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by Harry Abrams
In early 1994, I picked up and read, as I usually did, a little broadsheet newspaper that was delivered weekly to my office. The Daily Victorian was a quirky piece of work which I found an enjoyable read. It was formatted to recreate the antique feel of Victoria in the year 1905, and indeed, even reprinted B.C. archival material from that era. My opinion of this newspaper changed, however, when the Daily Victorian began carrying Doug Collins' opinion columns, which also ran in North Vancouver's North Shore News.
In all honesty, I felt that I had never encountered such overtly virulent expression in a mainstream British Columbia newspaper before, and it both appalled and upset me. Though Holocaust denial appeared to be a recurrent theme, Jews were by no means Mr. Collins' only apparent targets; immigrants, people of colour, gays and women were, I felt, unfairly objectified in a way that was hurtful.
The DV's publishers responded cavalierly to the numerous complaints that poured in. Complainants were invited to write a letter to the editor in response, but the mean-spirited columns continued. The townspeople of Victoria responded with a negative backlash. Advertisers pulled out; City Council passed a resolution banning "hate literature" from City Hall. The Daily Victorian foundered.
Despite the failure of the Daily Victorian, I elected to research the matter further. Evidently, the North Shore News was quite a long-standing commercial success. And the controversial Doug Collins was "good" for business. Again, angry Letters to the Editor did not stem invective; they seemed to fuel more of it. Letter and opinion writers would soon find themselves repeatedly ridiculed by Collins' published wrath. And the widely circulated North Shore News distributed well over 50,000 copies of its paper in North Vancouver twice each week.
A number of complaints about the NSN had already been brought before the British Columbia Press Council with unsatisfactory results. (The Press Council is a trade organization that describes itself as devoted to defending freedom of the press, upholding the standards of the journalistic profession and providing the public with a non-judicial process to hear and "adjudicate" complaints.) I felt therefore, that the most reasonable and accessible venue for justice and remedy was contained in the British Columbia Human Rights Statutes. I filed my formal complaint in the spring of 1994.
Four years later, the Human Rights Tribunal hearing was held in downtown Victoria's posh Ocean Point Resort Hotel.
On opening day I had a "welcoming" committee: Collins' "entourage" and lots of media. Together with my lawyers, I entered the hotel, passing a score of placard-carrying "free speech" supporters led by Paul Fromm, who was dismissed for cause from his position as a school teacher because of his continued racialist associations and activities. Mr. Fromm led the protesters into the hearing where they settled with their signs onto a row of chairs laid out along the back wall. The picket signs generally berated and lamented B.C.'s "Thought-crime" laws, but one or two (as I was later told) disparaged me personally as a "foreign agent" of an "organized conspiracy." Before proceedings began, Barrister Douglas Christie made an appearance, offering a pat on the back and words of encouragement to Mr. Collins. Collins did not remain to dispute my charges. He and his lawyer promptly and pointedly took their leave. Nevertheless, the hearing continued.
There weren't a lot of supporters who came out for "my" side. Alan Dutton and a research associate of CAERS (the Vancouver-based Canadian Anti Racism Research and Education Society), some trade unionists and a handful of supporters from the Victoria Jewish community.
I was approached at one time or another during the hearing by Mr. Collins' supporters. One senior citizen "charged at me" in the hotel lobby, hollering: "You should be ashamed!" Another challenged me in a "friendly" fashion. He wanted to know why I had to take such a fine fellow as Mr. Collins to task. I declined engagement or discussion in this regard.
And then there was the lady with the "too-bright" smile. She always sat near the door and smiled "oh-so-nicely" at me every time I'd enter or leave the hearing room. On Friday, the last day, she mustered the nerve to approach me.
"Mr. Abrams, I'm Magrit Murray. I could just hug you! You know, I lost a good part of my family in the "so-called" Holocaust as well..."
Hearing the words "so-called" Holocaust was my cue to walk away. I was soon to have a very big surprise.
On the first Sunday morning after the hearing concluded, I was at home with my family. We'd just finished a leisurely pancake breakfast, when the doorbell rang. It was Magrit Murray, the lady with the "too bright" smile at my door. I was not inclined to meet with her. She took it in stride, and waving a blue envelope, begged me to accept it; that if I'd read it, then I would understand. She turned and walked back down the street.
Nonplussed, I quickly slit the envelope and read its contents. There were three items: a black and white family photo, a handwritten note and an undated, photocopied Op/Ed letter that had been printed in the Victoria Times Colonist. The back of the photo read: "All but two people in the photo perished-I am sitting with my mother. (She went into hiding and was saved.) Hamburg 1941. The Op/Ed letter entitled: "A Second Death" was a note of pain and outrage by a Holocaust survivor who had managed to survive the war in France as a hidden, though horribly abused child. Underlined was the phrase : "...Every time someone like Doug Collins denies the Holocaust, with people congratulating him and believing in him in the name of "free speech," it's like a second death..."
The letter read:
Dear Harry Abrams,
I am Magrit Murray who attended last week's sessions at the Ocean Point Resort and who would like to express gratitude and admiration for the stand you have taken against Collins and his ilk.
I know a little about being out there on the limb by yourself, the stress, the fear, the rage, the disappointment with others who remain silent!
I thank you, Harry. My family which was destroyed in Germany in 1943 also thanks you.
In a flash I was out my front door and running down the street, barefoot and wearing just a pair of ratty navy sweatpants. Magrit was nearly at the end of the block. I called her name and waved my arms, signalling her to please come back.
Sitting with us in the living room, a cold glass of juice in her hand, Margit explained her use of the term "so-called" Holocaust. She called it SHOAH (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust).
The outcome of the trial is yet to be determined. A decision is to be rendered by December 1998.
Harry Abrams is a businessman and Jewish human rights activist in Victoria.
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