In Canada, BDS loses in the House of Commons but wins on university campuses

The following article was published by Mondoweiss on February 25.

The following article by CPA member Marion Kawas was published by Mondoweiss on February 25, 2016.

In Canada, BDS loses in the House of Commons but wins on university campuses

So the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions BDS movement had a big day on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016 in Canada, both in the House of Commons and on university campuses.

Within a few hours of each other, Canadian politicians voted 229-51 to condemn BDS and even individuals who promote it; then the Students Society at McGill, a leading university in Montreal, voted to support BDS. An interesting irony here is that the new Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau is an alum of McGill and even personally condemned the efforts to support BDS at McGill when it was first introduced a year ago.

Lets deal with the motion in the House of Commons first (not yet a bill but it was made clear that’s where some MPs would like to see it go). It was introduced (not surprisingly) by the opposition Conservative party, the same party that governed Canada for the previous 10 years and were incredibly staunch supporters of Israel. It stated:

“That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad”.

Note particularly the inclusion of “individuals” in the condemnation phrase. So of course the Conservative Party supported the motion overwhelmingly. And those who had voted in the new Liberal government hoping for change were immensely disappointed as it was announced (and followed through with) that the government would also support the motion. Three brave Liberal MPs did actually vote against it and others abstained. But the logic of the Liberal Party as to why they were supporting it was a real lesson in political double-speak and illogic.

The new Foreign Minister, Stephan Dion, when commenting on the wording of the motion in the debate in the Parliament, which happened several days before the actual vote, stated that … “this rhetoric elicits mistrust and it comes from the Conservatives, who in recent years have constantly tried to transform support for Israel into a partisan issue in Canada.” But then also said “We must oppose anything that stands in the way of stronger ties between Canada and Israel”.

As Neil McDonald, a veteran CBC journalist, noted in a wry commentary about the debate and Minister Dion’s comments:

“There is also, added the minister, the small matter of freedom of speech and debate. Dion denounced the Conservatives’ opposition day motion…as just more “politics of division.”

The Tories, he said, are just “bullies” who want to turn the defence of Israel into a partisan issue. They’ll portray anyone who votes against their motion as “dissidents.”

‘It’s not us who wrote this motion,’ Dion complained, ‘but we have to vote yes or no.’
So, um, yes. Reluctantly, yes.”

The take-away message from the official Liberal position was something like this: yes, this motion infringes on freedom of expression, we are against that, but we’re going to support it anyway to show our support for Israel. Really?! So support for a foreign country or government is more important than the right of free speech in Canada and upholding the Charter of Rights? Would this approach apply in all cases, or just when it comes to Israel?

Now, the position of the New Democratic Party, who did vote against the motion along with the Bloc Quebecois, was summarized like this during the debate by one of their MPs, Charlie Angus:

“Mr. Speaker, To be clear, we are not debating issues of racism and anti-Semitism.
That is not what this is about. This is about a political tactic and whether we agree with that political tactic or not.
The House, supported by the Liberal government of the day, is supporting actions for the government to condemn any attempts made by individuals or organizations.”

Right on, and words we could get behind and cheer for if this wasn’t the same party that purged some of their own candidates for speaking out on this issue back in August 2015 during a heated election campaign. It would seem that the issue of Palestinians rights and lives is a political football in Canada (the Greens being the one exception). We must content ourselves with accepting whatever limited crumbs are thrown our way whenever it suits the prevailing winds and are criticized if we’re not grateful.

Lets go back to the Student Society at McGill. The McGill BDS Action Network had submitted a resolution calling on the Student Society to:

“stand in support of BDS campaigns and to recommend to the Board that McGill divest entirely of all its holdings in companies that profit from the occupation, as well as implement a screening mechanism that would prevent future investments in similar companies. The motion will specifically support the campaign for McGill to divest from corporations that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. These corporations include Re/Max Holdings Inc., whose Israeli subsidiary sells real estate in settlements throughout the West Bank, and Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, which has financed settlement construction projects and provides mortgages to homebuyers in settlements. A third company, L-3 Communications Inc., has supplied equipment to Israeli checkpoints, signed contracts with the Israeli Ministry of Defense for the production and remanufacture of tank engines, and developed the Hermes 900 drone with Elbit systems, used for the first time in Operation Protective Edge in 2014.”

The motion passed with 512 in favour, 357 opposed and 14 abstentions. This represents the future and embodies all our hopes for justice for the Palestinians. The Canadian House of Commons, alternately, reminds of the opposite.

The main lesson here for activists is that only effective grassroots organizing will really help the Palestinian people in their struggle and intensifying BDS work is part of that effort. The efforts and ultimate success by the McGill BDS Action Network is just one positive example of that, although the pushback from the Zionist lobby has already begun and surely will continue. But the hard work of networking and maintaining BDS campaigns have proven to be the best strategy for international supporters who want to see the Palestinians be able to live in freedom and dignity.