02/02/2019 16:23 EST | Updated 02/02/2019 18:50 EST

Is There A Point To Heritage Days And Months? Some MPs Aren't Sure

Transport Minister Marc Garneau called the efforts a "feel-good project for everybody."

OTTAWA — "Oh, that's a tough question," an NDP said, walking away from the live microphone this week. "I held back."

What's the controversial topic?

The first item discussed in the House this week: Dutch Heritage Day.

No one, of course, wants to say they don't like the Dutch. Who doesn't like the Dutch? Who doesn't want to celebrate the close bond the two countries have shared since the Second World War and highlight each spring with a beautiful tulip festival in the nation's capital? Who doesn't want to toast the contributions of their constituents with Dutch lineage?

No MP wants to do that.

The effort to recognize Dutch Heritage Day is the latest in a string of bills and motions passed earlier this session. No MP voted against efforts by two senators to legislate October as Latin American Heritage Month or May as Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. Liberal MP Deborah Schulte's motion to mark June as Italian Heritage Month passed unanimously last year.

And so far, no one has voted against Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal's effort to designate April as Sikh Heritage Month, or expressed public opposition against Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai's yet-to-be debated bill to mark October as Hindu Heritage Month.

In the previous Parliament, MPs tabled bills to recognize January as Tamil Heritage Month, April as Punjabi Heritage Month, and May as Philippine Heritage Month. The only bill passed, however, was to mark the third Saturday of September as "National Hunting, Trapping and Fishing Heritage Day."

The Canadian Press
People's Party leader Maxime Bernier is seen in Montreal on Dec. 14, 2018

Maxime Bernier, the former Conservative MP who is now leader of the newly formed People's Party of Canada, calls such efforts "manifestation of ... radical multiculturalism."

"This is another typical example of the pandering at which both the Conservatives and the Liberals have become expert," he told HuffPost in an email. "They outbid each other in trying to appeal to different groups, and treat everyone as members of tribes instead of as Canadians."

If private citizens and organizations want to celebrate whatever heritage, that's fine with him, Bernier said. "But members of Parliament should focus on substantive policies, not on this symbolic stuff."

Privately, some MPs acknowledge that they too feel that using precious parliamentary debate time to recognize different ethnic communities could be used in more productive ways.

Asked what the point of all these heritage days and months is, NDP MP Hélène Laverdière is blunt: "I don't know."

"I presume some members of Parliament want to do it for the communities in their riding, maybe."

But, she said, she would never use her one shot per four years to champion a bill or motion on such as topic. "I'm not saying that any of these are bad, but, you know, I have other priorities."

"One of the difficulties, and I will admit this," Liberal MP Wayne Easter said, "One of the difficulties is that when you have a day for everything, you really have a day for nothing. And that's one of the problems."

The Canadian Press
Liberal MP Wayne Easter holds a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa.

Easter sees Dutch Heritage Day as a way to respect and honour Canadians of Dutch descent. He has never sponsored similar motions or bills, but he doesn't chastise his colleagues for doing so.

'We all pick our priorities. Is there a political reason? You are in Ottawa, you know. Everything that is done around here is for a political reason in one way or another."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau called the efforts a "feel-good project for everybody."

Even Bernier voted last June to recognize Latin American Heritage Month. (He missed the other two unanimous votes on Jewish and Sikh heritage months.)

"It's democracy, and at some point we run out of dates, but for the moment, if someone comes up with something and everyone agrees with it, I think it's a good idea. It makes us think," Garneau said.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Transport Minister Marc Garneau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

His father, Brigadier General André Garneau, was an infantry soldier who fought in the Netherlands during the Second World War. "I grew up being told that Canada liberated Holland and very proud of that of that fact," he said.

Liberal MP Marc Miller, whose riding neighbours Garneau's in Montreal, wonders what's the harm. "You can make every community feel good. I'm all for Dutch heritage month, I think it's wonderful."

"We have so many immigrant groups that have built Canada other than First Nations, Inuit and Métis. We are all a product of immigration, so I think it's kinda cool."

