Contrary to its reputation as a peace-keeper, Canada's foreign policy has reflected its domestic colonialist policy, as most recently evidenced in Haiti and Afghanistan. In these countries, Canadian troops and other personnel serve to support and sustain brutal military occupations invariably spearheaded by the United States. Consistent with this has been the growing economic, diplomatic, military, and research cooperation and support between Canada and Israel over the past four decades. This article provides a brief outline of Canadian cooperation and support for Israel's apartheid regime, and the growing movement within Canada for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel demanding that it dismantles its apartheid system, ends its military occupation, and implements the right of Palestinian refugees and IDPs to return.
Canada and Israeli Apartheid
Historically Canada has stood behind Israel since the creation of the Zionist state in 1948. This support grew rapidly in the 1990s after the signing of the Oslo agreements. In 1997, the Canadian government signed the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA); the only FTA Canada has signed with a partner outside of the western hemisphere. It has been an enormous boon to Israel; from 2000-2005 the value of Israeli exports to Canada exceeded Canadian exports to Israel, reversing the trend from the 1990s. In the same period, average annual Israeli foreign direct investment in Canada exceeded that of Canada in Israel. In other words, this is an agreement that has benefited Israel and helped support the Israeli economy.
Another agreement, the Canada Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation, provides seed money for Israeli-Canadian joint research and development. Over 200 companies have been funded by this scheme which includes military research. The Canadian government now boasts that Israel is its longest standing technology partner. A similar agreement between the province of Ontario and the Israeli government was also signed by the province's Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ehud Olmert in 2005.
Prominent Canadian business people have been among the staunchest supporters of the Israeli government. Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, majority owners of Indigo Books, set up a fund called the Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers that provides scholarships and other support for individuals who have chosen to go to Israel and serve in the Israeli military. In 2006, Reisman and Schwartz attended a ceremony at an Israeli military base where they were awarded the gun of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon.
In March 2006, just after the democratically elected Hamas party formed its government, the Canadian government raced to become the first government to impose a siege on the Palestinians living under military occupation. It continues its full support for Israel's barbaric siege against the people of Gaza. Over 1.5 million Palestinians now live in an 'open-air' prison - with all entry of essential goods, electricity, water and medicines controlled by Israel. While Israel starves the population of Gaza, Israeli leaders are welcomed with open arms in Ottawa.
On 23 March 2008, the Canadian government signed a high level agreement with the Israeli government to share 'border management' and security information. These types of agreements mean close cooperation and information sharing between Israeli and Canadian intelligence, racial profiling, and harassment of Palestinian activists and their supporters. During Israel's bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, which killed over 1100 and displaced over one-million Lebanese civilians, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper described Israel's actions as 'measured and justified' and opposed calls for a cease-fire.
Canada continues to give charitable/tax-deductible status to the Canadian arms of Zionist fundraising organizations such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF owns land in Israel, mostly the rightful property of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced people, which it is mandated not to sell or lease to non-Jews. By restricting the control of land to people from only one ethnic group, the JNF is a key institution of the Israeli apartheid regime. Funds from the Canadian JNF established a “park” over the ruins of three Palestinian villages of Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba which were demolished and depopulated by Israel in 1967. This park is called Canada Park and the 10,000 original inhabitants, like all Palestinian refugees, are barred from returning to their land. The Canadian government helps to subsidize this racism and ethnic cleansing by giving charity status to the JNF.
Early Years of the Intifada
After the Oslo agreements, Canadian society was one of many around the world lured into the illusion of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. While many critics pointed to the explosion of settlement activity, the marginalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel's struggle for political, economic and civil rights, as well as the struggle for the return of the refugees; it was not until the outbreak of the second Intifada that solidarity for Palestine was mobilized through organized initiatives.
From 2000-2005, Palestine solidarity in Canada largely centered on scattered awareness raising events and protests highlighting the continued escalation of Israeli war crimes against Palestinians. There was a diverse range in the politics and demands put forward by the different groups. Al-Awda, the Palestine right to return group in Toronto pushed to bring Palestinian refugee rights, and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel back into focus; the Montreal campus based Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) put forward a broader basis of unity that emphasized Palestinian human rights in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. SPHR began to spread when in 2002 it called for a demonstration against the visit of Benjamin Netanyahu, and protesters successfully prevented him from speaking in Montreal.
The Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation in Toronto, and Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU) in Montreal re-launched the Women in Black experience by initiating weekly vigils in front of the Israeli consulate in their cities just after the outbreak of the Intifada, and these weekly vigils have been ongoing non-stop for the past eight years!
A key experience was that of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) which enabled many activists to go to Palestine and see the reality of occupation with their own eyes. While many of those who took part in ISM trips disappeared back to their everyday lives, others - especially those active before their departure - returned with a renewed commitment to struggle for justice in Palestine.
Some groups were influenced by divestment campaigns on US campuses, and the Stop US Tax Aid to Israel Now (SUSTAIN) campaign; some incorporated an analysis of Israel as an apartheid state; others resisted any incorporation of Palestinian refugee rights and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, characterizing such demands as 'divisive.' The effect was that BDS was limited to being one in a list of demands put forward by groups, and no single group systematically worked out a strategy to implement such a demand in practice. The major turning point came in July 2005 with the issuing of the Unified Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS. The original call was signed by six Arab/Palestinian-led organizations in Canada: Al-Awda Toronto, Canadian Palestinian Foundation of Quژbec, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, Medical Aid for Palestine, the Arab Students' Collective at the University of Toronto and Sumoud, a political prisoners solidarity group; many more have since followed suit.
Toronto's Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid
Although armed with the BDS Call, groups in Canada faced difficulties reorganizing themselves so as to incorporate BDS as a central component of their work. Part of the difficulty was internal to the different Palestine solidarity groups, with some members seeing the change as undermining what their group had worked to build over the past five years, while others stressed that such a campaign would require more systematic planning and research especially in selecting appropriate Canadian targets on which to focus.
As the Palestine solidarity landscape reoriented itself, the incorporation of the BDS demand gradually spread through the various solidarity groups. An early attempt at BDS came from Al-Awda in the form of a campaign against the charitable status of the JNF. Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an event started by the Arab Students' Collective in February 2005, put it forward in that first year; and treated it as the central strategy for solidarity in the subsequent year. This was significant since the Week was attended by large numbers of solidarity activists due to the high profile of the event resulting from the media explosion it had caused in its first year. The main internal obstacles remained: the proliferation of solidarity groups meant that there was no space to think about the strategy and coordinated implementation of a systematic BDS campaign.
The change came when Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister of Israel, was invited to speak at the 14 November 2005 United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly in Toronto. When news of the invitation became public, the various solidarity groups came together to organize the response which included a legal appeal to deny entry to the notorious war criminal and mobilization to protest the invitation. Sharon did not end up attending the event, instead Paul Martin, the Prime Minister of Canada at the time, spoke to the conference stating that “Israel's values are Canada's values.” The success of the demonstration against Sharon's visit was the result of a huge leap in organizing as the various groups put aside past debates and animosities and took a sincere anti-sectarian approach to focus on the work to be accomplished.
The groups that had come together to oppose the Sharon invitation met again after the protest, decided to continue working together and to adopt BDS as the central focus, and to name themselves the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA). Palestinian activists played a key role in holding together the groups involved stressing the centrality of the 2005 BDS Call as providing the strategic focus for the Palestinian led international solidarity campaign against Israeli apartheid. As the call is action oriented, well defined, and authoritative it prevented the long and divisive theoretical debates on 'Basis of Unity' that most groups focus on during their formation. The demands of the 2005 BDS Call (an end to the Israeli occupation of all Arab and Palestinian lands, the release of all Arab and Palestinian political prisoners, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were expelled from 1947 to the present day) also form the CAIA Basis of Unity.
The call for BDS was the needed framework to pull various groups together, to give concrete actions for people to take, and to discuss how people outside Palestine are implicated in what is happening and have a responsibility to act. The strategic demands of boycott, divestment and sanctions help to illustrate the powerful ties between North American / European capital and the Zionist state. The comparison with South Africa is not simply a theoretical framework to adopt, but also a model of action.
