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A Strong Voice for Croatian Canadians: The Legacy of Borys Wrzesnewskyj

strong_voice_0715111In late May following an automatic judicial recount, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer announced that Liberal Member of Parliament Borys Wrzesnewskyj lost his Etobicoke Centre riding by 26 votes.

From the day he was first elected in 2004 to represent his Toronto riding in the House of Commons of Canada’s national parliament, Wrzesnewskyj was a consistently strong voice for Croatian Canadians.

As soon as he arrived in Ottawa to take up his duties, Wrzesnewskyj became a founding member and served on the executive of the Canada-Croatia Parliamentary Friendship Group. He also holds the distinction of being the first Member of Parliament (MP) since Canada became a country in 1867 to introduce legislation specifically mentioning and dealing with Croatian Canadians. This was his Private Members’ Bill C-374, Internment of Persons of Croatian Origin Recognition Act., which The Winnipeg Sun placed in its top ten list of bills (9 November 2006).

The purpose of this legislation was to acknowledge and commemorate a tragic episode in Canada’s history when persons of Croatian origin were rounded up, interned, and used as forced labour following the outbreak of World War I. The Canadian government of the time interned close to 6,000 so-called “enemy aliens,” of which more than 400 were Croats.

strong_voice_0715112During the introduction of the bill, with members of the Committee of Education, Culture and Heritage of the Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce present in the House of Commons gallery, Wrzesnewskyj stated:

“While some would prefer to sweep the tragic episode of the internment operations from 1914 to 1920 into the dustbin of history, the Croatian Canadian community remembers, and through public acknowledgement by the government seeks to bring closure to this painful episode of our common history” (Hansard, House of Commons, 30 October 2006).

Throughout his seven years as MP, Wrzesnewskyj never wavered in his fight to lift visitor visas for nationals of Croatia wanting to visit Canada. He was the only MP to ever introduce a Private Members’ Motion in April of 2006 (M-99) and again in November of 2008 (M-247) calling on the government of the day to lift visitor visas for Croatia.

His efforts to lift visitor visas for Croatia were widely supported by Croatian Canadians throughout the country. On five separate occasions he tabled their petitions on the floor of the House of Commons calling on the government to lift visitor visas for Croatia. The official tabling of these petitions were reported by the media in Croatia and in the diaspora, including: Zajedničar (Pittsburgh), Glasnik HSS (Vancouver), Croatian World Congress website, Croatian Chronicle (New York), CROWN – Croatian World Net (New York, online), Croatiantimes.com (United Kingdom), HINA, Vjesnik, Večernji list, Jutarnji list, and many other internet media sites.

In mid-June 2010, Wrzesnewskyj brought forward his third piece of legislation with a Croatian Canadian connection when he introduced Bill C-537, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (judicial interim release for offences involving firearms) to toughen up bail conditions for perpetrators of crimes involving guns.

This bill was introduced in memory of Boris Cikovic, a 17-year-old constituent of Wrzesnewskyj’s who was shot and killed in a local park. Boris, the only child of Vesna and Davorin, emigrated with his parents at the age of one to the presumed safety of Canada far from the violence and destruction of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mr. and Mrs. Cikovic’s dream of peace and a bright future for their only child was forever shattered on that tragic October day in 2008.

To gain support for, and raise awareness of Bill C- 537, Wrzesnewskyj tabled on the floor of the House of Commons petitions that were collected by friends and neighbours of Boris in the area in which he and his parents lived.

Outside of this strong legislative record, Wrzesnewskyj delivered several statements on the floor of the House of Commons including: commemorating the anniversary of Boris Cikovic’s death, drawing attention to the need to lift visitor visas for Croatia, urging the recognition and commemoration of the internment of Croats in Canada from 1914 to 1921, and paying tribute to martyred Catholic prelate Blessed Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac.

Over the years, Wrzesnewskyj attended or addressed several Croatian Canadian gatherings in his capacity as Member of Parliament. These have included the annual business awards ceremonies of the Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce, the summer gatherings of Ontario Federation of Croatian Fraternal Union Lodges, and the special mass celebrated by His Eminence Josip Cardinal Bozanić at Our Lady Queen of Croatia Parish in Toronto.

With the electoral defeat of Borys Wrzesnewskyj, the Croatian Canadian community has lost an exceptionally strong voice in our national parliament. Through his legislative legacy and level of support for our community, Wrzesnewskyj has established the standard against which all future Members of Parliament will surely be measured by the Croatian Canadian community.

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