Lawmakers in Canada’s most populous province rejected it by 39 votes to 18 after a debate in which the bill’s supporters falsely accused the BDS movement of encouraging 1930s-style boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses in Europe and tried to tie Palestine solidarity activism to attacks by suspected Islamist militants in France.
Civil liberties defenders are celebrating the result as a victory for free speech.
Ontario’s centrist Liberal Party government and the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) joined forces against the legislation.
The bill was sponsored by Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak and Liberal Michael Colle.
Hudak told parliament he hoped the bill – the first of its kind in Canada – would be emulated by other provinces and the federal government.
He cited similar measures designed to silence criticism of Israel in a number of US states, France and the UK as precedents Ontario should follow.
Hudak singled out a particularly draconian proposal in New York State to draw up an official blacklist of BDS supporters as a model for his legislation.
Hudak and a handful of supporters often used emotive rhetoric and references to the Holocaust in an effort to sway lawmakers. Completely absent was any discussion of Palestinian human rights.
Peggy Sattler, the NDP’s spokesperson on higher education, said “racism and anti-Semitism must be actively opposed and condemned in the strongest possible terms,” but described the bill as an attack on freedom of speech and academic freedom.
“Ontario New Democrats do not believe that it is the role of the state to prescribe what topics are acceptable for public discourse and what topics are not,” Sattler added. “It is not the role of government to prohibit citizens from expressing their opinions and debating ideas.”
She said that if the bill passed it would likely have faced an immediate constitutional challenge and be found in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Hudak’s bill would effectively have created a blacklist of persons and organizations who would be barred from contracts with the provincial government.
“If a public body discovers that a person or entity with which it has entered into a contract supports or participates in the BDS movement, the contract shall immediately terminate,” the bill stated.
It would also have barred public bodies, including universities and pension funds, from investing “in an entity that supports or participates in the BDS movement.”
The bill also stated that “No college or university shall support or participate in the BDS movement.”
The NDP’s Sattler called the effort to push it through parliament in a matter of days – it was only introduced on Tuesday – “astonishing and disrespectful” given the controversial issues it dealt with and the wide scope of the restrictions it sought to impose.
Michael Coteau, Ontario’s minister for tourism and sports, told parliament that the province’s Liberal government was also opposing the bill.
Coteau, however, reaffirmed the government’s strong support for Israel, emphasizing that while the debate was taking place, Premier Kathleen Wynne was in Israel leading a business delegation to strengthen ties with Ontario.
On Thursday, Wynne met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
The attempt to rush the bill gave Palestine solidarity activists little time to react and organize. On Thursday, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East denounced the bill as an “affront to free speech.”
The Ontario Civil Liberties Association wrote to lawmakers on Thursday morning urging them to oppose the bill.
The civil liberties group called its defeat a “victory for free speech.”
Hudak’s proposal was a private member’s bill; individual legislative initiatives of this kind, especially from a member of an opposition party, generally stand a slim chance of passage.
However, the bill’s supporters may have been hoping for a repeat of what happened in Canada’s federal parliament in February when the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed an opposition motion condemning BDS.
Whereas that was a non-binding motion, Hudak’s bill would have given the Ontario government a direct and intrusive role in policing and punishing political speech.
“There is simply no question that this bill would have a disastrous effect on the democratic rights of people in Ontario,” the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association had warned.
The Israeli government has supported such legislation in several jurisdictions.
Experience from the United States and elsewhere suggests that Israel lobby groups are likely to try again.
Canadians who support free speech and advocate for Palestinian liberation will have to be vigilant for the next assault on their rights.