The BDS movement in Canada achieved its first major success in May 2006, when the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) passed “Resolution 50” at its annual delegate's conference. Adopted unanimously by the 900 delegates at the largest convention in the union's history, the motion expressed support for the global campaign against Israeli apartheid, stated that the union would educate its members on the apartheid nature of the Israeli state and Canadian political and economic support for these practices, and declared that CUPE Ontario would participate in the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until the realization of Palestinian self-determination. Most importantly, the motion highlighted the significance of the right of return of Palestinian refugees as a critical component of Palestinian self-determination.
CAIA Organizational Development
In its first major initiative CAIA organized the first conference in Canada around the call for BDS titled “The Struggle Continues: Boycotting Israeli Apartheid.” It was held in Toronto from 6-8 October 2006 and brought together over 600 activists around one challenge: How can we move global BDS campaigns against Israel forward? Smaller workshops at the conference developed strategies and cultivated networks around specific sectors of work such as: labor, campus, community organizing and faith-based groups. The committees of CAIA came out of these workshops. These committees initially carried out educational work in their different sectors. On campuses, for example, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) started to take up the academic boycott of Israeli institutions; inside unions, Labor for Palestine focused on the conditions Palestinian workers were facing and the effects of the siege.
By organizing on a sectoral basis and in a non sectarian way, CAIA has been able to make huge gains in the breadth, depth and impact of Palestinian solidarity work in Toronto. Many activists who came to the October 2006 conference from other cities took with them a renewed energy that manifested itself in the affiliation of organizations across the country to CAIA, and in some cases the formation of CAIA branches in other cities. Having a focus on BDS, clearly defined by the call from Palestine, aligns the work of CAIA with the international Palestinian led campaign and provides goals which transcend local sectarian divisions.
Another important element in the work of CAIA in particular, but the Palestine solidarity movement at large, has been the increasing emphasis on solidarity with local struggles. At the forefront of these is the struggle for the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples' on Turtle Island. This has not been simply in the words and statements made by CAIA, but also in the physical presence and logistical support of CAIA activists when requested by activists from indigenous communities struggling to protect and reclaim their land and resources. There is also a strong link between the Palestine solidarity movement and the anti-poverty struggle and the struggle for immigrant and refugee rights similarly manifested in words and deeds.
Labor for Palestine
The CAIA Labor committee, Labor for Palestine, is a network of rank and file labor activists involved in building the BDS movement within Canadian unions. Following the historic “Resolution 50” of CUPE Ontario, Labor for Palestine has worked to support the CUPE resolution and help CUPE members carry out rank-and-file education within the union. During 2007, over 25 training sessions were carried out in workplaces, conventions and council meetings across the province. Thousands of CUPE members have received educational materials on Israeli apartheid and participated in these training workshops.
Other developments in the labor sector were the inclusion of a commitment to internal education on Palestine in the “statement of principles” arising from the 2007 CUPE National Congress and the bringing forward of resolutions in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. Although the latter initiative was blocked, it succeeded in raising public awareness of the issues involved.
In March 2007, Labor for Palestine published a 100-page book entitled “Labor For Palestine: A Reader for Unionists and Activists.” The book was launched at the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto, and contains discussion on the CUPE resolution, educational material for unionists and workers on the history of the Palestinian struggle and the situation of Palestinian workers. This has been an invaluable educational and training tool for establishing international solidarity committees in unions and promoting Palestine solidarity work.
A second major achievement came in April 2008 when the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) voted to become the first nation-wide union in North American history to join the BDS campaign. Resolution 338/339 was modeled on the CUPE Ontario resolution; it recognizes Israel as an apartheid state and expresses CUPW's support for boycott and divestment from Israel. It was passed almost unanimously after nearly one hour of discussion on the convention floor. The fact that CUPW passed this resolution was particularly significant as a result of this union's history of international solidarity; during the South African apartheid years, CUPW was at the forefront of labor solidarity with South African workers and engaged in concrete actions such as the refusal to handle mail from South Africa.
