Kevin Cavanagh

Hamilton Spectator 378779
June 2 2008

For all the oratory that erupts when politicians gather, a nation's
legislators are ultimately measured more by what they do than what they
say. So it was no small statement of principle last week when Canada's
House of Commons passed a bill recognizing the 1930s Ukrainian famine
as an act of genocide.

The bill refers to a devastating famine of 1932-33 in which shocking
numbers of people -- up to 10 million -- were starved to death in a
fertile agricultural region known as Europe's breadbasket.

Whether such atrocities should be recorded for history's sake as
state-sanctioned homicide is a politically explosive debate, which
-- even generations after the fact -- can trigger backlashes from
present-day regimes of countries that are implicated in, embarrassed
by and/or in denial of said outrage.

As you'd expect in a debate fired with nationalism and pride, there's
hot contention over whether such incidents constitute mass murder,
or the slightly more benign consequence of politics of the day. In
this case, some historians and a lot of Russians reject the notion
that the famine was a calculated extermination by the Soviet Union's
monstrous dictator Josef Stalin.

But a growing number of countries around the world have come to
accept that the denial of food to an entire population was nothing
less than a strategy by Stalin to exterminate millions of Ukrainians
and silence their clamour for independence.

This was the second time in recent years a Canadian government had
the gumption to take a stand on a controversial issue in the global
community. Four years ago, our Parliament became one of a very few
to stand up and recognize the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915
as a genocide, a label that elicits fierce anger from Turkey.

Does it even matter that a country such as Canada takes a stand
on something that happened so long ago? Yes. It's a statement of
principle seen and heard around the world, and helps shape global
consensus about what is tolerable and acceptable in civilized society.

Sensitivity and fear of controversy lead many governments to take
the easy way out and simply not have an opinion, one way or the
other. Cynics suspect Ottawa's decision last week was done to win
favour with a million Canadian voters of Ukrainian descent, considering
the feds just last fall said they had no plans to recognize the famine
as a genocide. But the fact is this private member's bill received
all-party support, as did the 2004 vote on Armenia.

In the end, side-stepping difficult decisions because of fear or
intimidation is simply an abdication of responsibility by people who
should lead. It's a dangerous step down a path toward submissively
swallowing censorship, propaganda and freedom.

The world will never learn from its history if we don't face up to it.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board. They
represent the position of the newspaper, not necessarily the individual