Khan: Coming to terms with a national shame

Good thoughtful piece, with the German approach in dealing with the Holocaust. Money quote:

“We have to understand these atrocities not as freak accidents of history, but as potentialities that can happen again,” she says. “Only then can we take responsibility for the past to work against tendencies in our society that ostracize others and make such atrocities possible.”

It’s a hard thing to reconcile: the dream of national destiny with the reality of national shame. My father struggled with it. As a Muslim in a fracturing India who lived through the trauma of partition in 1947, he has walked—literally—through fire to what he was told would be the promised land. When Pakistan was created, it was supposed to be a refuge for Muslims fleeing the communal killings on the Indian subcontinent; instead, it turned into a nightmare of corruption and state failure. As an adult, he was forced to flee again, this time to Canada, to another refuge.

To this day, my father still refuses to fully acknowledge the failure of Pakistan. He laments the corrupt leadership and the crimes committed there in the name of Islam. But Pakistan, the idea of it, still endures in his imagination. The national destiny he was promised lingers. It’s hard to let go.

For the first time in my life, I can now relate. For me, Canada has always been that place beyond the parched horizon, that shimmering oasis in a sea of global failures. Over two decades of working in some of the world’s cruelest places, Canada has always stood out for me as an example of what is possible for humanity. The national destiny of Canada, I’ve argued openly, is the hope for the world.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to reconcile that dream of a pristine, untainted Canada with the reality of the cruelties committed on its soil. I’m not naïve, of course. I’m not only now waking up to the horrors of colonialism and the crimes perpetrated against the original inhabitants of this continent. What I’m waking up to after the discovery of hundreds of dead and buried children—and the knowledge that there are thousands more waiting to be unearthed—is the attempted erasure that has occurred since those crimes were committed.

For me, this is the terrifying truth: As a child in elementary school in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, I was taught all the wonderful ways in which the “Indians” cooperated with European fur traders to help create what is our glorious Canada. It was, of course, mostly lies, but what is even worse is that at the same time, First Nations children were still being subjected to the cruelties of residential schools. While I was being told that Canada is unique in this world because of its multiculturalism, Indigenous culture and identity were being systematically erased.

All of this happened in my lifetime, in my country. Unmarked graves could very well have been dug while I was a child in Toronto, blissfully living the multicultural dream. And I was taught to forget.


The first time I saw a mass grave was in the spring of 2003. I was in Baghdad, not long after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The city was still smoldering from the devastation of America’s Shock and Awe campaign and the convulsion of retributive violence that followed. Admittedly, there was something poetic about the looting and the rioting: the people of Iraq were ransacking Saddam’s palaces and the countless villas belonging to his senior officials—bought with the country’s stolen oil wealth—in a burst of celebratory anarchism. Baghdad’s streets were buzzing with joy and cathartic outbursts of destruction. Statues of the dictator were being torn down; murals of his murderous sons were being graffitied over or left pock-marked by automatic gunfire.

Meanwhile, a quieter but more heart-wrenching ritual was playing out beyond the din of Baghdad’s dancing streets. Some 35 km east of the Iraqi capital, mothers were gathering daily on a patch of dusty ground in Abu Ghraib prison. Fathers and brothers were carefully picking through the earth, sometimes with their bare hands, uncovering the putrid remains of young men who had been executed in the fading hours of Baathist regime rule. These were the final executions the Baathists would carry out in their long and bloody history of executions, their victims hurriedly dumped in a shallow grave literally on the doorstep of the prison’s execution chamber, even as U.S. bombers were beginning their sorties overhead.

I met one distraught mother who told me her son had disappeared five years earlier. He went to work one morning, she said, and never came home. Since then, she had recurring dreams in which her son would appear to reassure her that he was in a better place. It had comforted her during the years he was missing, and while Saddam was still in power: searching for his remains at that time might have placed the rest of her family in danger. So instead, she wrapped herself in the belief that her son had made it into heaven, despite his body never receiving the proper Islamic funeral rites.

Watching this woman struggle with her grief while her husband clawed deeper into the earth reminded me of a passage from Michael Ondaaje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost, about a forensic pathologist investigating war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war:

“There was always a fear, double-edged, that it was their son in the pit, or that it was not their son—which meant there would be further searching. If it became clear that the body was a stranger, then, after weeks of waiting, the family would rise and leave. They would travel to other excavations in the western highlands. The possibility of their lost son was everywhere.”

