The Chamberlain Moment: A Letter to Justin Trudeau

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing “Peace for Our Time.”

Dear Mr. Trudeau:

I write to you from the United States in an atmosphere of crisis and fear. I am a Canadian citizen who has lived and worked in this country for more than a decade. I earned my doctorate, in American history, from an American university, and I married an American. But I have never abandoned my citizenship, or my connection or attachment to Canada. It is the homeland to which I hope someday to return.

My Canada is not merely a geographical location or a political abstraction; it is a place of the spirit, a constellation of ideals of democracy and human rights, of universal values of integrity and decency. I have not always agreed with your policies, sir, but I have never doubted your commitment to these values. More than any other world leader, you have made them the centrepiece of your political vision.

I look around me, appalled by the policies of the new American administration, frightened for the future and, quite frankly, despairing for the quality of our humanity – not just here, but around the world. President Trump has made the world far more dangerous than it has been for decades, and has imperiled the interests of our homeland and the welfare of the world. He is poised to destroy the United States’ relations with our mutual ally and economic partner Mexico, and has jeopardized the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has pledged to cripple NATO and undermine the UN, the international organizations that most define Canada’s role as the world’s honest broker. We can no longer dismiss President Trump’s words as mere populist bluster. The consequences of his foreign policies will be catastrophic for Canada and the world.

I only wish that was the worst of it but, as you know, President Trump’s policies are worse still. A little over two weeks ago, he signed an executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. With the stroke of a pen, he turned his back on tens of thousands of people fleeing starvation, misery and death in Syria. He closed America’s doors to permanent residents and visa holders merely on the basis of their faith and national origin. Travelers from those lands have been prevented from embarking on flights to the United States. Those who were in transit at the moment when the President’s pen met paper were turned away upon anding. Although the courts halted the implementation of the order, there is no guarantee that this will be more than a temporary respite. The new administration’s policies are driven by Islamophobia and white nationalist chauvinism; it is inconceivable that it will let the matter drop.

I won’t address how, rather than dealing a blow to Islamic extremism and ensuring American security, these policies will almost certainly have the opposite effect. Others have written about this, and I am sure you are being well-advised. I will, however, note that they contradict every ideal that open, diverse democracies like Canada claim to defend. They are hateful and inhumane. They gainsay the Canadian values that you have so eloquently championed time and again.

I am an immigrant in the United States; I am the descendant of immigrants and refugees. One of my ancestors fled the persecution of Puritans in Britain and arrived in the New World in 1635. His descendant was a United Empire Loyalist who fled to Halifax during the American Revolution. I am the grandson of Jews who left Central Europe in the last days of the Hapsburg empire, a step ahead of religious persecution. Others like them were less fortunate, such as the passengers of the SS Saint Louis, and the millions of others who, denied safe haven in the United States and Canada, perished in the Nazi death camps.

What we face today, in America and around the world, is no longer a question of policy or diplomacy; it is a question of humanity. You and Canada have accumulated substantial political and diplomatic capital since you took office a little over a year ago. People around the world welcomed your strong and principled statement on 28 January that Canada would welcome refugees fleeing persecution, terror and war regardless of their faith. Many read it as a clear rebuke of the Trump administration’s xenophobic policies. Two days later, at a rally in Jersey City in support of refugees, the crowd chanted “hey hey, ho ho, we want a leader like Trudeau!”

Yet I learned today that you plan to make an official visit to the United States, to meet with President Trump, on Monday. I understand that the United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and most powerful ally. I am as aware as anyone of the significance of the world’s longest undefended border which we share with the United States. I recognize that you feel that you must balance the material and economic interests of our country with ethical principles. I believe your father called it a strategy of “constructive engagement.”

But there can be no constructive engagement with an authoritarian narcissist advised and directed by a cabal of white nationalist ideologues. President Trump, indeed the world, will inevitably view your visit as an endorsement and legitimation of his policies – at best! At worst, he will regard it as a vassal’s supplication. You stand to undermine all of the good will you and our country has accumulated. Consider the gravity of this historical moment: Do you really want to be remembered as an appeaser, returning home after your planned visit to Washington, striding off of your plane waving a paper, and claiming to carry “assurances” from President Trump?

Mr. Trudeau, you must take a stand. You must repudiate hate and explicitly condemn President Trump’s policies. Above all, you must recognize that you cannot travel to Washington to pay obeisance and shake the hand of a man whose every utterance and gesture denies every value you hold dear.

Canada’s call to history has always been to be a defender of democracy, human rights, and common decency. You have an obligation, as our leader, to step up to this historical mission.

Best Regards,

Matthew Friedman

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