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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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A Canadian triumph over terror

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Former federal cabinet minister Stockwell Day and his wife Valorie pictured with Israeli boys who each lost their fathers in a terrorist attack, at a state dinner during Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent trip to Israel.

Israeli security units are legendary for their formidable defense capabilities. As a former minister of public safety (including anti-terrorism) for Canada, I encouraged joint training and intelligence sharing between our nations’ intelligence and protection services. As such, I am well acquainted with the Israeli expertise in this area.

It was with that acute level of respectful awareness that I considered the following question: Would I be able to breach the security perimeter around Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a state dinner in Jerusalem in order to introduce him to two uninvited guests?

Who were these two erstwhile individuals? For security reasons, I can’t divulge their names. But I can tell you that they were preteen Israeli boys who had each lost their fathers in a ruthless terrorist attack in an Israeli civilian neighborhood.

My wife and I met these young men just three days earlier at a Shabbat meal hosted by our friends, Marc and Chantal Belzberg. As Christians, we were honored to be invited by the Belzbergs to join their family and friends for a few wonderful hours. It was an evening that we shall always cherish.

I will resist the urge to go into great detail describing the sumptuous meal; the warmth of hospitality that makes the phrase “please feel at home” more than a mantra; and the moving readings, prayers, and singing that embraced us. Instead, I will focus on the boys.

They were at the meal with more than a dozen of their friends and counselors. You see, Marc and Chantal run an organization known as OneFamily (www.onefamilytogether.org). Its mandate, briefly put, is to provide love, encouragement, and extensive supportive programming to victims of terror and their families, with a focus on children who have lost parents or other family members at the hands of terrorists.

On the surface, this rambunctious “band of brothers” at our meal looked and sounded like any other group of pre-teens and adolescents. Laughing, cajoling, arm-twisting, and teasing were constants throughout the meal. But as they respectfully gathered around the table to pray and sing under Marc’s leadership, the playful surface melted away.

Reflecting on the two boys specifically, as sad stories unfolded, I was deeply moved as I remembered countless special moments with my own father which these boys would never savour with theirs.   

I remember wrestling matches on the floor of our home, trying hilariously to pin down my father’s giant arms. Or slapping my sister’s arm when she had pulled my hair and feeling my father’s strong hand pull me away and his serious tone when he warned me to “never hit a girl.” Or racing around the final turn of the 1,500-meter event at the school track meet, my legs and lungs fading and on fire, with my rival in close pursuit and suddenly my father’s shout of “You can do it!” amidst the crowd pushing me towards the finish line.

They would never experience the feeling of phoning “Dad” from the maternity ward and proudly informing him that he was now a grandfather. Or seeking sage advice about the risks of a possible career move. These boys will never know such moments with their natural fathers.

But the dedication exhibited by the Belzbergs and their many volunteers will help to bridge the emotional and spiritual divide. Children like these will move into an adulthood that will be far more comforting, stable, and fulfilling than it would have been without OneFamily.

So, when the boys asked me breathlessly if there was any chance they could shake hands with this prime minister, a man whom they had heard proclaim on the news that he would always stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Israel, I had to at least try.

Not wanting to raise issues of national security, an amateurish plan began to unfold.

On the night of the state dinner, Marc showed up with the two hopeful boys in tow. As all guests have to be cleared many days in advance, it was no small feat for Marc to convince security on the ground at the hotel that these two wide-eyed interlopers posed no existential threat.

Next, we were met by the amazing coincidence that a high-ranking minister standing in the reception line had served in the military with one of the deceased dads. The boys were ushered to the final perimeter and then handed off to me. 

Suddenly, the phalanx of iron-armed, square-jawed secret service agents surrounded Prime Minister Harper and began quickly steering him towards the exit. But two of the lead officers recognized me, saw the boys, and gave me a quick nod and a gap that allowed me to lean to the prime minister’s ear and give him a 10-second briefing. He stopped the entourage, reached past the guards, grasped the boys’ hands, and thanked them heartily for being there with him. And then he was gone.

The encounter left the boys breathless and ecstatic. It left Marc beaming like a solar flare. And it left me with an unspeakable sense of gratitude that there are people like Marc, Chantal, and their family, who are dedicated to shining precious light into otherwise darkened situations.

Stockwell Day is the former leader of Canada’s Official Opposition and a former cabinet minister serving in the government of Stephen Harper. He also served as minister of public safety, minister of international trade, minister for the Asia-Pacific, and president of the treasury board. Day now runs the Stockwell Day Connex consulting agency and is a political commentator and an international speaker.

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