Labor for Palestine most recently hosted an organizing conference for trade unionists that was held at the end of May 2008 to develop a coordinated cross-union strategy for BDS work. The conference featured leading activists from the Palestinian, South African, Haitian, Canadian, and US labor movements, and provided an opportunity to discuss strategies on how to move the campaign forward in the North American labor movement.
Students Against Israeli Apartheid
On the student front, SAIA has been actively organizing educational campaigns on campuses. A highlight of SAIA activities has been Israeli Apartheid Week, which in 2008 had grown to an international event held in over twenty cities across the world. Over two thousand people attended this year's activities in Toronto alone, participating in demonstrations, lectures and cultural events. IAW was also organized in Hamilton, Montreal, Peterborough, Ottawa, Fredericton, Vancouver and Victoria. IAW also saw the launch of High Schools Against Israeli Apartheid (HAIA), a new group of high school students active in support of Palestinian rights.
In June 2007, Zionist organizations mobilized the presidents of many Canadian universities to denounce the UK's University and College Union's resolution calling for a debate on academic boycott. Outraged that their university's president would endorse such a position, BDS student activists at Toronto's Ryerson University pushed their university administration to host a debate on academic boycott. The result was the first ever official debate on academic boycott of Israeli institutions at a Canadian university.
Held in November 2007, the debate was chaired by Suhana Meharchand, a well-known and respected Canadian television personality of South African origin, and brought the issues of academic boycott and BDS to a large live and television audience. Demands for similar debates on other campuses have been legitimized by this ground-breaking event which has changed the political landscape in the University sector. In one absurd twist, the McMaster University administration banned the use of the phrase “Israeli apartheid!” SPHR activists in that university immediately organized a public debate in the central space of the campus that brought together over 500 students, faculty and staff to debate the issue. While several in attendance defended Israel against the charge of apartheid, it was made incredibly obvious that the administration had no right to stifle campus debate with such ridiculous methods as the banning of a phrase.
SAIA activists have paid particular attention to maintaining a constant presence on campuses through tabling, leafleting and postering as well as building coalitions with other progressive student groups and unions. SAIA is also consciously attempting not to replicate the problem of most student groups that collapse after a few of the main organizers graduate - so there are constant educational workshops that involve all the student members, covering an analysis and discussion about Israeli apartheid, to skills such as public speaking and outreach.
In another landmark initiative, Highschoolers Against Israeli Apartheid (HAIA) held their inaugural conference in Toronto in February. This is the first formal gathering of secondary school students in Canada to discuss Israel's apartheid system and how people around the world can work to overcome it. The conference was organized by high school students who have been carrying out education campaigns in Toronto schools for the past twelve months. Working in the high-school sector has provided incredible momentum for the BDS campaign and inserted a new creative energy - the highschoolers have taken on banner and poster production for the broader campaign.
A breakthrough on the student front came in May 2008 when L’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), an important Québec-wide student federation representing over 42,000 students, voted to support the international campaign against Israeli apartheid at a Québec-wide level. The resolution was adopted after several local assemblies at university and Cégep campuses across the province voted at a local level within general student assemblies to support the boycott campaign. ASSÉ’s boycott resolution marks the firsttimethat a major student union in Québec or Canada has voted to support the international boycott campaign opposing Israeli apartheid.
Throughout the 2007 / 2008 school year ASSÉ, in collaboration with Tadamon! Montreal, a leading organization of the BDS campaign in Québec, with support from Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ), Québec’s largest college level teachers union, and the Québec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) organized multiple workshops throughout Québec at Cégep and university campuses bringing together hundreds of students for popular education workshops outlining the critical importance for Québec’s student movement to stand against Israeli apartheid. Among social movements across Canada, ASSÉ is a serious force, having launched and speerheaded a historic student strike across Québec, with over one-hundred student unions participating at the height of a strike that was rooted in a demand for a cancellation on all student debt and calling for free post-secondary education in Québec. The strike resulted in the reversal of the Québec government’s plans to cut $103 million from the student aid budget.
