On Sept. 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa. For me, it will signify the culmination of a 10-year journey.
The story begins when I was an 18-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa and studying the Holocaust with Prof. Rebecca Margolis. During our course, I learned that among the Allied countries that defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, only one did not have a national memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. That country was Canada.
I asked why. Margolis had no answer. So I went looking for one.
My first call was to my mentor and friend (and now boss), Rick Ekstein, the CEO of Weston Forest. “How is this possible?” I asked him. He answered with a challenge – “So do it!”
He introduced me to Susan Kadis, then the Liberal member of Parliament for the Thornhill riding north of Toronto. She was quick to jump on board and had the parliamentary drafters put together a private member’s bill. I insisted that the bill be non-partisan – I believed this monument should belong to all Canadians – and we developed a strategy where I would walk into MPs’ offices and demand (politely) non-partisan support for a national Holocaust memorial in Ottawa.
The next person I met was Richard Marceau, who was the Bloc Quebecois MP for the riding of Charlesbourg– Haute-Saint-Charles in Quebec City who passed the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Act (he is currently general counsel for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs). “Get your ducks in a row,” he said, “and the rest we’ll handle together.”
One more addition would round out our team: Greg Fergus, then-president of the Liberal party (and currently the MP for Hull-Aylmer).
To be honest, in those early stages, our prospects did not seem particularly good. Many of the MPs I sought support from refused to meet with me until Fergus or Marceau stepped in, and even then, a lot of them laughed at me, suggesting this was just not an important enough initiative. One MP told me bluntly that he would not stake his “prestigious reputation on a 19-year-old girl with a dream.”
Ekstein also introduced me to Peter Kent, the former journalist, who would be running for the Conservatives in Thornhill during the upcoming federal election and would eventually unseat Susan Kadis. I was blunt: “If you win – will you help me?” I asked. He gave me an unequivocal “yes!”
And then the 2008 federal election happened, and our bill died along with the government.
After the election, Kent was catapulted into the cabinet, meaning he could no longer sponsor the bill. But true to his word, he approached Tim Uppal, a Conservative MP in Edmonton who is Sikh. Uppal took to the project immediately, becoming the bill’s champion.
Our initiative hit the floor of the House of Commons as Bill C-442, an Act to Establish a National Holocaust Memorial. (Kent also introduced the initiative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who included his government’s backing in the 2010 Throne Speech.)
We weren’t out of the woods, though. When the bill hit the transport committee, a handful of MPs contested the carefully set up funding structure. It was supposed to be an easy meeting, but these MPs were determined to delay us. I began to panic, terrified that the bill wouldn’t make it out of committee.
But just as we were hitting another roadblock, more help came our way. Brian Jean, then parliamentary secretary for transport, worked tirelessly to try to convince other committee members to allow C-442’s passage. Ed Fast, the member of Parliament for Abbotsford, B.C. who was my boss at the time, was not on the committee, but after hearing what transpired at the first meeting, he attended all subsequent meetings and echoed Jean’s pleas. Meanwhile, Jewish community organizations began to lend their support. Their advocacy, along with the tireless work of Kent, Uppal, Jean, Fast, and the rest of our team, helped us push through the bill. Finally, C-442 received third reading and was sent along to the Senate.
When the bill was introduced in the Senate, our team added a new member: Sen. Yonah Martin of British Columbia. She worked with the Prime Minister’s Office to push C-442 through at warp speed. All three readings were completed in an unprecedented two weeks. C-442 was given royal assent, and signed by the Governor General just hours before the government fell in 2011.
The bill called for the creation of a development council to take on the project and build the monument. Led by Margi Oksner and Fran Sonshine, they selected the site, commissioned the design and raising the necessary funds.
This was a team effort. I was a teenager with a dream, and so many people helped make it a reality. This team took me seriously when no one else would. And that’s why, on Sept. 27, when we stand together at Canada’s Holocaust Memorial for the very first time, the most important message I hope to convey is that, together, we truly can make a difference.
Laura Grosman is the founder of the Canadian Holocaust Memorial Project, and the director of communications and strategy at Phaze 3 Management.