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On the cover this week ...

April 18, 2014

Trudeau makes time to talk

Liberal leader meets community leaders, chats with JI.
CYNTHIA RAMSAY

The Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) hosted a community roundtable lunch on Thursday, April 10, with Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

“CJPAC seeks to activate the Jewish community in the Canadian political process, and roundtables such as these provide opportunities to build relationships and engage with elected officials from all political parties,” explained Mark Waldman, CJPAC’s executive director, in an email after the event.

“CJPAC is a multi-partisan, national organization that has been active in Vancouver for many years,” he added. As an example of the organization’s work locally, he noted, “Recently in Vancouver, CJPAC hosted an event called Women in Politics, which was attended by more than 30 women. Participants engaged on a personal level with former and current female politicians from a number of political parties and levels of government.”

Thursday’s lunch meeting took place in a boardroom at Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP downtown. It seemed like a couple of dozen community members were in attendance. As they were leaving, Trudeau spoke briefly with the Jewish Independent before heading to another appointment.

“It went great,” he said about how the roundtable went. “We talked about, obviously, Canada’s support of Israel, which is extremely important to me and the point I made is that I am an unequivocal supporter of Israel. We need a two-state solution of a Jewish state on one side and a Palestinian state. Where I take issue a little bit with the prime minister these days is just that he’s tended to make it a little more of a domestic football, with some people being more supporters of Israel than others, and I’m happy to say that I love the prime minister for his support of Israel and thank Mr. Mulcair for his personal support of Israel as well, and I’m glad to say that any government of Canada will be supportive of Israel, not for ideological or political or strategic reasons, but because the values Israel stands for are Canadian values of openness, of respect, of democracy, of equality, and we need more of that, particularly in the tough neighborhood that Israel is in.”

Domestically, there have been changes made or proposed at the federal level over the years that, in the opinion of some, challenge those very values of openness, respect, democracy and equality, a recent example being Bill C-23, or the Fair Elections Act. When asked to describe his vision of the role of a federal government, Trudeau responded, “First of all, we have to understand that Canada is a federation, not a unitary state, so how we engage with different levels of government as a federal government – partnership with provinces, partnership with municipalities – and understanding the work together that we do as different levels of government all serves the same citizens.

“But even within the way Parliament functions,” he continued, “I made a strong commitment last June towards open Parliament, which would mean less whipped votes; open nominations, which would mean no omnibus bills, no misuse of prorogation, a lot more openness, the transparency around online posting of our expenses. Actually, what we announced in June last year then triggered similar announcements from everyone and now all of Parliament is starting to post online, and that was something that we triggered. So, I think when you look at that, when you look at the partisan approach to the Fair Elections Act – which is a very unfair elections act – I’m certainly trying to get the message out to Canadians that we do not need elections to be fixed in advance in favor of the Conservatives, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Giving a government a majority doesn’t give them the capacity to perpetuate themselves indefinitely by tricking the rules; that’s what happens in developing countries, that’s not what’s supposed to happen in Canada.”

With the defeat of the Parti Quebecois on April 7, there is reason to believe that its proposed Charter of Values will also go by the wayside. However, at least some of the sentiment that allowed it to be proposed in the first place – fear over immigration – likely still exists and, over the last few years, more than one European government has called multiculturalism a failure. In light of this, the Independent asked Trudeau what he thought about the future of multiculturalism in Canada.

“The German model of multiculturalism failed because they brought over temporary workers from Turkey and never allowed them citizenship, didn’t treat them like Germans and, even a few generations in, they never became [citizens]. Multiculturalism in Canada is about building a diverse, flourishing fabric of a country that is strong, not in spite of its differences, but because of those differences.

“And, I’ll say two things on Quebec. First of all, I, as of last fall, spoke very strongly in a number of editorials to Canadians to not get overly worked up about this Charter of Values, to trust Quebecers because Quebecers were not going to accept this, and I was pleased to see them show that on Monday night, and show that very strongly.

“But the second element: it does demonstrate how politicians can twist perceptions, and a lot of Quebecers who initially expressed support for the idea of the charter did so thinking they were sticking up for equality; you know, ‘liberating people from the oppressive yoke of religion,’ because, of course, in Quebec, that’s what happened through the sixties with their Quiet Revolution. But, as soon as people explained to them, no, this is about people having to choose between their religion or their job, Quebecers said, well, that doesn’t work at all, and that’s exactly what we have.”

When asked if he had any final words before the interview ended, Trudeau said, “Just what a pleasure it is to be out here in Vancouver. I had a great conversation with a number of strong members of the Jewish community and, unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time, so I look forward to coming back and doing this again soon.”

