Canada: Activists target arms trade, manufacturers

June 5, 2024
protesters and police
Protesting the CANSEC arms trade fair in Ottawa. Photo:

Protesters took action in Canada in the last week of May against the arming of and profiteering from the Israeli genocide against the Palestinians. This included direct action against weapons manufacturers.

Notably, these actions sought to escalate resistance to the Canadian state and capital in solidarity with Palestinian resistance. Protesters engaged in blockades, pickets, and disruption of critical infrastructure.

While Canada likes to style itself as a “peacekeeping nation”, it has become one of the world’s largest global arms dealers. A substantial proportion of this bloody trade is done with Israel.

Project Ploughshares reports that Canada exported $30,641,495 in military goods to Israel last year — the highest recorded value for any one year. The largest categories of exports were electronic equipment and spacecraft, along with bombs, missiles, rockets and associated components.

While the government claims that it has only authorised permits for transfers of “non-lethal” military goods to Israel since the October attacks, Project Ploughshares notes that no such distinction is made within Canada’s arms control regime.

Unsurprisingly, the stepped-up actions of Palestine solidarity groups have been met with extreme police violence and repression. Canadian police, in addition to being the agents of state repression, have their own direct connections with Israeli forces. Strategies and tactics of movement defence become paramount.

Direct action blocks arms fair in Ottawa

The week of actions started on May 29, with a mass picket outside the EY Centre in Ottawa, which was hosting the annual CANSEC arms trade show of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).

CANSEC grotesquely describes itself as “a one-stop shop for first responders, police, border and security entities and special operations units.” Hundreds of people blocked entrance to the site and red paint was splashed on the pavement.

Protesters were met with a presence of at least 100 Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officers. Police arrested eight protesters. Video circulating on social media showed a CANSEC attendee punching a young Muslim woman protester in the head.

World Beyond War Canada (WBW), which organised the action and put out a call for broad actions against the arms trade, released a statement saying: “The protest was planned to condemn war profiteering in solidarity with Palestinians and people in conflict zones all around the world who have been killed, displaced, and maimed by the weapons being peddled and sold at CANSEC.

“The arms manufacturers exhibiting at CANSEC have raked in record profits from the military violence that has brought misery to millions this year — from Palestine to Sudan, from the Congo to Ukraine, from Afghanistan and West Papua to Ethiopia.”

Protesters later demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy and then on Parliament Hill. The Parliament Hill protest became a sit-in with participants calling for an inquiry into the arms trade in Canada. When attempts to set up wooden barricades were made, police broke up the demonstration. One person was pushed to the ground and arrested.

People marched to the Elgin Street police station to do jail solidarity for their arrested comrades.

Actions, police repression in Vancouver

Several actions were held over days in Metro Vancouver, starting with a protest at the offices of Thales. Thales is a longtime military supplier to Israel, providing numerous systems and components for Israel’s air, naval and ground forces.

A simultaneous action was held at Boeing in nearby Richmond. Boeing, the world’s third largest military company, manufactures weapon systems for the Israeli military, including fighter jets, attack helicopters, missiles and bombs.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers showed up in huge numbers to protect Boeing.

Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers, with support from Canadian National Rail Police and Metro Vancouver Transit Police, brutally broke up a rail blockade on May 31, beating several people and arresting 14. Two people were sent to hospital.

Video showed police forcing people to the ground and putting their knees on the necks of those who had been subdued. Charges against those arrested included mischief and obstruction.

More than 100 people occupied the tracks on a key logistical route in the city that morning, holding them for about three hours. Protesters laid hundreds of sets of children’s clothes on the tracks to memorialise the thousands of children killed in Israeli assaults on Gaza since October.

Blockaders told the media they were acting to get the Canadian government to impose full sanctions on and cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

The day before the rail blockade, several hundred people participated in a rally at a Scotiabank branch in downtown Vancouver. While there were no arrests, police turned out in large numbers and dozens of officers formed a phalanx to protect private property.

This was held as an organising action. Diverse groups, from United in Struggle, to migrant rights group Migrante BC, to Labor 4 Palestine, to police abolitionists Defund 604 were present. Participants were invited to meet and discuss organising with any groups they were interested in learning about.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) spoke out against this latest repression by the VPD against Palestine solidarity movements, freedom of assembly and expression.

Vibert Jack, BCCLA director of litigation, said: “Generally, we’ve seen across the country that they seem to be acting more swiftly with more force, using the Criminal Code inappropriately in cases that involve solidarity with Palestine and protests to that effect. That creates a chilling effect for people who are trying to stand in solidarity with Palestine.”

This is entirely in keeping with the role of policing as the force of suppression of resistance movements. As I have discussed in detail, the VPD in particular have longstanding connections with Israeli forces.

Calls for arms embargo against Israel

These actions took place as grassroots Palestine solidarity movements, unions, student groups and others intensified calls for an end to the arms trade between Canada and Israel and directed attention and action against arms manufacturing and sale in Canada.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), one of the largest unions in the country, passed an emergency resolution at its annual convention, at the end of May, calling for an arms embargo against trade with Israel.

PSAC, along with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), released a joint statement in April, calling on the Canadian government to immediately suspend the trade of arms and military equipment with Israel.

Organised labour needs to take a leading role in the movements against arms manufacturing and sales — not only to Israel. There needs to be leadership through actions, not just resolutions.

Such actions could include work refusals against the production, loading, or transport of arms companies’ products as well as solidarity strikes and pickets.

There have been suggestions to bring back “hot cargo” lists and refusal by workers to touch anything destined for Israel. This could be extended across sectors, including academic exchange refusals, for example. At the very least, unions should be providing infrastructure and resources for broader direct actions.

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