Don’t lump everyone together

Last week, local and provincial editions of our newspapers and posts on social media published sensationalized accounts of “Nazi” enclaves in Cape Breton.

The article taken from Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine published in Hamburg, Germany was widely read on many media platforms. Reportedly, investigative journalists, based in Germany and with the aid of a local German national source(s) in Cape Breton, uncovered information linking local real estate developers of German origin to business practices which catered to ultra-right conservative German nationals who wanted to get out of Germany.

The impression created was one where German nationals have created a haven for Nazi sympathizers in Cape Breton. This has caused significant disruption, pain and heartache to many people, many of whom are Canadians and summer residents of German origin. One has to wonder, why now, given that Der Spiegel reported that the “enclave” and its enablers have had a presence in the area for over a decade? What motivated the Cape Breton source to engage with Der Spiegel?

If there are enclaves of German nationals in areas of Cape Breton who espouse extremist right-wing values, it is a concern. The article suggests that both the RCMP and the federal government share those concerns. There is nothing that divides communities more than a clash over fundamental values. Extremist, right-wing values have no place on Cape Breton or anywhere else as they are not the values of the ordinary Cape Bretoner. From information gleaned in the media, it appears that some German immigrants and summer residents have had negative experiences with real estate developers of German origin and that has spilled into recrimination. It has also been reported that even within the German community there are squabbles among these developers which may have contributed to this recent Der Spiegel exposé.

Over the last 20 years or so, I have had the opportunity to get to know many German nationals who have settled in Cape Breton, either as immigrants or as seasonal residents. I have provided them with medical services and some have become friends. Of those that I know, none would I characterize as “Nazis” or even extremists. Some have chosen to live in more remote areas of Cape Breton while others have become integrated in our communities; all crave the simple life that rural living can offer and each values the privilege of living in a safe, healthy and welcoming part of Canada where they have chosen to invest significant time and capital. Many have tried to capture the magic in a widely-read popular German children’s book by Karl May, The Treasure of Silver Lake, that spins a tale of a fictional world whose setting is similar to Cape Breton.

In many respects, it is not unlike the Japanese’s fascination with Anne of Green Gables and PEI.

The Germans that I know fear that the broad brush of xenophobia may follow the Der Spiegel article, fearing that all German nationals will be painted the same colour. That would be a tragedy. Cape Breton, like many areas of Nova Scotia, needs immigration and investment. Many seasonal residents would immigrate and become valued Canadian citizens if Canadian immigration rules were not so restrictive. We want people who choose our communities because of the values we hold dear and who desire to live in our communities as part of the social fabric. We desire them to share their customs and traditions with us so we can grow a healthy, diverse and vibrant community. We also desire that they appreciate our customs and traditions so they can better understand why we live the way we do.

Are there Nazi sympathizers in Cape Breton? Perhaps. If they exist, they do not threaten our way of life. Right-wing political extremists have found fertile ground lately as people struggle with the social challenges faced by world societies. Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond have exploited unfortunate circumstances to advance and hold on to power. When people feel threatened there is a danger to look to “others” to explain problems rather than try to address them. Recent wars and natural disasters have either created or supported unprecedented displacements of people, creating millions of refugees and people escaping harsh economic, environmental and political realities. Globalization’s relentless pressure to reduce people to cost centres, wide spread unemployment and now COVID-19, have created “a perfect storm” giving rise to some people seeking simple solutions to complex problems. Promising a utopian existence in a new land is not a new strategy. Understanding the motivation of the promoters is where the challenge lies.

Unfortunately, the Der Spiegel article did not appear to reach out to ordinary German nationals who are happy to be in Canada and have warmed up to Canadian values. The one good thing that may come of the article is the realization that isolating from the general community can invite speculation and exploitation. Living apart does not promote community values of trust, respect and prosperity. All immigrants and seasonal residents should feel welcome and know that Canada was built by immigrants from many nations of this world; many of whom have maintained their national identities while living in harmony with their Canadian neighbours.

Dr. Robert Martel

West Arichat