Talking Points

Books, churches, what will Canadians burn next?

Most of us know book burning only as a scene from the Third Reich. In grainy footage, crowds of young men gleefully heap torn pages into the flames. It is among the nightmare images of the 20th century. 

But book burning has also been practiced closer to us in time and place. On Tuesday, Radio Canada's French service reported a "flame purification ceremony" conducted by the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, which includes 30 schools in Ontario. In 2019, 30 books were burned and their ashes used to fertilize a newly planted tree. A further 4,700 volumes have apparently been removed from the schools' shelves and designated for destruction or recycling.

The organizers of the burning don't see themselves as heirs to Nazis. To the contrary, the incinerated books were chosen for their ostensibly degrading accounts of Indigenous peoples. According a statement published in The National Post, the Conseil designed the ceremony with the participation of "many Aboriginal knowledge keepers and elders." The event predates the summer's rash of church burnings, which followed the revelation of hundreds of unmarked graves at state-funded, church-administered residential schools that operated from the late 19th century until the 1990s. But it is clearly part of efforts to come to terms with darker episodes in Canada's past that parallel iconoclastic antiracism movements in the U.S.

The country's leader doesn't seem up to the task. In a debate on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said "it's unacceptable to burn books" but disclaimed authority to tell Indigenous people how to feel. The comments echo his weak response to the church burnings. In a July statement, Trudeau condemned arson, as well as vandalism of statues of historical figures including Queen Elizabeth, Canada's formal head of state. But he also admitted "I understand the anger that's out there against the federal government, against institutions like the Catholic Church. It is real and it's fully understandable, given the shameful history that we are all becoming more and more aware of ..."

This tepid response is characteristic of the establishment left. Like many Democrats in the United States, Trudeau did not only refuse to defend the honor of Canada in particular, but also the principles of a liberal society in general. The problem with burning books and burning churches is not that misguided people sought an inappropriate outlet for justified rage. It is that they are attacks on basic freedoms of thought, association, and worship. 

It's not clear how much Canadians care, though. Conservative Erin O'Toole has a slight lead in recent polls, but Trudeau still has a good chance to lead a coalition government. Canada's social and political condition is vastly better than Germany in the 1930s.  But we've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well.