Just before Rosh Hashanah, Bernie Farber received a phone call telling him his services were no longer required.
The call was from Ontario’s recently installed Progressive Conservative government, which informed Farber, the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress, that the committee he co-chaired on how to battle anti-Semitism was being disbanded.
Others serving on the committee received the same call. So, presumably, did those on the three other subcommittees of Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate, who were tasked with providing advice on eliminating racism directed at black people, indigenous people and Muslims.
The moves were all part of the provincial government’s cuts to the directorate under its new premier, Doug Ford. There had been no advance notice of the disbanding of the four subcommittees, whose members were unpaid.
In a statement, Kitchener MPP Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP critic for anti-racism, charged Ford with “moving our province backwards by making deep cuts to the vital work of the Anti-Racism Directorate.”
Lindo also raised the issue in the legislature on Sept. 17, saying that “one of the very first things” the Conservative government did was to “quietly collapse the Anti-Racism Directorate, downgrade its minister to a part-time minister, and disband its subcommittees.”
The directorate “played a crucial role in fighting back against racism in Ontario,” she added.
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Michael Tibollo, who’s responsible for the directorate, replied that the directorate will continue to “fulfil its mandate of a whole-of-government approach to address systemic racism by implementing a strategic plan.”
Tibollo’s spokesperson, Brett Weltman, echoed his boss in a later statement, saying the strategic plan includes “the implementation of anti-racism data standards.”
The collection and analysis of “reliable and usable data will help the government identify any systemic barriers across sectors and help make evidence-based decisions to shape policies, programs and services – ultimately improving how the people of Ontario are served,” Weltman said.
Farber said his sense is that the directorate will not continue “in any real form. I think it will continue in a cosmetic kind of way. I don’t think there’s any real emphasis from this government to deal with anti-racism.”
The Anti-Racism Directorate was established in February 2016 by former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. A year later, the Liberals unveiled their three-year anti-racism strategy, A Better Way Forward, and last spring, Ontario passed the sweeping Anti-Racism Act.
Farber was joined on the subcommittee by fellow co-chair Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, and members Karen Mock, chair of the progressive Zionist group JSpaceCanada; Len Rudner, formerly of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA); Zach Potashner, formerly of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre; Pamela Divinsky, former director of the Mosaic Institute; Madi Murariu from CIJA; Tom Henheffer, a journalist and media consultant; Hersh Perlis, director of the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University and a former adviser at Queen’s Park; Nikki Holland, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA; Brianna Ames from the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee; and Amanda Hohmann, who initially came aboard representing B’nai Brith Canada.
Farber conceded that the subcommittee on anti-Semitism was not without problems.
“It took us a while to get to where we needed to be and we were approaching that goal when we had the rug pulled out from under us,” he told The CJN.
Asked for any concrete accomplishments, Farber said, “I’m not sure we were there yet, but we were heading in that direction.”
He said funds had been earmarked for a “full education program” on social media dealing with anti-Semitism.
“We were at a point where we finally had developed a plan that would engage young people in understanding the history of anti-Semitism (and) how to deal with it, and that, as far as I can tell, has been scrapped.”
He said the anti-Semitism committee met four or five times. In the end, its work was “a complete waste of time.”
The directorate’s subcommittee structure was “somewhat problematic,” said Mock. For her, the good news is that the directorate itself will go on.
She said the Ministry of Community Safety and Corrections still takes an active stance against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, including in its training of police, Mock noted.
That ministry was among the “key ministries” behind the Hate Crimes Community Working Group, established in 2005 to make recommendations for improving services for victims of hate crimes and to prevent further victimization. Mock chaired that working group.
She said that if the Anti-Racism Directorate “creates a better community involvement and advisory process, which they have promised to do, it could be very good for the Jewish community and, hopefully, all targeted vulnerable communities.”
Spokesperson Marty York said B’nai Brith Canada has no concerns with the decision to disband the subcommittee on anti-Semitism. “We’re less interested in the committee and more interested in the government taking action, which it has indicated, on al-Quds Day,” York said.