In Canada, over eight-million people trace their roots to countries that suffered or still suffer under communism. Since the beginning of the first communist regime in 1917 Russia, immigrants from communist countries have flocked to Canada in search of freedom and safety.
Canada, being the multicultural country that it is, has sizeable populations that stem from communist or post-communist countries. Canadian communities that support the memorial to victims of communism include: Belarusian, Chinese, Croatian, Cuban, Czech, Estonian, German, Hungarian, Korean, Latvian, Mennonite, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and more.
The idea to build a Canadian memorial to victims of communism was developed through the efforts of a number of these Canadian ethnocultural communities.
This is not an idea dreamed up in an ivory tower; it comes from the hearts of immigrant Canadians and the children of immigrants, who bear the marks of the brutal tyranny of communism.
Refugees from communist countries and their descendants live all over Canada, such as the Czechs in Alberta, Romanians in Montreal, and Russian Mennonites in Manitoba. These groups may not even realize that they are bound together by the shared experience of communist oppression in their homelands.
The suffering of the victims of communism indeed cuts across cultural lines: the suffering of a Cambodian under Pol-Pot, or a Chinese under Mao, or a Ukrainian under Stalin share the common experience of being a victim of communism. In a multicultural country like Canada where we seek to find unity among diversity, this is a powerful link between ethnocultural communities.
The proponents of this memorial felt strongly that it be built on federal land in Ottawa. To build on national capital region land one must get approval from the National Capital Commission, the government agency that oversees the use and development of national capital region land.
Getting a proposal accepted is not an easy or simple task. Memorial proposals must fulfil a number of criteria and the commission is selective, as it should be, about what gets built in the national capital region.
One of the NCC's main requirements is that a memorial has "national symbolic importance." The memorial to victims of communism was deemed to fulfil this requirement. In September, 2009, the project was approved by the commission with the recommendation that the title include recognition of Canada as a land of refuge for immigrants escaping from communism.
Hence, the official title for the memorial: A Memorial to Victims of Totalitarian Communism — Canada, a Land of Refuge.
The NCC requested that the word "totalitarian" be added so as not to offend any card-carrying communists, including those belonging to Canada's own Communist party.
However, as has been pointed out numerous times by the memorial's supporters, including many journalists and politicians, all Communist regimes are totalitarian in nature.
The idea that there exists a benign form of communism is generally rebuffed these days; the myth that there is good communism and bad communism has seen its day.
Now, people speak of "the crimes of communism."
The seminal work on this topic, The Black Book of Communism, details and focuses on crime as the defining characteristic of communist systems throughout communism's existence and wherever it has cropped up in the world.
First published in France in 1997, The Black Book lays out the fullness of communism's crimes in grisly but scholarly detail. It lists the worldwide communist death toll as upwards of 100 million.
Two important points the book makes, in addition to its comprehensive documentation of communism's crimes, are:
1) "Communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts (all states do so on occasion); they were criminal enterprises in their very essence: on principle, so to speak, they all ruled lawlessly, by violence, and without regard for human life."
2) "Each national communism has been linked by an umbilical cord to the Soviet womb, with its goal of expanding the worldwide movement."
Commentators on history tend to separate different communist regimes from each other as if this linking did not exist. Likewise, there is a failure to group together the sufferings of the victims under the umbrella which they all belong: communism.
Commemorations have followed suit.
For example, in Ottawa there is a memorial commemorating the wave of Hungarian immigrants to Canada following the 1956 uprising against communism in Hungary. There is a memorial commemorating the escape to Canada of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s. There is a Canadian memorial commemorating Katyn, the mass slaughter of Polish officers by the Communists in 1940, and several for the victims of the Holodomor, the communist-forced famine in Ukraine in 1932-33.
The word "communism" does not appear on the plaques of these memorials, however, they are all commemorations of communist crimes.
The Canadian memorial to victims of communism will bring all these sufferings together, under the name "communism."
The 20th century was deeply marked by communism. The greater part of the century (more than 80 years) saw communism oppressing the lives of about one-third of humanity on four continents. It is yet to be seen how communism will fare in the 21st century. It is a certainty though, that acknowledging the truth about the suffering caused by communist regimes is something a democratic, freedom-loving nation like Canada should embrace.
Carolyn Foster is the project co-ordinator for Tribute to Liberty, the Toronto-based organization behind the Canadian memorial to victims of communism project. Foster grew up in Winnipeg and is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, and of the creative communications program at Red River College.
Immigrants from Communist regimes
Some examples of Canadian immigrants who fled Communist regimes in their homelands include:
20,000 Russian Mennonites facing persecution in Communist Russia settled in Canada between 1923 and 1929.
14,000 Estonians immigrated to Canada between 1946 and 1955, escaping communism in their homeland.
34,000 Ukrainians came to Canada after the Second World War as DPs or "displaced persons" not wanting to return to the repression they faced in the Soviet Union.
13,000 Latvians came to Canada following Latvia's entrance into the Soviet Union, after the Second World War.
10,000 Czechoslovaks immigrated to Canada between 1948 and 1953 when the Communist state of Czechoslovakia was officially established
37,000 Hungarians left Hungary after the Hungarian uprising and settled in Canada between 1957 and 1958
70,000 "boat-people" refugees came from Communist-ruled Vietnam in the late 1970s.
95,000 Poles came to Canada following the crushing of the solidarity movement against communism in Poland.