My friend was paying for a coffee when a young barista asked him a question that left him speechless: “Why are all the men wearing red flowers on their jackets?” Are you serious? Um yes…So my friend gave her a 20 second history lesson: WW1, Flanders Fields, poppies on Remembrance Day to mark the sacrifice of the 125,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the first and second world wars, the Korean war, Afghanistan and other peace keeping activities.
How did she not know this? Had she forgotten? Did she not learn it in the first place?
Then I recalled my trip to the Dutch Resistance museum and realized I was being too harsh. The young barista should be applauded for asking the question “why”.
The Dutch Resistance museum is a beautifully designed building in the Plantage district of Amsterdam. The first thing you see upon crossing the threshold is a large sign that says: Ask The Question. Then Ask It Of Your Friend.
What is the question? The visitor is left to figure that out for himself as he moves through the exhibits.
Germany bombed Rotterdam on May 14, 1940. Eight hundred people died, 80,000 became homeless. Germany threatened to continue bombing unless the Dutch surrendered. The Netherlands capitulated five days later.
At first the occupiers were friendly. They set up a seemingly benign governing structure and made “minor” bureaucratic changes in the interests of greater efficiency.
Government employees were required to fill out forms declaring their ancestry. Some Jews balked—why this information necessary? Others argued that refusing to provide the information could be interpreted as a lack of pride in one’s heritage, what harm could it do? All the Jewish employees were fired a few months later.
More rules followed as the oppression increased in intensity. Everyone over the age of 14 had to carry an identity card. The identity cards of Jews were emblazoned with a large “J”. Jews were banned from public transit and public spaces including parks, swimming pools and cinemas. They were segregated in Jewish districts and Jewish schools. They had to wear the Star of David. Eventually they were ordered to leave the Netherlands and go to work in German factories and labour camps. Some refused and went into hiding. Others complied.
A walk through the museum is a walk through time. Exhibits include photographs, Nazi posters, video clips, newspaper articles, contraband radios, mock ups of prison cells and the tiny little fragments of ordinary people’s lives.
The “Adapt” exhibits reflect Dutch attitudes at the onset of the occupation (if we work with the Germans it will be fine in the end). By 1943 the exhibits change to “Collaboration” exhibits, which include heartbreaking photographs of the betrayer and the betrayed, and “Resistance” exhibits, which demonstrate the ingenuity and resourcefulness required to forge ID cards and food coupons, hide one’s neighbours and communicate with the Allies on handmade radios while staying one step ahead of the Germans.
Ask The Question. Then Ask It of Your Friend.
As I moved through the exhibits, the question became clear. What would you do: adapt, collaborate or resist?
I am grateful that I live in a different place and in a different time, in a world that exists because hundreds of thousands of Canadian soldiers fought in WW1, WW2, Korea and Afghanistan to protect the ideals on which our democracy is based.
As a result of their sacrifice, we are not faced with the Dutch question, whether to adapt, collaborate or resist, we’re faced with the barista’s question…why? Why is the government taking these steps and making these laws?
Here are two examples:
Why did the Redford government eliminate the “public interest” test in Bill 2, a piece of legislation intended to streamline the regulatory process for energy producers? The “public interest” test is the only way to balance the legitimate interests of landowners and environmentalists with the economic interests of oil and gas companies who want to develop our natural resources at breakneck speed—and now it’s gone.
Why is the Harper government creating new guidelines for the “net benefit” test, which will determine whether a Chinese state-owned entity can take over a Canadian energy company, behind closed doors and signing the China/Canada trade agreement (FIPA) in secret without first consulting with the Canadian people who’ll be subject to this agreement for the next 31 years?
These questions go to the root of our democratic process. We’ve asked these questions many many times. We can honour the memory of the thousands of Canadians soldiers who died protecting the democratic rights of others by continuing to ask these questions. It’s the only way to ensure we will never be faced with the Dutch question: Should we adapt, collaborate or resist?
God bless the little barista who had the courage to ask the question: Why are all the men wearing red flowers on their jackets? The most important question is: Why?