Deborah Lyons is Canada’s new special envoy on combatting antisemitism

Deborah Lyons and Irwin Cotler at the Fight Antisemitism conference in Ottawa. Photo by John Longhurst, Canadian Jewish News.

by John Longhurst, Canadian Jewish News


(CJN) – Deborah Lyons has been named the new Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, succeeding international human rights champion Irwin Cotler.

The announcement was made Oct. 16 by Karina Gould, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, together with Ya’ara Saks, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health and Kamal Khera, Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities.

Lyons is a career diplomat who served as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel from 2016-2020.

Until last year, she was the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ Special Representative to Afghanistan. She previously served as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2013-2016, prior to that she was Deputy Ambassador to the United States from 2010-2013.

The announcement “holds particular significance today as Canadians come to terms with the brutal attack by Hamas against Israel a week ago,” said Gould. adding the government of Canada “stands shoulder to shoulder” with the Jewish community at this time. 

Cotler, 83, a former justice minister and international human rights lawyer, held the inaugural special envoy role for three years, although it was initially intended to be a one-year appointment.

He approached Lyons about 18 months ago to see if she would succeed him.  

Lyons said at a press conference announcing the appointment that at first, she felt the assignment was “too big, too incredible.”

But “it didn’t take me very long before my own heart and soul convinced me that this is exactly what I should be taking on.”

Lyons takes on the role less than two weeks after an unprecedented attack by Hamas on Israel that killed 1,400 people, including eight Canadians. Thousands were wounded and more than 150 others, including children and the elderly, were kidnapped as hostages into Gaza.

“We meet in the shadow of Oct. 7, one of the worst days, if not the worst day in Jewish history since the Holocaust. A day of mass atrocity, whose scale and scope of pure evil is almost unfathomable. A day of mass atrocity anchored in antisemitism” Cotler said.

“All of this took place against the backdrop of a resurgent global antisemitism, which we may not have been fully appreciative of, which was itself mutating and metastasizing over time… That’s what played itself on Oct. 7.”

Cotler and his family were in Jerusalem the day of the attacks, sheltering in a bomb shelter. They had gone to Israel to celebrate his son’s wedding the week before.

Since Oct. 7, there have been rallies around the world, including in Canada, celebrating the attacks and glorifying violence, Cotler said.

Lyons is the best candidate to take over as envoy, he said. “She has been on the front lines. She has seen up close what mass atrocity is all about in Afghanistan.”

Lyons agreed that she assumes the post at “a critical time.”

“I could not have imagined the brutality of the Hamas attack on Israelis, nor the antisemitism across the globe that followed these horrific attacks,” she said. “Jews in Canada and around the world are in intense mourning and Canadians are with you in this period of agonizing grief.”  

In assuming the role of Special Envoy, she said she intended to promote “extensive efforts” on antisemitism education, including in the universities.

She will also work with governments and corporations to address online hate. As well, her office will research and collect data “so no one can tell me this [antisemitism] isn’t real,” she said.  

Lyons said she is motivated by the example of Canada’s Holocaust survivors.

“I want to acknowledge all Holocaust survivors, they continue to instruct us, because those brave and those determined people, they came out of the darkness to build a better world.”

The same spirit will be necessary to rebuild after the atrocity of the attacks in Israel, she said.

Lyons said it was her 15 years abroad, representing Canada, that motivated her to take on the role.

Other countries look to Canada as a model of a diverse society and she was alarmed to see the spread of “cancerous hate speech.”

“When I left another country that I love, Afghanistan, what frightened me most was what was happening in our country,” she said. “I said, when I come back home, I will work on bringing Canadians together.”   

She delivered a special charge to Canada’s faith and spiritual leaders to unite Canadians. She also asked the media to “challenge the seeds of misinformation” and “shine a light in the darkness and hold it high.

Under the watch of Cotler, the federal government expanded its commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and committed $85 million in 2022 for programs to fight antisemitism, along with funding for new Holocaust museums in Toronto and Montreal, and also made the Special Envoy post permanent, with a budget of over $5 million for five years.

The announcement was made at the start of a two-day national conference sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs on antisemitism.  

With files from Ellin Bessner.

This article was reprinted from Canadian Jewish News.

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