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Exceptional lead performers

Ethiopian Israeli singer headlines local Yom Ha’atzmaut.
MICHAEL GROBERMAN

One July night in 2011, on a crowded Haifa beach, the 21-year-old singer Hagit Yaso became that year’s winner of Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), Israel’s version of American Idol. The outsider had triumphed. “It was the most exciting and most life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” she told the Independent by telephone from her home in Sderot.

Yaso is a fully qualified outsider. She is working-class, the child of Ethiopian refugees and a resident of the missile-and-mortar target town of Sderot. Only one kilometre from the Gaza Strip, Sderot is the target of frequent rocket assaults. A small town of only 20,000 people, everyone, she said, knows everyone. “It’s a small town. You get to know the people,” she said. “And I got a lot of support when I was on Kochav Nolad.

Now 24, Yaso has toured the world and released her first CD, a self-titled CD that is available at cdbaby.com and at amazon.com. Vancouver audiences will get a chance to see her May 5 when she headlines the community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia. The event’s main presenter, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, can take some pride in Yaso’s success. A scholarship from the Canadian Federations provided her voice lessons at Sderot’s Music Centre and the Vancouver Federation itself has taken a special interest in helping Sderot’s Ethiopian community. Federation also provides assistance to Sderot’s trauma victims.

The three months she spent on the television competition were grueling, Yaso said. ‘“The competition is very long, very confusing, with a lot of pressure and media.” She always believed she would win, though.

Her friend, the American filmmaker Laura Bialis, who lives in Tel Aviv, noted by phone that Yaso’s determination is one secret to her success. “You know, it was like everything she set out to do, she did,” Bialis said. “She wanted to get into the army band, she got into the army band. She wanted to get on Kochav Nolad, she got on Kochav Nolad. She wanted to win Kochav Nolad, she won.”

The two met when Bialis was shooting a documentary about music in Sderot. That film, Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone, is now in its final editing stage.

Yaso’s success is a point of pride for Sderot. Her win is also significant to Israelis of Ethiopian heritage. Vancouver resident Ronit Reda-Yona, an Ethiopian Israeli, said Yaso’s 2011 win “was an exciting moment for the Israeli society and especially for the Ethiopian community. Everyone in Israel who is Ethiopian feels like me: this is a good model for young people.”

Not only is Yaso well known in Israel but, in a short time, she has become an international success. She has performed at Jewish events in Paris, London, Canadian cities, American cities and Ethiopia. After Vancouver, she will tour Brazil.

“What is really amazing is that her career has taken off internationally in a really interesting way,” said Bialis. “She’s got this amazing voice, she’s gorgeous, she’s gracious, she’s sweet, and she has an amazing story.”

Thankful for parents’ courageous journey

Yaso’s parents, Yeshayahu and Tova, grew up and got married in rural Ethiopia. “They got married by shiddach,” said Yaso, who explained that the marriage was arranged and the two did not meet until their wedding day. In the early 1990s, the couple was forced to leave home. “Because they were Jewish, they suffered a lot and they had to run away from there and the option was to come to Israel,” Yaso explained.

Tremendous hardship stood between them and that destination. “They walked 400 kilometres by foot,” she said with some pride and awe in her voice. “It took them two and a half months to walk because it’s through the desert. They had to walk only at night and hide during the day because they were not supposed to leave [Ethiopia], and they were afraid.... They had to hide during the day because they were afraid of being caught.”

Yaso’s parents finally crossed the border into Sudan and were airlifted to Israel.

“They had nothing when they came here,” she said. Her parents built a life and a family of five children, in the small town where they still live. That home remains her home, too.

The Vancouver performance will include four songs she performed on Kochav Nolad. Yaso will sing in English, Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic and Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. The four-piece band that accompanies her is a group with whom she served in Israel’s army band. All three backup singers are from her hometown, including her sister, Shlomit.

Both of Yaso’s sisters performed with the town’s youth music ensemble. Many of Sderot’s young people dream of music careers. The ubiquitous bomb shelters sometimes double as rehearsal spaces. Perhaps this love of music helps soften a hard life that includes regular bombardment. When the air raid warning sounds you have 15 seconds to find shelter. Drills are constant, so life itself is always uncertain.

“It’s a city that suffers a lot from what’s going on in the south, from bombing and stuff,” said Yaso. “It’s not easy to live there. I manage by being optimistic, smiling and, when it gets harder, I sing.”

In addition to Yaso, performances at the community celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday at the Chan Centre will include the JCC Festival Ha’Rikud Dancers and a musical tribute written by Jonathan Berkowitz and Heather Glassman Berkowitz.

Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.

For more April stories, click here.