On September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I addressed the Canadian Club of Montreal to recruit Quebeckers to fight antisemitism and all forms of hatred.
What inspired me to speak at that podium on that day was not some of the dangerously crazy conspiracy theories related to 9/11 – although I tackled them; it was the major spike in antisemitic incidents in this country that took place in the Spring of 2004. B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights catalogued 857 incidents that year, making 2004 the worst-ever year up to that point for antisemitic activity in Canada.
Early one Monday morning, while I was shaving before heading off to work at BMO, my wife Elizabeth expressed alarm at the cowardly hate-filled firebombing of the library at the United Talmud Torah school in Montreal and a weekend-long rampage of tombstone-toppling and swastika-painting in Toronto. She said, “Tony, we need to do something about it”. While she was right, at the time, we were not quite sure just what that something should be.
After speaking with friends in the Jewish community and giving it considerable thought, we concluded that this was not an issue for the Jewish community to solve. It was indeed an issue for all of us to solve. So, we assembled a coalition of leading Canadian business and community leaders who were pointedly not Jewish to stand up and speak out against antisemitism. This group included Laurent Beaudoin, André Desmarais, Claude Lessard, Réal Raymond, and Marc Tellier. We took out full page ads in newspapers across the country. We called this initiative FAST, which stands for Fighting Antisemitism Together.
Elizabeth, who had taught Grade Four at the Beth Rivkah Academy for Girls when we were first married and living in Montreal, knew that hate was all too often learned at the parental knee. She believed that the best way to reach and open up young hearts and minds was through education. With the help of leading educators in planning the curriculum and Montreal-born Ben Mulroney in providing an introduction that spoke to kids, we launched two curriculum-based programs to help teachers. Choose Your Voice is for children in grades 6, 7 and 8 and Voices into Action is for students in high school and CEGEP. Since their inception, more than 667,000 students at 4450 schools across Quebec have been through these programs.
Fifteen years ago, the founders of FAST declared that the time has long since passed for silence in the face of antisemitism and other forms of hatred, bigotry and racism. While there is no question that FAST’s educational initiatives have had a positive impact, sadly, we cannot declare mission accomplished. Last year, there were 2,207 antisemitic incidents in Canada or an eye-popping average of 6 incidents per day, with online harassment up 11 per cent, according to B’Nai Brith.
Having turned 75 this year, in the middle of a pandemic, and wanting to ensure that FAST continues its unique and important mission, I transitioned the leadership of FAST to Dr. Catherine Chatterley, a brilliant University of Chicago-trained historian, who is a leading global expert in the study of antisemitism.
With COVID-19, the 2020-2021 school year is going to be a challenging one for teachers, students, and parents. As Quebec teachers prepare their lesson plans, I hope they will avail themselves of our free curriculum-based resources (chooseyourvoice.ca and voicesintoaction.ca), which have won the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Award of Excellence, and are available in both English and French.
As Canadians, we are long past the point where we should permit the bigots to spread their poison unscathed. Let us dedicate this school year to emboldening and encouraging those young and still open hearts and minds to stand up and speak out against discrimination, wherever and however it rears its ugly head. Let’s marginalize the bullies and bigots, strip them of their influence, and take away their power to intimidate. Let’s take direct aim at antisemitism, racism and all the other ugly “isms” that pollute our world. Canada is the greatest country on earth, and we all have a responsibility to ensuring that everyone feels safe, secure and free to be who they are.
Tony Comper is co-founder of FAST and was president and chief executive officer of BMO Financial Group