The Liberal Party of Canada, which is led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and came to power in October 2015, brands itself as a progressive alternative to the Conservatives. In some respects, they are: the Liberals have ended airstrikes in Syria, accepted more than 25,000 Syrian refugees and lifted sanctions on Iran.
When it comes to Israel and the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), however, the Liberals have continued down the Conservatives’ troubling path, violating Canadians’ wishes and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms along the way.
On 22 February the House of Commons passed a motion by an overwhelming margin of 229-51 votes in condemnation of the BDS movement.
The Liberals have a majority in the House of Commons and the motion, introduced by two Conservative members of parliament, would not have passed without them. Only two of 184 Liberal MPs voted against the motion.
The motion emphasizes the “friendship,” economic and diplomatic relations between Canada and Israel and claims that the BDS movement “promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel.”
Expanded political ties
Canada certainly does have a deep relationship with Israel, both politically and economically, which was significantly expanded when Stephen Harper was prime minister.
The Harper government isolated Canada from the the world when it came to Israel. His government voted against United Nations motions for Palestinian statehood, opposed UN motions demanding that Israeli nuclear facilities be opened for inspection, and cracked down on charities providing relief to Palestinians.
Lauding Israel as a “priority market” for Canada, Harper updated the free trade agreement between Israel and Canada in July 2015 to reduce tariffs and broaden investment links with Israeli businesses, including allowing goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be exported to Canada duty free.
The two-way trade relationship between Canada and Israel now amounts to at least $1.6 billion.
Boycott as threat
The recent motion, then, is clearly a step toward crushing BDS, a movement that could threaten Israel’s status as a “priority market” for Canada. This goal has existed for years but has recently been intensified, and the Liberals aren’t willing to reverse the trend.
In 2014, the Canadian government added “national origin” into the list of identifiers covered by hate speech laws, in order to criminalize those advocating boycotts against the state of Israel.
Then, in January 2015, the Canadian government agreed to strengthen ties with Israel even further. At the announcement, then foreign affairs minister John Baird said the country would “fight any efforts internationally to delegitimize the State of Israel, including the disturbing BDS Movement.”
This message was reinforced shortly afterwards at a United Nations General Assembly meeting when then public safety minister Stephen Blaney said that Canada takes a “zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism,” listing the BDS movement as a form of discrimination, borrowing the tactic used by Israeli government and Israel advocacy groups to undermine BDS by portraying it as being motivated by anti-Semitism.
The effort to combat BDS became more explicit by May 2015, when a government spokesperson responded to a journalist’s questions on what the government’s zero-tolerance policy response would entail by stating that “hate crimes” would not be allowed to undermine the Canadian way of life, explicitly equating human rights-based Palestine solidarity activism to criminal acts.
These events, which have led some to fear the government will eventually move to ban BDS, took place under Conservative rule. Still, the Liberal Party’s recent vote in support of condemning BDS shouldn’t come as a surprise.
An early indicator for the Trudeau-ruled Liberals’ uncritical support of Israel came in July 2014, during Israel’s 51-day attack on Gaza, when the party released a statement claiming that “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”
The statement failed to criticize Israel’s mass slaughter of Palestinians.
BDS specifically came under fire shortly thereafter. In March 2015, Trudeau tweeted in response to an upcoming vote to support BDS at McGill University that “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough.”
Trudeau became prime minister on 19 October. Within a week, he called Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, giving an assurance that Canada would continue to be a good ally. Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Rafael Barak, said the call “left his country assured that relations between Canada and the Jewish state will remain strong” since Trudeau had been consistent in supporting Israel throughout his campaign.
“I’m sure maybe the style will change,” the envoy added. “But I don’t feel there will be a change on the substance. I’m really reassured.”
This has been exactly the case as Trudeau has continued to offer Israel uncritical support. At the November 2015 UN General Assembly, a month after Trudeau had come to power, the Canadian government voted against all proposed resolutions supporting the rights of Palestinians.
The vote, which saw Canada reject 16 resolutions, was the exact same as the vote a year earlier when the Conservatives were ruling. The recent vote condemning BDS appears to be an extension of this willingness to support Israel.
Out of touch
The Liberals portrayed the vote as a necessary step in combating anti-Semitism and furthering the economic relationship with Israel, as well as a reflection of Canadian values. The reality is, however, that when it comes to BDS the Canadian government is out of touch with the people it represents.
BDS has been widely supported at Canadian universities. The undergraduate student society at McGill University, representing approximately 30,000 students, passed a motion to support BDS on 22 February, the same day the government condemned the movement (though the McGill vote ultimately failed to be ratified through an online process).
The vote at McGill was a first for the university, but only the latest in a wave of BDS votes on campus throughout the country. In the last three years alone, undergraduate student unions at McMaster University, the University of Windsor, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Toronto Scarborough all passed votes endorsing BDS.
Several graduate student unions have also done the same. University students, as represented by their student societies, hold different views of Israel than the government, seeing the state as a force of oppression in the world as opposed to a friend for Canada.
The Canadian populace at large is also less supportive of Israel than the government would like to acknowledge. No polls specifically measuring support for BDS in Canada have been conducted, but there are several other indicators that Canadians are at least split on the issue at large.
A May 2014 Forum poll found that Canadians are evenly split on who is responsible for the hostilities between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. A 2011 BBC World Service poll, meanwhile, found that 46 percent of Canadians surveyed support the recognition of a Palestinian state, with only 25 percent opposed.
Free speech violation
Regardless of public opinion, however, the recent string of anti-BDS motions appears to violate the enshrined Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada. The National Council on Canada-Arab Relations issued a statement noting that the suppression of BDS activism violates freedom of speech.
The leader of the New Democratic Party, the third major party in Canada, also expressed shock with the motion, and most of his party’s MPs voted against it (though the NDP has also cracked down on pro-Palestinian protesters in the past).
Tom Mulcair, the NDP’s leader, said “This goes against the freedom of expression we hold so dear in our society,” adding that BDS can be opposed. “But to call upon the government to condemn someone for having that opinion, that’s unheard of.”
Mulcair said the motion “makes it a thought crime to express an opinion.”
It’s a shame that the Canadian government, whether Liberal or Conservative ruled, is insistent on uncritically supporting Israel. The Liberals could have taken a strong stance against Israel’s human rights violations when they got into power, as they won by a wide enough margin to throw their weight around. Instead, they’ve prioritized perceived economic and political benefits over justice, thereby undermining their claim to be more progressive than the Conservatives.
Davide Mastracci is an associate editor at the Islamic Monthly. He has written for a range of publications including Al Jazeera America, Alternet’s Grayzone Project, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post. Website: davidemastracci.com.