Welcome (Judith Anderson)
Welcome to this year’s commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day as we honour the courage of BC’s frontline health care providers during the pandemic years.
But first, we must acknowledge the current events in Ukraine, which are surely on everyone’s mind – let us take a silent moment to think of all the victims of this humanitarian crisis, and to thank the countries welcoming refugees, especially Ukraine’s closest neighbours – Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova and Hungary. In addition, let’s remember the many organizations and volunteers who are stepping forward to help.
Today’s gathering is about gratitude. We are blessed to live in a peaceful society, where threads of various cultures are woven together to make a fabric that is stronger and warmer than any of the threads would be alone. Let’s recognize two special qualities of that fortunate fabric that we are thankful for today.
First, we appreciate our shared land. Here in Vancouver, we are meeting on the unceded territories of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people. We thank them for sharing, and for having cared for these lands and waters for thousands of years.
Second, we are thankful for our health care. Modern medicine has developed from diverse cultural threads, including science, people skills, systems management, and the professional commitment of thousands of health care providers. Our routine expectations of health and longevity could scarcely have been imagined, just 100 years ago.
And today, we are thankful, in particular, for the civil courage of those who have provided health care to British Columbians during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have faced a new, deadly, communicable disease with unknown risks to their own and their families’ health. They have worked to exhaustion under the most stressful conditions, saving lives and comforting families. Then, when vaccines became available, health care workers extended themselves yet more to immunize us all. Unfortunately, as some people have tired of public health restrictions, medical workers have been subjected to harassment and threats. And still they are there for us when we need health care, whatever the problem might be.
Today’s speakers represent three groups of health care providers who have shown exceptional civil courage during these difficult years. Their firsthand stories of will enlighten us all.
Before our speakers are introduced, I’d like to take a moment to give you some background about our organization and the concept of civil courage.
Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian, became Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary in summer 1944, several months after the Nazi deportation of Hungarian Jews began. At great personal risk, he issued protective passports, and sheltered people in buildings designated as Swedish territory. In so doing, he saved tens of thousands of Jews from deportation and death. He disappeared into Soviet captivity on January 17, 1945, and his fate remains unknown. Wallenberg has been made an honorary citizen of Canada, the US, Hungary, Australia, and Israel. In 2000, the Canadian Government proclaimed January 17th as Raoul Wallenberg Day.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served as vice consul in Lithuania during World War II. He chose to act, at clear professional and personal risk to himself and his family, issuing transit visas that allowed about 2000 Jews, over 90% from Poland, to escape certain death.
Both Wallenberg and Sugihara have been designated by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
Now, civil courage is important in a peaceful society just as in times of violent conflict. Today, in British Columbia, thank goodness, there are few opportunities to oppose the kinds of murderous injustice that Wallenberg and Sugihara encountered.
With this in mind, we define civil courage as an act entailing personal risk or sacrifice, intended to improve or save the lives of others who endure misfortunes attributable to social context. In even the best-managed societies, some people may suffer from conflict, injustice, or threats to health and well-being – such as the COVID pandemic – that are intimately tied to our social structures. And those who help despite personal risk, show the same inner strength as wartime role models like Wallenberg and Sugihara.
In 2006, the former honorary Swedish Consul to Vancouver, Anders Neumuller, began Vancouver’s annual commemoration of Wallenberg Day. He later envisaged a non-profit society dedicated to honouring acts of civil courage. And so the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society was formed in 2013 by members of the Swedish and Jewish communities in Vancouver.
The goal of the Civil Courage Society is to honour the legacy of Wallenberg and Sugihara by acknowledging British Columbians who have demonstrated civil courage in the past, and by promoting civil courage when it is called for now.
To that end, each year, we formally recognize a person or group of people who have displayed civil courage in British Columbia. We also screen a film intended to get the audience thinking about the importance of civil courage and how to encourage it.
We look forward to chatting with you all at the reception following the film. We are a small organization with big aspirations. We hope you’ll visit our website, and we appreciate donations and welcome any of you might join us as volunteers.
In conclusion, I’ll circle back to the theme of gratitude. Just as some people in this room owe their very existence to Raoul Wallenberg or Chiune Sugihara, nearly all of us can think of at least one health care worker who has made a profound contribution to our wellbeing. In pandemic years, those contributions have entailed immense personal risk. We are grateful, and we look forward to hearing about the experiences and courageous responses of BC’s frontline health care providers.
Deputy Mayor Christine Boyle read the Raoul Wallenberg Day proclamation from the City of Vancouver. The three guest speakers then described the challenges and courageous responses of hospital workers, nursing professionals, and doctors during the COVID pandemic.