On February 22, 2016, the House of Commons passed a Conservative motion to “reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement” 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.” The motion was passed by a margin of 229-51, with 57 absences or abstentions, and was supported by both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party of Canada. This motion represents the latest in a series of bills that have targeted BDS and the freedom of expression of those advocating for Palestinian human rights. The Canadian government has repeatedly silenced criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, as well as discussion of Palestinian human rights.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS)
The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) was initiated by over 170 Palestinian civil society actors in 2005 and is coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The BDS campaign is a non-violent, rights-based campaign that is inspired by the international boycott movement to end South African apartheid. The campaign calls for various forms of boycott in order to pressure the state of Israel to meet its obligations under international law. This includes: targeted boycotts of Israeli and international products and companies that profit from the occupation; boycotts of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions; divestment from companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights, and; sanctions against Israel. The campaign’s objectives are: “1. Ending [the] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and, 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 94.”
The United Church of Canada, the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and a variety of student organizations at various Canadian universities have passed resolutions supporting the BDS campaign.
Historically, the Canadian government has supported the use of boycotts, divestment and sanctions in the fight for human rights abroad. The Canadian government imposed a variety of economic and political sanctions against the South African government in 1985, followed by a ban on investment the following year, in the struggle to end apartheid. Canada hasimposed sanctions and/or related measures against 22 countries as per the United Nations Act or the Special Economic Measures Act.
Since 2015, more than two dozen nation, state, or local laws against BDS have been put forward in the United States. In Europe, the United Kingdom recently banned publicly funded institutions from participating in BDS and France’s highest court has upheld criminal convictions which ruled that those promoting BDS are guilty of inciting hate. Israel itself has an anti-BDS law in place since 2011 which states that individuals or organizations publicizing a boycott call may be sued civilly for potential damages. In May 2016, members of the Ontario provincial parliament voted down a private-member’s bill that would have stopped the provincial government from doing business with organizations that support BDS. However, following the motion’s defeat, the Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne said she would support a "non-divisive" bill that opposes to the BDS movement.
In January 2015, the Harper government signed a Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] with the state of Israel that described the BDS campaign as “the new face of anti-Semitism” and called for Canada and Israel to coordinate their efforts to oppose the campaign. In March 2015, leader of the Liberal party, and now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau criticized a vote on divestment taking place at McGill University, tweeting “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough.”
The motion and the debate
On February 18, 2016, Conservative MP and opposition foreign affairs critic Tony Clement and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel jointly sponsored a motion to condemn the BDS movement. The motion reads: “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.”
In the debate in the House of Commons prior to adopting the motion, Conservative MP Tony Clement described the BDS movement as seeking to “delegitimize and isolate Israel”, promoting the “odious narrative that Israel is uniquely responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict”, and suggesting that the BDS movement is “a form of discrimination” or a “present-day blacklist” that “undermines peace”, threatens the “livelihoods of thousands of Palestinians”, and “imports the conflict” into Canada. Clement stated that the Conservative Party of Canada values “the ability to speak freely and to act freely” but that the debate over BDS was not about freedom of speech.
Equating support of BDS with anti-Semitism, Conservative MP Peter Kent stated that, “…anyone who supports the boycott, divest, sanctions program, or supports Israeli Apartheid Week is motivated either by hate or by ignorance.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel compared the motion to a 2010 motion passed by the Ontario legislature which condemned Israeli Apartheid Week. She admonished NDP MP, Charlie Angus for turning “this into a debate about free speech. He is saying that we are trying to stifle free speech. We are not. All of the groups the member mentioned absolutely have the right to say what they said. What I am asking him to do is make a choice and condemn this movement.”
In debate, NDP MP Charlie Angus stressed the right of students to “debate foreign policies of another country”, stating that “The question that has been put here is about the condemnation of individuals and organizations, including church people, teachers, and all manner of people. Whether the member [The Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion] agrees with them or not, it is the role of parliamentarians to stand up for individual rights. I am absolutely shocked that the member would stand with the Conservatives on a motion that specifically calls upon us to condemn individuals for their right to dissent.”
NDP MP, Hélène Laverdière stated that the NDP does not support BDS but that the role of Parliament is not “…to limit topics Canadians are allowed to debate, or to condemn opinions.” Laverdière compared the anti-BDS motion to Bill C-51, describing them as Conservative “gag orders”: “They muzzled bureaucrats and scientists, and limited access to information. They kept journalists from doing their job properly, even though that is one of the tenets of our democracy. They harassed and intimidated a range of civil society organizations, particularly through the Canada Revenue Agency, organizations whose biggest crime was not to agree with the government’s policies.”
The Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, reaffirmed the “strong friendship between Canada and Israel”. He described the Conservative motion as divisive but stated that the government would be supporting the motion in substance, despite reservations about “its form and the Conservative Party’s real intentions.” Dion said that rejecting the boycott of Israel would be “in keeping with Canadian tradition”, stating that a boycott “creates victims” by stemming “the flow of investment”, and that a boycott would “be an affront to free speech”.
The Bloc Québécois were the only party to defend the objectives of the BDS movement as a non-violent campaign that is not anti-Semitic. BQ MP, Monique Pauzé stated that the BDS movement “does not target Jews for being Jewish” but targets the policies of the state of Israel. Pauzé defended criticism of the “colonization of Palestine” as “legitimate political opinion” and stated that the BQ recognized “boycotting as a democratic right of people who want to criticize a state’s policies in a non-violent way”.
On February 22, 2016, the motion passed in the House of Commons 229-51. Eight Conservatives, 43 Liberals, 2 NDP, 3 Bloc Québécois, and the sole Green Party member were absent or abstained from the vote.
The NDP voted against the motion, stating that it constituted an attack on free speech.
Liberal MP Rene Arsenault was one of three Liberal MPS to vote against the motion, stating that “it restricts too much of freedom in Canada to criticize any state”. Arsenault criticized the motion for condemning the BDS movement without parameters.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith wrote a public letter about his abstention. Erskine-Smith stressed that “Israel is a friend and ally to Canada”, but that the motion was intentionally divisive. Erskine-Smith defended the rights of individuals and groups to exercise “their right to free expression”, including the United Church of Canada, the American Anthropological Association, the Quakers, student associations, trade unions and academics.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the principal Israel advocacy group in Canada, applauded the vote, describing BDS as a “fringe movement” that is “outside genuine peace efforts that emphasize negotiation, fairness, and mutual responsibility”. CIJA stated that a “clear, all-party consensus” had “…spoke out against efforts to delegitimize, isolate, and discriminate against Israel by advancing the false idea that Palestinians bear no responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Criticism of the motion would come from various individuals and groups, focusing on freedom of speech, and the chilling effect of the motion.
Patrick Martin of the Globe and Mail noted that the BDS campaign is not inherently anti-Semitic, and that its goals “are not dissimilar from Canada’s official positions on Israeli occupation, settlements and human rights”. Neil Macdonald of the CBC described Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion’s position on the motion as inconsistent or ambivalent. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Gerald Caplan, a former New Democratic Party national director, stated that the core issue is free speech or the “right to say freely whatever I think about Israel and its policies. Just as I have the right to say whatever I want about my own government’s policies, or Washington’s, or Costa Rica’s, or Cuba’s”.
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) responded with the “make my day” campaign, gathering over 2200 signatures from individuals supporting BDS. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the President of CJPME, Thomas Woodley, invited condemnation for his support of the BDS campaign, pointing out that the BDS movement is “perfectly aligned with Canada’s official policy” which: “does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967”; does not recognize the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel; and, opposes Israel’s construction of the wall inside the occupied territories, as well as housing and economic infrastructure expropriation and demolition. CJPME also stated that following the passage of the motion, CJPME and other BDS advocates had been subject to hate speech specifically referencing Parliament and the anti-BDS motion, as well as being the target of physical threats. Woodley, President of CJPME, criticised the anti-BDS motion as political posturing that resulted in “incitement or encouragement to hate, or even physical threats”.
In a letter, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to uphold the fundamental freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and defeat the motion, stating that “The United Church of Canada stands in solidarity with groups and individuals exercising [the right of citizens to engage in constructive critique of both Canadian as well as foreign governments] in nonviolent, peaceful ways.”
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association stated that while the material consequences of the motion are unclear, in situations where the “…potential consequences of speaking out are uncertain, Canadians will be less likely to express themselves….Insinuating to the public that it is better to be seen and not heard – on any issue, but especially on issues of great political significance – should never be the role of a truly democratic government.”
Cara Faith Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association also expressed concerns regarding the “potentially chilling affect [sic]” of the motion.
The National Council on Canada Arab Relations (NCCAR) described the anti-BDS motion as going “against the spirit of Freedom of Speech”, noting that “Democratic governments do not ordinarily attempt to dictate the political views of their citizens.” Gabriel Fahel, NCCAR Chair stated that “…freedom of speech and conscientious objections to buying products from countries that contravene international law are core values of a free and democratic society.”
• 9 July 2005: Over 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations launch the BDS campaign.
• 18 January 2015: ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between Canada and Israel calls for a coordinated response to oppose the BDS campaign.
• 18 February 2016: MP Tony Clement and MP Michelle Rempel introduce the anti-BDS motion in the House of Commons.
• 22 February 2016: The motion was passed by a margin of 229-51, with 57 absences or abstentions, and was supported by both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party of Canada.