In Iraq, in the spring of 2003, mothers everywhere were scouring the earth for the remains of their children. The woman at Abu Ghraib admitted she was only at the beginning of her journey toward some measure of peace after the horror of the Baathist regime. Her son was lost to her but she knew her journey would not end until he was found. “If we don’t find him here,” she told me, “we’ll dig up all of Iraq until we do.”


I met a carpet salesman once in Afghanistan, from a family of Sufi intellectuals, who lost his brother and father to the convulsions of political violence that preceded the Soviet invasion in 1979. Like thousands of other disappeared, their bodies were never returned and were likely buried in a mass grave somewhere in one of the valleys surrounding Kabul. Noorali in his carpet shop on Chicken Street in the city centre would sip sweet green tea and wax poetic about those days. “Graveyards are remembrance,” he told me once, “mass graves are erasure.”

That line has stuck with me as I’ve walked around other mass graves since, in Syria and Pakistan and Iraq. What’s striking is not its inherent truth but its implied failure. Mass graves are an attempt at erasure. In telling me the story of his father and brother decades later, Noorali was still resisting. The mother in Abu Ghraib, who had only begun her quest to find her son’s remains, was also resisting. In trying to erase their crimes, the diggers of mass graves had instead created a kind of permanent absence, a black hole pulling the living permanently into its orbit.

In her 2008 book, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing, the anthropologist Sarah E. Wagner describes how survivors of the genocide in Bosnia returned home and how the empty spaces left by the missing became permanent fixtures in the lives of the living.

“Their absence has seeped into the vernacular of the city,” Wagner writes. “Repeatedly I heard the phrase ‘nije došao‘ (He didn’t come) as an explanation of where sons, husbands, friends, and former neighbors were. Didn’t come home? Didn’t come back? Didn’t survive? I could not quite grasp the oblique reference of place implicit in this simple phrase.”

Later, she realizes that what was being alluded to was not a physical place but a journey, a passage from darkness into the light, from the horrors of the war back to peace. The missing were not merely lost to the world, they were lost to the process of return, to the journey to healing. “They did not come”, and in their absence that journey would remain incomplete.


Death has its own logic and the rituals associated with it reflect how intimately death is woven into the fabric of our lives. My wife is fascinated by the relationship between the living and the dead. The bookshelf in our home office is peppered with some rather morbid titles, like Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. As a cultural anthropologist specializing in Afghanistan, she recently became interested in the transfer of human remains and how Afghans deal with missing loved ones—the war dead, refugees who have died in a distant land. From her point of view, the phrase ‘He didn’t come’ is an expression of a disconnect, of a severing of the living world and the spirit world. In the absence of the body there can be no funeral rites; and in the absence of funeral rites, the dead are lost to the living.

As a German, and successor to the national shame of the Holocaust, my wife has a visceral relationship with missing bodies and what it means to the survivors of mass erasure. The German experience of the Holocaust remains a kind of living memory; there is no escaping it, even three generations later. Germans are taught from a young age about what their ancestors attempted. There is no glossing over of facts, and the horror of that shared history is reinforced year after year during a person’s education.

As a result, the national shame of the Holocaust has been internalized by Germans. Some, of course, resist, arguing it is better for society to “move on”. My wife disagrees. The repeated exposure to the Holocaust has helped her develop a nuanced understanding of what Germans did. “We have to understand these atrocities not as freak accidents of history, but as potentialities that can happen again,” she says. “Only then can we take responsibility for the past to work against tendencies in our society that ostracize others and make such atrocities possible.”

The crimes we are willing to commit in the name of national destiny beget our national shame. We need to learn from the Germans and turn our faces to the horrors committed by our ancestors. We must do as the Germans do: relentlessly teach our own children about that history, to teach them that national shame is not something to bury away and forget. It is the only path to our redemption.

Source: Coming to terms with a national shame

The Liberal government’s foreign policy cop out

The has been a continuing refrain over the last 20 to 30 years that Canada needs a  “muscular” foreign service and an infusion of funding to strengthen the foreign service. Yet no government, Liberal or Conservative, has done so given domestic priorities (including trade).

So while it is valid to make these arguments, it would be far better to be more focussed on specific areas where the current foreign service should focus on than pining for something that no government is likely to consider.

And of course, a major factor behind the success and public support for our immigration system is precisely due to it focussed on economic class immigrants, where self-interest comes most into play:

Every October, Canada invades Istanbul in a way that might seem downright crass to Canadian sensibilities. The city’s historic Beyoglu district, one of its richest and most liberal, home to hundreds of bars, restaurants, galleries, clubs and, at one time, the Canadian consulate, transforms into a red and white extravaganza, its cobblestoned alleyways adorned with posters announcing the yearly Canada Edu Days fair.

