Canadian govt, civil society at odds over Gaza invasion

Published October 31, 2023
Children climb on the rubble of a destroyed home the day after an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp, in Gaza Strip on Monday.—AFP
Children climb on the rubble of a destroyed home the day after an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp, in Gaza Strip on Monday.—AFP

TORONTO: With a tragedy of immense proportions unfolding before the world’s eyes in Gaza, the heat from the conflict is being felt around the world, in all realms; Canada being no exception.

Despite being a G7 member and ‘the closest ally’ of the US, Ottawa, is finding it hard to balance its response.

On the streets, protests are breaking out throughout the country, virtually every day, urging the government to act. Although both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel are holding demonstrations, the pro-Palestine faction is obviously more dominant now, and cars waving Palestinian flags are also becoming a common sight in many parts of the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 raid on Israel by Hamas, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to be solidly standing by Tel Aviv.

The stance generated a calibrated and strong reaction from within Canadian civil society, which so proudly speaks of its diversity.

Although cars waving Palestinian flags are becoming a common sight on the streets, Canadian varsities and legislatures are still trying to balance their pro-Israel tilt with pro-Palestinian public sentiment

To temper his stance, Trudeau visited a mosque in Toronto the very next Friday, where he received a somewhat hostile reception. He was booed, with many congregants underlining that people in Gaza are also humans.

“Shame on you. How many more Palestinian children need to be slaughtered?” a woman in the crowd was heard asking the prime minister outside the mosque, as he was leaving. “How many more before you call for a ceasefire?”

Muslims have historically been supporters of Trudeau and his Liberals, and many here think that this episode would carry a political backlash for him. With his popularity already sliding, he cannot afford to offend the Muslim vote bank much, observers say.

The conflagration in the Middle East has already resulted in a political casualty; the incumbent New Democrat Party (NDP) lawmaker from Hamilton, Toronto, 29-year-old Sarah Jama, was ejected from the party caucus over her statement on Gaza.

The rookie parliamentarian —who reportedly has family in the Palestinian territories — had focused on the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation in her statement. Later, she also accused Israel of being an “apartheid” state.

Student unions in the limelight

While the political fallout continues, another battle is raging in educational institutions, generating a debate on the issue of promoting the battle of ideas within the campuses and limits on it.

On October 12, three York University unions — the York Federation of Students, York University of Graduate Student Association and the Glendon College Student Union — issued a joint statement expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people “and their ongoing fight against settler-colonialism, apartheid, and genocide.”

The next morning, on Friday, the university issued a statement, saying it “unequivocally condemns the inflammatory statement(s)” by its student unions. Later Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities urged student groups to apologise and rescind their stance.

The next week, on October 20, York University further demanded the executive board of the three student unions to step down, warning that noncompliance could result in sanctions, including the university no longer recognising the unions.

Around the same time, 74 students at Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) Lincoln Alexander School of Law (LASL) delivered an online letter to the school, expressing their “unequivocal support” for Palesti­nians. The letter listed several demands, which included a call for the law school to “name and confront Israel’s colonial violence.”

It also urged the administration to recognise the Palestinian “resistance as fundamentally just.”

But as expected, this letter also sparked a backlash among certain sections of society, with online threats emerging to report the students to the Law Society of Ontario and to future law firm employers.

The university is now undertaking a formal independent review to see if the letter has breached policies on non-academic conduct and freedom of speech.

Then, last week, the Ontario-based Western University fired chaplain Aarij Anwer, who also served as a volunteer counsellor for Muslims, after he made online comments about the Gaza crisis that the school’s president called “divisive”.

Anwer’s post was in response to comments by former Canadian Senator Linda Frum, who criticized a Toronto rally supporting Palestinians.

In a statement on X, Anwer said: “No one is celebrating the murder of Israeli babies. Palestinians are mourning the death of their babies. It’s incredible how Israel sympathisers simultaneously are the oppressor and the victim.”

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2023

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