Implications and Consequences
Free speech and equality: The anti-BDS motion is consistent with a larger trend whereactivism that is critical of Israeli policies is conflated with anti-Semitism. Organizations and individuals supporting BDS are at risk of being labeled extremist and anti-Semitic because they are participating in a non-violent campaign that advocates for a Palestinian right to self-determination. In the words of one writer, the effect of this conflation is to make “…well-rounded democratic input on this issue almost impossible.” The impact of false allegations of anti-Semitism are particularly onerous for Muslim and/or Arab groups, or those perceived to be Muslim and/or Arab, given the intensification of anti-Muslim racism after 9/11. See the Voices-Voix section on Palestinian Human Rights, including our case study on the Canadian Arab Federation.
Free speech: While the legal consequences of the motion are not clear, the anti-BDS motion attempts to deny individuals their right to dissent by narrowing the bounds of acceptable or tolerable speech, a strategy evident in international efforts to criminalize BDS advocacy. This motion adds to the amendments made to section 318 of the Criminal Code which expanded the “identifiable groups” provision to include those distinguishable by national origin, and generates a chilling effect on freedom of speech, ostracizing, alienating and dissuading those advocating for the rights of Palestinians.
Free speech: Peaceful protest and dissent are at the core of a fair, functioning democracy. Canada has a long history of implementing sanctions against states for human rights violations. This motion stifles an important, non-violent political protest.
“Current sanctions imposed by Canada”, Government of Canada
“Go ahead, make my day, condemn me”, CJPME
United Nations Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. U-2)
Special Economic Measures Act (S.C. 1992, c. 17)
“Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS” by BDS Movement, 9 July 2005
“MPPs unite to condemn ‘odious’ Israeli Apartheid Week” by Robert Benzie, The Toronto Star, 25 February 2010
“Israel Passes Law Banning Calls for Boycott” by Jonathan Lis, Haaretz, 11 July 2011
“The Stephen Harper doctrine: With me or against me?” by Steven Zhou, Al Jazeera, 25 December 2013
“Memorandum of Understanding between the DFATD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel regarding Public Diplomacy Cooperation”, Government of Canada, 18 January 2015
“Canadian students reject Justin Trudeau’s attack on Palestine activism, free speech” by Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 15 March 2015
“Freedom of expression and criticism of Israel”, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, 1 April 2015
“Ottawa cites hate crime laws when asked about its ‘zero tolerance’ for Israel boycotters” by Neil Macdonald, CBC News, 11 May 2015
“France Court Upholds ‘BDS is Discrimination Ruling’ by JTA, Forward, 23 October 2015
“New York bill would create official blacklist of Israel boycott supporters” by Nora Barrows-Friedman, The Electronic Intifada, 8 January 2016
“Press release: Putting a stop to public procurement boycotts”, Cabinet Office, The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP and Crown Commercial Service, Government of the United Kingdom, 17 February 2016
House of Commons Debates, 18 February 2016
Open letter to the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, by Jordan Cantwell (The Right Reverend), Moderator, The United Church of Canada, 18 February 2016
“Press Release: Parliament rejects BDS, reaffirms commitment to Israel, highlights failure of fringe anti-Israel movement”, CIJA, 18 February 2016
“Liberals denounce and agree with Tory motion condemning Israel boycotters” by Neil Macdonald, CBC News, 18 February 2016
“NCCAR Urges Putting Canadians’ Right to Free Speech First When Considering BDS Position”, National Council on Canada Arab Relations, 22 February 2016
“Parliament votes to reject Israel boycott campaign” by Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail, 23 February 2016
“Muslim MPs Stayed on the Sidelines as Parliament Condemned Boycotts of Israel” by Paul McLeod, BuzzFeed News, 23 February 2016
“My thoughts on Mr. Clement’s divisive motion” by MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, 23 February 2016
Open letter to the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, by Thomas Woodley, President, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, 23 February 2016
“Liberals who opposed BDS motion speak out” by Selina Chignall, iPolitics, 26 February 2016
“Did the Liberal really mean it? Advocates respond to Dion’s anti-BDS motion” by Paul Weinberg, Rabble.ca, 26 February 2016
“The debate on BDS has now begun – thanks to Tony Clement” by Peter Larson, 6 March 2016
“On the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the narrowing of acceptable speech” by Alyssa Stryker, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, 8 March 2016
“BDS group targeted with threats, hate after Parliamentary motion”, CJPME, 10 March 2016
"Private member’s bill over boycott of Israel defeated by MPPs", by Rob Ferguson, Toronto Star, 19 May 2016
"Ontario Premier Calls for Motion on BDS That Is ’Not Divisive’", by JTA, Haaretz, 05 June 2016