Quadrennial Joint National Leadership Conference

Speech to the Quadrennial Joint National Leadership Conference of the Arab American Institute and the National Network for Arab American Communities held in Dearborn, MI, on October 04, 2011, by Raja G. Khouri, President and Co-founder, Canadian Arab Institute

Canadians have a love-hate, inferiority-superiority, affection-disaffection relationship with America. We know ourselves to be the junior partner, yet we think us the better one; we envy your greatness, yet mock your ignorance; we fear you, yet applaud the prime minister who dares defy you; we love you, yet hate that you hardly take notice of us; we vigorously consume your culture, yet vainly think ours more polished. 

Such is the complexity of our relationship with you. Such is why we look up to, and down at you. That we see you as both a close lover and distant stranger. That we don't want to live with you, but can't live without you. 

So it was that on September 11, 2001, Canada felt your pain, shared your anguish, and lived your fear like no other. And in its aftermath, we matched your draconian security laws, tightened our immigration and refugee systems, and scarified civil rights in the name of empathy pains – but also to keep our common border open. You are, after all, our best and biggest customer: when you stop buying, we hurt; when you sneeze, we catch a cold. 

Our greatly admired, late prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau once said to an American audience, "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." 

But there have always been limits, if not to our affection, then to the extent to which we were willing to sacrifice ourselves to serve the whims of a lover, or prostitute ourselves for the sake of her almighty dollar. 

And so it was on March 18, 2003, that prime minister Jean Chretien stood in our House of Parliament and delivered a flat "no" to the Bush administration's request for our country to join the war on Iraq, and by doing so, received the largest standing ovation a society can give. And so it also was that when the more extreme measures of our anti-terrorism legislation, those involving preventive detention and forced testimony, came up for renewal in 2006, the measures were defeated by our legislature, and remain inactive to this day. 

But we didn't always succeed in being a gentler, kinder version of our neighbour to the south. Reluctantly, we came to create our own version of your "no-fly-list." Six years younger than its sibling, it proved to be no less inaccurate and foolish. Just ask US ambassador to Canada David Jacobson who was not once, but twice, red-flagged as a security risk by it. 

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 what strikes many Canadians is how little the United States seems to have changed, or learned, since those tragic events. How this great nation continues to cower in fear, and obsess in the pursuit of security, as if it were a commodity that can be had and kept. 

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Canada's authoritative newspaper, Lawrence Martin recently asked: "How long is America going to be held hostage to what happened that day? How long is it going to bleed the U.S. Treasury, ratchet down its liberties and humiliate its citizenry by undressing them in order to get on an airplane." I continue the quote: "It doesn’t seem to matter that, in North America, more people have died from snowmobile accidents since 9/11 than from terrorism. Yet the so called war on terror and the intimidation of a great nation continues ad infinitum." 

Canadians wonder how your country, despite its vast intelligentsia, continues to be ignorant of the world's humanity; and despite having experienced the deceits and failures of the Bush-Cheney doctrine, surrenders yet again to simplistic, us-or-them, with-us-or-against-us notions brought forward by crude politicians of the tea party variety. 

We wonder how a society, brave enough to confront and defeat its deep racial divisions, and in a Obama-esque moment chose a message of hope and "yes we can", can shortly thereafter revert to fear, and fall prey to Ground Zero mosque hysteria, Sharia-banning frenzy, and an utterly irrational fear of a takeover of American society by less than one percent of its population. 

Canadians are confounded by this. And I must say, despite our own home-grown Islamophobic preachers of hate and division, we are better than that. Multiculturalism, tolerance, equity and inclusion remain core and cherished values of our society. 

At least for now. Some of us fear the future. In contrast to your country, Canada has changed much in the last ten years, and, from where I'm sitting, not for the better.  

We too have changed government, but in a direction opposite to yours. In the past decade our parliament went from being run by a liberal majority government to a liberal minority, then a conservative minority, and then to a conservative majority this past June. Some believe our current prime minister is an ideological bed-fellow of Bush-Cheney Republicans. In a recent interview with the CBC Mr. Harper identified "Islamicism" (his word) as the foremost security threat to our country. Many Canadians wonder what he really means by that, or to what it could lead. 

But here is what we do know: An omnibus, law-and-order, tough-on-crime bill was just introduced in parliament. It is the kind of legislation that has overflowed American jails with inmates, yet did nothing to diminish crime. This, at a time when crime in Canada is at an all-time low. 

We know that our government intends to bring back the aforementioned extreme antiterrorism measures.  

We know that a North American Security Parameter agreement is approaching conclusion as we speak. It would create a legal framework for cross-designated law enforcement teams to operate on a permanent basis across the Canada-US border. While the details of the agreement have yet to be revealed, it is anticipated to streamline a host of security and immigration systems between the two countries, while easing the flow of trade. 

The country that invented United Nations peacekeeping in 1956 today prefers to show off its military muscle and go to war -- recently such as in Libya.  

The country that championed multilateralism, innovative diplomacy, peace-brokering, and balance and nuance in its foreign policy, today favours what it calls "moral clarity," such as unconditional support of a Likud-nist Israel. 

Writing recently in the Toronto Star, our largest circulation daily, columnist Rick Salutin described Stephen Harper's foreign policy as a "rehash and mishmash of U.K. and U.S. imperial elements" and lamented that as a result Canada has lost its voice. "We couldn’t even get a seat on the Security Council; it used to be automatic," he said. 

So, perhaps we are becoming more like you. Perhaps soon our confused sentiments of love and hate towards you will be history. Perhaps our holier-than-thou protestations will be muted.  

It appears that our Arab communities on both sides of the border are headed to the same boat. In fact it is certain we will be facing similar challenges.  

It would make good sense that going forward we start putting our heads together. In the period following 9/11 we were effective by building alliances with civil society, human rights groups and empathetic politicians. It seems to me it is alliance-building time again. 

That's why I'm here today. 

Thank you. 


Presented by: Raja G. Khouri