First off, I should explain my silence on these pages over the past several days. In addition to a very busy period at work, I have also been involved in a new grassroots movement taking off here in Ottawa, within an ageing and–for many of us–not especially welcoming Hungarian community. On October 18th, 2015, the Ottawa Hungarian Community Centre (OHCC) held a members’ meeting, in order to vote on whether the community hall should become a member of the right-wing, openly pro-Fidesz National Alliance of Hungarians in Canada (NAHC). The NAHC was established in 2012 and its online paper, The Hungarian Reporter, allows for no opposing views or ideas, except those sanctioned by the Orbán government in Budapest. Not only is there no opportunity to comment, but the site will not accept guest contibutors either. In the past, the NAHC’s site published far-right material as well. For instance, last Christmas the Hungarian Reporter wished its readers a peaceful holiday season by quoting the words of convicted Hungarian war criminal and a prime minister of the Horthy regime, namely: László Bárdossy. The same “Christmas” article also asserted that Israel was a burden for Germany, in a reference to the legacy of the Holocaust and compensation payments.
Just nine months later, the NAHC announced that it would be donating a minimum of $1,000 to the Holocaust monument being erected in Ottawa. I strongly suspect that the government in Budapest instructed them to clean up their image on this front, because donating money to a Holocaust memorial, even if it is a symbolic amount given the scope of the project, does not come naturally to this group.
Unlike the NAHC, Ottawa’s OHCC is not meant to be a political group, but is instead a community centre, providing some important services to local, and often elderly, Hungarians. Each Friday, the Centre serves a traditional Hungarian meal for both lunch and dinner, and at very reasonable prices, and many of those who benefit from this service are the elderly, living on modest pensions. The Centre also has a small library and they host occasional cultural and social events. The Centre currently counts 198 members and some of them were quite unhappy with the prospect of joining a one-sided, right-wing political group, just one year after the OHCC decided to leave the National Alliance of Hungarians in Canada for this same reason.
On October 18th, 2015, the OHCC held a meeting to discuss this question (as well as other matters) and to organize a secret ballot on NAHC membership. A total of 95 members participated in the meeting, which surpassed the 20% turnout required for quorum.
Several of us organized our own group and we made sure to show the broader Hungarian community and the government in Budapest as well, that there is real concern around the NAHC and political interference in the diaspora. We arrived twenty minutes before the start of the meeting, only to discover that the OHCC’s Board of Directors had suddenly changed a long-standing practice within the Centre, a mere three days before the meeting. Until this point, anyone could renew their membership or register even a day before a general meeting or, indeed, at the meeting itself. Last March, the NAHC’s president, who also served on the Board of the OHCC, himself forgot to renew his membership and was allowed to do so in the middle of the AGM, and then voted in Board elections. He was not the only one to register and pay membership dues on the day of the AGM.
When our group discovered that several of our members were suddenly stripped of their right to register and vote, due to a hasty decision brought three days before the meeting, we protested near the entrance of the Centre and demanded that the Board reverse their decision. We came with a video camera, and one member recorded the scene. The Community Centre’s president, Tibor Lapohos, initially attempted to physically take away the camcorder, but was stopped by a member of our group.
After 45 minutes of confusion and deliberations within the Board, they decided to make an exception and allow all of our members to register and vote. By this point, the meeting was almost a full hour late. Since the Board had also just last week unilaterally removed one of its members, namely Judit Petényi–the host of the weekly Hungarian broadcast in Ottawa on CHIN Radio–for “not being in line with the expectations” of the Executive, we insisted that she be allowed to address the Centre. After some opposition from the Board, Ms. Petényi was allowed to speak briefly. Ms. Petényi’s cardinal sin was that she permitted opposing viewpoints and people from diverse backgrounds in her radio broadcast, since she became host this past summer. When she aired a four minute interview with me in August, there was an uproar in the community.
When it came time to the vote on NAHC-membership, our group already had a sense that we could not win the necessary one third of the votes, in order to stop the Centre from joining this political organization. (Two thirds are required for membership.) Out of 95 members present, a total of 73 voted in favour and 22 were opposed to membership.
Despite this defeat, the fact that 22 local Hungarians stood up in public and opposed the tactics of the Orbán government’s Hungarian Canadian partners and demanded that their voice be heard within the community, is in many ways a first for the diaspora.
A relatively small, but a growing group of Hungarians in Ottawa have started to organize at the grassroots level. We met the day after the OHCC vote to follow-up, review what happened and chart a course moving forward. What was encouraging to see was the diversity in our group, the fact that almost every demographic cohort was represented, including fifty-sixers, Hungarians who came to Canada in the seventies, eighties and nineties, Hungarians who relocated here in the past few years with young families and people already born in Canada.
We are meeting again within the next two weeks. If our plans get off the ground, we hope to have launched a new, inclusive and grassroots community, well in advance of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.