It's democracy, and at some point we run out of dates, but for the moment, if someone comes up with something and everyone agrees with it, I think it's a good idea.Mark Garneau

"Canadians are nice people, and we like to acknowledge special parts of our culture," offered Conservative MP Mark Warawa. "The Dutch are a very important part of our culture, as are Ukranians, as are Italians, as are Jews, we all bring a — we are part of the mosaic.... But we don't have Ukranian day yet," he noted. "I would support that."

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, who is of Argentine descent, loves Latin American Heritage Month and loves, he said, celebrating the different cultures and people from different origins that came here and built this country.

These events are important, he said. During his travels, when he sees communities celebrating their month, their week or their day, "They are very proud to do it, they are very happy, for them it is extremely important, so we respect them and we encourage them."

But is it just vote pandering?

"Well, we hope they vote for us," Rodriguez said with a smile, "[but,] no, it's a sign of respect to celebrate with them their heritage."

One of the difficulties is that when you have a day for everything, you really have a day for nothing.Wayne Easter

Conservative MP Dave Van Kesteren candidly acknowledges that his bill might have a selfish aspect to it — his parents arrived in Canada from the Netherlands after the war, and he grew up in southern Ontario struggling with his differentness.

Seeing his number come up in the MP rotation, Van Kesteren tossed around a few ideas for a private member's bill. In 2015, he successfully passed legislation closing a loophole that had allowed someone convicted of first- or second-degree murder for killing their spouse or parent to collect their victims' pension benefits.

Van Kesteren is passionate about pensions. He believes Canada should adopt a universal pension system by which everyone — regardless of their income level — gets the same amount of money.

"But, you know, it's certainly not something for which there is any appetite in my party ... [or] in any of the other parties as well."

He thought a pension bill would be controversial and go nowhere. Then he noticed a number of "these different days were appearing" and wondered if he should do this for the Dutch.

"At the back of my mind, I had always thought about this, and as the day approached, more and more I became convinced this is a good thing to do and it's the right time to do," he said.

'It wasn't cool to be Dutch': Van Kesteren

After 12 years in the House of Commons representing the riding of Chatham-Kent–Essex (now called Chatham-Kent–Leamington), Van Kesteren will be retiring this year. He wants to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, and make room for a new MP who'll have the same passion he had when he started.

"I grew up when it wasn't cool to be Dutch," he said. His experience as a child of new immigrants wasn't unique. Polish kids were in a similar boat, and Italian kids also suffered abuse.

"We were poor, our parents couldn't speak the language — that was often times defined as being dumb."

Compared with the more subdued British, the Dutch were "brash," "opinionated," a bit more "in your face,' he said.

Now, Van Kesteren watches with fascination as his grandchildren walk proudly with Dutch logos and affiliated wear. "It's pretty profound when you think about it, you know.... Some of those things that maybe annoyed people in the '50s, now we look at them and say that's pretty cool."

"It took a generation," he added, but over time but what the Dutch shared with Canadians — their hardworking industrious nature and cultural traits — "got to be more appreciated."

The Tory MP said he's received a "little bit of ribbing" from his caucus colleagues for presenting yet another celebratory day. "That's all we need is another day, like we are getting tired of these days," he said, mimicking his mates. "It's good-humoured ribbing."

I think a month, you know, I think some groups really certainly do deserve it.Dave Van Kesteren

He expects his motion to pass unanimously, but for anyone opposed to the idea, Van Kesteren invites them to listen to his Commons speech. He doesn't want his day — May 5, the day marked for the liberation of the Netherlands — to be seen as only a highlight of Dutch culture, the contribution of its immigrants, or a recognition of his own story. He sees it tied to the sacrifices Canadians made during the war and that "special bond" Canada has with the Netherlands.

It's about reminding Canadians how grateful the Dutch are for what the veterans did, he said, and to work to strengthen the ties that already exist — as soft powers and trading partners.

"I think a month, you know, I think some groups really certainly do deserve it. I think the fact that we have a Black History Month in February is a good thing. It enables people to co-ordinate efforts to do some great projects that have an impact."

In this case, though, Van Kesteren thought a day was sufficient. His office plans to work with the Dutch embassy to co-ordinate some activities and he hopes Dutch immigrants take up the opportunity to share their heritage with their fellow Canadians.

He expects his motion will pass before spring.

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