Now, if the fair feted Canada’s contributions to the world—multiculturalism, cooperation, tolerance—there would be no need for this column. Canada would be, finally, touting all those things that are increasingly, in a world infected by authoritarianism and self-interest, disappearing.

Instead, the fair does what Canada seems to do best in the world: poaching talent. As the name implies, Canada Edu Days is about studying in Canada. Every year, it pairs up Canadian colleges with thousands of young dreamers eyeing a way out of Turkey’s deteriorating economy and its socio-political morass.

That’s great; Canada needs talent, and Turkey’s remarkably talented youth are in desperate need of opportunities. But in and of itself, it’s also a feature of Canada’s failure to act responsibly at a historically critical moment: Rather than bringing what makes Canada great to the world when the world needs leadership, it is capitalizing on the chaos, siphoning off valuable human resources like a war profiteer.

This is the dark side of Canada’s pollyannaish self-image. We are great in large part because we have an immigration system that prioritizes talent over desperation. We can retreat at times of global uncertainty because we have valuable resources and a relatively small population.

But retreat should not be an option in a world where men like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Jair Bolsonaro are ascendant. Nor should waiting and hoping that these agents of self-interest will magically disappear and the world will go back to normal. Experts warn that is simply not going to happen. Canada should not be trying to save the world order as it was but helping to shape the world order as it will bewhen the dust finally does settle.

The Liberal government, like past governments, appears unwilling to take on that task.  If the Throne Speech was any indication, Canada’s role in the world will figure even less prominently than it has in the recent past. All the pretty words reinforced what has become the defining feature of the Liberal government on the world stage: It talks in the modernist voice about grand narratives—global peace and harmony, equality and justice—but fails to appreciate the postmodern reality of fragmentation and discord.

What we need is boldness. Canada’s foreign service is in shambles; it needs urgent reform and an infusion of funding. The Liberals may not have created the problem, but they have failed to address it and that failure has had consequences. As Jennifer Welsh, the Canada 150 research chair in Global Governance and Security and director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies at McGill University, told me in July, the Liberal government’s foreign policy has been “ineffective” in many cases because it lacks the “deep relationships” needed in a world where traditional alliances are unravelling.

“An operating principle of our foreign policy should be that we have to form relationships around particular issues with countries where we believe we have enough common ground to advance things together,” she said. “In the current environment, that is going to require not necessarily the usual suspects.”

Without a muscular foreign service, there is no developing those relationships. Foreign policy becomes what Daniel Livermore, senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, calls “government by PMO directive”.

“That was very much the case under Harper,” he says. ” The PMO decides something and then says to Global Affairs here’s what we’re going to do. There has been a lot more pushback from Global Affairs under Trudeau but it hasn’t been nearly strong enough.”

The problem, Livermore adds, is fundamental to the department. It lacks the “bench strength” to “offer an entirely different vision of how to do foreign policy.”

For a country like Canada, a middle power with limited heft in the world, knowledge is essential. Middle powers have to carefully pick and choose their moments and identify issues where they feel they can have a measurable impact. But instead of taking up the challenge, the Liberals have retreated into a defensive posture.

Canada should prioritize more engagement with the world at every level, from leadership to the grassroots. Here in Istanbul, it seemed a few years ago that something was about change after the Canadian consulate was shifted to a shiny new office tower in the Levent business district. It was an improvement from the dingy apartment Canada used occupy in Beyoglu, where one woman and her cat would greet visitors with listless stares. It felt as if the new consulate would be more active, more dynamic, more forward leaning.

But the early signs were there of a different kind of shift. Heavy security greeted visitors to the office tower. The C-suite feel also portended the growing Canadian dependence on trade-based diplomacy. Canada would engage with CEOs and business leaders from its perch high above Istanbul’s frenetic streets but at the expense of understanding the mood of the people.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of a student recruitment fair, Istanbul was painted red red and white with posters announcing the opening of a Canadian cultural centre? Or a multiculturalism festival? Or an art exhibition? Wouldn’t it be great if Canada’s engagement with the world included talking to young people on the streets, the same young people who are now protesting in Hong Kong, Chile and Iraq?

That kind of engagement would mean beefing up our foreign service with people who can speak local languages, who are comfortable leaving the confines of our cozy diplomatic missions and getting their hands dirty. It would mean being bold.

Source: The Liberal government’s foreign policy cop out