I see that Ernst Zundel died the other day. For many Canadians of a certain age Mr. Zundel was famous, or rather infamous, for being, well, to be blunt, a pain in the ass. He was a Holocaust denier, a neo-Nazi and an all-around rabble-rouser. He often surrounded himself with hard-hatted supporters when he made one of his many court appearances to answer charges of spreading hate in Canada, an allegation many saw as an infringement of free speech. After bouncing back and forth between this country and the US, a Federal Court finally found him to be a threat to national security, opening up his deportation to his native Germany, where he was convicted in 2007 of anti-Semitic activities which included contributions to a website devoted to denying the Holocaust.
While I think that the free speech/national security debate still has a lot of wiggle room I cannot say that many will miss Mr. Zundel’s ‘unique’ take on history. It is interesting that officials here not once but twice rejected his attempts to become a Canadian citizen. I suppose those who make those kind of decisions felt that an extremist – for that is exactly what Ernst Zundel was – was not deserving of the honour of receiving the honour of being a citizen of the world’s best country. Whatever you thought of his politics, it is impossible to deny that there are millions of more respectable people who should be brought into Canada and granted citizenship. Another extremist we do not need.
On the other hand there is Adil Charkaoui.
This former National Security Certificate extremist was given his citizenship papers in 2014. It is important to emphasise that the allegations made by Canadian security agencies that he was an Al Qaeda ‘sleeper agent’ were never proven in a court of law and that Mr. Charkaoui was never convicted, although he did spend many years in what some call ‘Kafkaesque’ conditions under that aforementioned national security certificate. He denies any link to violent extremism and is now an ‘anti-Islamophobia’ activist (there are also reports he may run for the post of mayor of Montreal!). Nevertheless, there are still claims out there that Mr. Charkaoui did (does?) indeed hold extreme views: a student who attended one of his courses ended up joining Islamic State in Syria.
Recall that calling someone an ‘extremist’ is not the same as calling someone a ‘violent’ extremist or a terrorist. Holding extreme views may at times be problematic or be on the cusp of illegal, but it is also clear that extreme views have led to some very good changes in society (votes for women, universal health care, same sex rights…). Where to draw that line is not always obvious.
The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of people apply to become citizens of this great country and somewhere around 100,000 receive that privilege every year. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that this is a good thing and that the vast, vast majority of new Canadians make wonderful contributions to our land. Neither is there any doubt that those whose applications are rejected are refused for good reasons.
So the question is: with all these worthy candidates should we really have granted Mr. Charkaoui citizenship? Were there no better applicants that year? Did we give him status because we felt sorry for his trials and tribulations under the security certificate process? Really? Ernst Zundel was under a similar certificate – why was he not made a citizen? Imagine that: hate spewer Ernst Zundel a Canadian!
In the words of former CSIS Director Jim Judd Canadians we have to stop making heroes of extremists. This is embarrassing. While I wish Mr. Charkaoui no harm I also don’t think we should have made him one of ours. Then again, if he really is a violent extremist and he does something illegal he will be charged and prosecuted as a citizen (something that did not happen before). I suppose every cloud does have a silver lining.