawa's new monument to be more than just an empty symbol, the government must remember the lessons of the Holocaust not only in stone and granite, but through actions and policy. It is unconscionable that in the 21st century, 14 per cent of Canadians harbor anti-Semitic beliefs, according to recent polling. It is untenable that a country that once responded 'none is too many' to the cries of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe is now backsliding on its commitments to refugees, including Roma refugees fleeing neo-Nazi fascism.

Finally, it is incumbent on Canadians, as we remember the crimes of Europe, to remember that while Canada was fighting Nazis overseas, it was destroying the culture of its indigenous peoples through unspeakable neglect. . The histories of the Holocaust and of the Indian Residential School system cannot be compared, but the duty to never forget is the same and the trauma of second and third generation survivors is real.

For a National Holocaust Memorial to have any meaning, Canada must act now. Refugee protections must be reinforced. Our debt to First Nations peoples must become a national priority. Without a renewed commitment to the universal human rights that emerged in the wake of the Shoah, Canada's new memorial may in fact turn living memory to stone.

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