In Jewish tradition, it is said that in every generation there are always 36 righteous men or women. They are unknown to the world or even to themselves.
According to legend, "they are humble servants of their fellows, tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer."
They are referred to as "Lamed Vavniks," literally "The 36."
I believe my friend Ron Atkey was a Lamed Vavnik.
In 1979, Ron was named Immigration Minister by Prime Minister Joe Clark. It could not have been more timely. Ron was given a copy of None is Too Many by its authors, Harold Troper and Irving Abella. After reading this study of Canada's heartless decision to refuse refuge to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Ron was determined to ensure that Canada would become a safe harbour for those fleeing persecution.
Working with others in his government, Ron developed policy that was world-leading. More than 60,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos consequently found a home in a welcoming Canada.
Two years ago, after I became executive director of the Mosaic Institute, our chair, Vahan Kololian, suggested that we ask Ron to chair a new committee that would push the government to again open its heart, this time to the tens of thousands of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives.
Ron did not hesitate to accept and he hit the ground running.
Knowing that Ron was committee chair, others such as Ed Broadbent, former RCMP commissioner Norman Inkster, Louise Arbour, Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, film director Atom Egoyan, former MP Sarkis Assadourian, Prof. Hind Kabawat and publicrelations specialist Pamela Divinsky all eagerly joined.
Ron was the spokesperson and leader of the "Humanity Wins" committee. He had the ear of former prime minister Stephen Harper, who promised that 10,000 Syrian refugees would be permitted to come to Canada. During the election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised even more: 25,000. It was a true testament to Canada's humanity and it showed great respect to Ron, who never stopped pushing.
After Trudeau's victory in October, 2015, Ron kept up the pressure. In a newspaper op-ed published a couple weeks after the election, Ron wrote: "It is critical that this issue remain a top priority for the new government, and that the Liberals work toward making good on their campaign promises as soon as possible. We have an opportunity to mount a collaborative and meaningful response to this crisis, and a chance to reclaim our legacy as a humanitarian nation."
Ron Atkey's way was to be compassionate and understanding.
He did so without fanfare. He commanded respect by virtue of his vision for Canada as a nation of welcome. He forced us all in his gentle but firm manner to reject the venom of hate and embrace the virtue of promoting life.
By doing so, he saved thousands of lives. Today more than 40,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada.
It is said in the legend of the Lamed Vavniks that "wherever they are we can be assured of this: They lead. They comfort. They teach. They protect. They are filled with compassion. They are the very best among us." This was Ron Atkey.
- Bernie Farber, executive director, Mosaic Institute, Toronto