Film and Culture
Screening films to the general public has been a key part of CAIA's outreach strategy from the beginning. The size and diversity of audiences increased dramatically when film showings were moved from campus lecture halls to a popular Toronto documentary movie theater. Experience gained from this work has enabled the organization of the first ever Toronto Palestine Film Festival which will take place in October 2008.
In Montreal, Tadamon! has also used cultural performances as a central component of its BDS outreach with its “Artists Against Apartheid” events. The third and most recent edition of this lively concert crossing multiple musical styles from Jazz, to hip-hop, to folk was held this past May to commemorate the Nakba. As with the previous two events with the same title, it brought together high profile local artists under the BDS banner as part of the effort to popularize the campaign.
Consumer Boycott Campaigns
In December 2006 in the heat of the Christmas shopping spree, CAIA launched a consumer boycott campaign of Chapters and Indigo Books - the largest bookstore chain in Canada. The campaign demands an end to the financial support offered by the majority shareholders of Chapters and Indigo to Heseg - Foundation for Lone Soldiers which provides scholarships and other support to former 'Lone Soldiers' in the Israeli military. Lone Soldiers are individuals who do not live in Israel, have no family in Israel but decide to join the Israeli military. The launch involved distributing thousands of leaflets exposing the direct link between the majority owners and the Israeli military, while activists filled the background with anti-apartheid Christmas carols, a tactic borrowed from Palestine solidarity activists in the UK.
The campaign was picked up across the country, and despite little coverage in the mainstream press, the campaign has provided an excellent platform to educate the general public on Israeli apartheid and BDS through the distribution of over 50,000 leaflets at pickets across Canada. The weekly vigils that were begun by the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation now alternate between the Israeli consulate and one of the main downtown branches of the bookstore. To date, leafleting pickets of the bookstore have been regularly organized in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Halifax, Victoria and elsewhere. Creativity in the approach to the campaign has also continued, the launch of the last Harry Potter book, for example, witnessed CAIA activists colorfully dressed as characters from the book distributing leaflets to the hundreds in attendance while the bookstore's security personnel, on the lookout for pesky activists, walked around oblivious to the fact that the book-launch organizers had not paid the costumed leafleters to be there!
In addition to the Chapters-Indigo campaign, numerous BDS related actions are organized in cities and towns where BDS groups function when the need arises. JNF fundraising activities, events featuring the Israeli ambassador or other representatives of the apartheid state, state run alcohol vendors selling Israeli wines from the occupied Golan, and others are all seen as opportunities to reach out to the public, raise awareness about how the choices they make can either support or oppose the ongoing Nakba of Palestine, and directly challenge everyday practices in Canada that normalize cooperation and support for apartheid. Most recently, Vancouver's Canada Palestine Association started a campaign to boycott Israeli wines that have been sold at British Columbia Liquor Stores since December 2007. The campaign was successfully launched on 4 May 2008 with a picket against the Wine Festival in Vancouver that was co-organized by the Israeli Government and the Four Seasons Hotel and aimed to promote Israeli wines.
Over the last couple of years the concept of “Israeli Apartheid” has come from the fringes into the mainstream consciousness. The debate, in both mainstream and progressive circles has moved on from whether or not Israeli apartheid exists to the questions like “how bad is it?” and the extent to which it is analogous to South African apartheid, as well as the more important question of “what can we do about it?” BDS activists in Canada have played a significant role in causing this shift - on the local level at least. Now the movement is directing its energies towards moving public consciousness and acceptance of BDS from the fringes to the center.
Currently the front of this battle is on the University campuses where a space to debate academic boycott has been opened up. In this work the use of BDS in the struggle against South African apartheid provides not only a well known and accepted historic precedent but also an arsenal of strategies and tactics which can be adapted to the current circumstances. In addition to consolidating and extending its presence in the labor and student sectors, the campaign will be intensifying its work with educators in schools and universities to support them in their efforts to implement academic boycott and BDS in their institutions.