Canada in the world

Lost in the hype: Malala’s real message

Canadian politicians are guilty of cherry-picking Yousafzai’s stances on world issues
Photo: Norway UN (New York)

Canadians should be proud to have hosted Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai last week. She is an inspiration not only for what she has accomplished in her 19 years on earth, but for the causes she represents and defends, foremost of which is the right for all girls to have access to education. Her wisdom, humility and poise before Canada’s parliament should be an inspiration to all: men and women, young and old alike.

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But hosting someone such as Yousafzai is about more than just photo ops, and “feel good” press statements. It should be cause for reflection on our own action — or inaction ’ — on the issues she raises. And for all practical purposes, Canada’s political leaders are worlds apart from Yousafzai. It’s worth taking a closer look at more of Yousafzai’s political statements to see how Canada’s politicians stack up.

Everybody wants a piece of Yousafzai — “Malala” — as if mere association brought supernatural blessing.

In her speech, Yousafzai challenged Canada to make girls’ education a core theme of Canada’s G7 involvement, and to provide international leadership to raise billions for this cause. She also called on Canada to prioritize education for refugees — asking for support to guarantee 12 years of education for all refugee children.

Don’t abandon refugees

But these calls come at a time when International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau admits that she has no plans to increase foreign aid spending. And while the Trudeau government deserves credit for its initial push to accept Syrian refugees in 2016, a year later Canada has almost entirely abandoned any focus on refugees.

Yousafzai’s charity — Malala Fund — strongly emphasizes the need for education in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere. But the Trudeau government’s latest budget places no specific emphasis on the historic refugee crisis facing the world today.

Some world leaders prefer to categorize Yousafzai as merely an advocate for girls’ education, but Yousafzai is far more complex. For instance, she began her speech with a story stressing that Muslims who commit acts of terrorism do not share her Muslim faith, a subtle reproach for the ugly parliamentary ruckus last month over the anti-Islamophobia motion M-103.

Support the children of Gaza

Following the speech, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose seemed to encourage Canadians to support the Malala Foundation. Ambrose may be interested to know that after winning the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child in 2014, Yousafzai donated her $50,000 of prize money to the UNRWA, the UN agency aiding Palestinian refugees. Just six month ago, Ambrose criticized the Liberal government for restoring aid to the UNRWA, suggesting the organization incites violence against Israel.

Yousafzai’s position during the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was strikingly different from Canada’s then Conservative government.

Ambrose may be comfortable with the status quo in Israel-Palestine, but Yousafzai is not. Announcing her donation in 2014, Yousafzai stated, “[t]his funding will help rebuild the 83 schools damaged during the recent conflict. Innocent Palestinian children have suffered terribly and for too long. We must all work to ensure Palestinian boys and girls, and all children everywhere,receive a quality education in a safe environment. Because without education, there will never be peace.”

Yousafzai’s position during the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was strikingly different from Canada’s then Conservative government. Whereas Stephen Harper, refused to support a ceasefire, Yousafzai was direct and forthright, calling on the international community to immediately broker a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, and to condemn all violence, especially against civilians and children.

Sincere and ongoing support for Palestinian human rights is similarly only a part of the full portrait of Yousafzai. She was one of the few world leaders with the courage to challenge Barack Obama on his drone assassination operations. Yousafzai told Obama that U.S. drone attacks were fuelling terrorism and deepening resentment in her native Pakistan and encouraged him to refocus on education.

Yousafzai also vocally opposed Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, saying she was heartbroken that America was “turning its back” on a tradition of welcoming immigrants. She has also been outspoken about the civil war in Syria and the dire needs of Syrian refugees. She reproaches countries who refuse to support Syrian refugees and the education of refugee children, calling on all countries to give their fair share and fully fund their pledges. “Syria’s children are not a lost generation,” she reassures, “if leaders keep their promises.”

Conservative Party hypocrisy

The contrast between Yousafzai and Canadian political leaders who want to exploit her image could not be more stark. Conservative leadership candidates Steven Blaney and Kellie Leitch both sent emails to supporters seeking to exploit the presence of Yousafzai in Canada. But both candidates take a rejectionist stance on immigration and refugees, and both were key players in a Harper government that avoided doing anything to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

Blaney, Leitch and others embarrass themselves when they cherry-pick only those causes championed by Yousafzai that fit their agenda. She’s a towering figure, but also a package deal, driven by consistent and principled convictions. Next to her, they are Lilliputians.

Everybody wants a piece of Yousafzai — “Malala” — as if mere association brought supernatural blessing. But Yousafzai transcends petty Canadian politics. If Canadian political leaders want to capture any of Yousafzai’s magic, they’re going to have to adopt everything she stands for: a belief in the inherent sanctity of all human life; the potential for world peace; and investment in education, whatever the cost.

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