Canadian Politicians Can’t Cherry Pick Malala Yousafzai’s Message

This article was originally published on April 18, 2017 on Ricochet.


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 brief 19 years on earth, but for the causes she represents and defends: foremost the right for all girls around the world 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.

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.

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 to this purpose.  She also called Canada to prioritize education for refugees – asking for support to guarantee 12 years of education for all refugee children.

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, Canada has almost entirely abandoned any focus on refugees one year on. Yousafzai’s charity – Malala Fund – strongly emphasizes the need for education in refugee camps around the world: 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 pigeonhole Yousafzai as merely an advocate for girls’ education; but Yousafzai is far more complex.  This is part of the reason 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 anti-Islamophobia motion M-103. 

Perhaps unknowingly, Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose lavished praise on Yousafzai last week, encouraging 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 all her $50,000 winnings to UNRWA, the UN Palestinian refugee aid organization.  Just six month ago, Ambrose upbraided the Liberal government for restoring aid to UNRWA, suggesting the organization was a source of incitement against Israel. 

Ambrose may be comfortable with the status quo in Israel-Palestine, but Yousafzai is not.  Announcing her donation in 2014, Yousafzai stated, “This funding will help rebuild the 83 schools damaged [in Gaza] during the recent conflict. Innocent Palestinian children have suffered terribly and for too long. We must all work to ensure Palestinian boys and girls [..] 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 Conservative government.  Whereas Prime Minister Harper refused to support a ceasefire, Yousafzai was direct and forthright, calling the international community to immediately broker a cease-fire between Gaza and Israel, and condemn all violence, especially that against civilians and children.

But 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 Obama on his drone assassination operations, which are ongoing in at least six different countries.  In a 2014 meeting with the US president, Yousafzai told him that US drone attacks were fuelling terrorism and deepening resentment in her native Pakistan. “Refocus on education!” she admonished him.

The list goes on.  Yousafzai vocally opposed US President Trump’s Muslim ban earlier this year, 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 its refugees.  She reproaches countries who refuse to cough up support for Syrian refugees, and the education of refugee children, calling 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.”

The contradiction 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 last week to supporters seeking to exploit the presence of Yousafzai in Canada.  But both candidates take a rejectionist stance on immigration and refugees, and were key players in a Harper government which avoided doing anything to address the Syrian refugee crisis. 

Blaney, Leitch and others embarrass themselves when they cherry pick only those elements of 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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