Canada: Police crack down on Palestine solidarity organisers

November 10, 2023
Canada blood on its hands
Protest outside Scotiabank in Vancouver, Canada, on November 9. Scotiabank is the largest foreign investor in Israeli weapons company Elbit Systems. Photo: Michael YC Tseng via @bds_Vancouver/X

Palestinians and pro-Palestinian solidarity supporters in Canada are increasingly concerned about growing police repression in the form of surveillance, and — increasingly — arrests of organisers and activists.

Calgary Police Service (CPS) officers took the disturbing step, on November 5, of arresting Palestinian solidarity protest organiser, Wesam Khaled, and charging him with “disturbing the peace” for chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”. Police are now treating this slogan — a basic statement of freedom — as an “offensive antisemitic phrase” and “hate speech”.

Other Palestine solidarity participants have also been arrested beyond Calgary and there are signs that police may take more pre-emptive actions against pro-Palestinian protests across the country.

‘From the river to the sea’

Khaled’s arrest follows recently growing calls by Zionist groups to have the slogan deemed antisemitic and for police to act against those saying it. B’nai Brith Canada, which has called Palestine solidarity events “hateful”, says the slogan is offensive and wants it viewed as “a dangerous slogan that is commonly understood as a call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews and dismantling of the Jewish State”. For Palestinian activists and supporters, attempts to frame “from the river to the sea” in this manner are rooted in Islamophobia and racism.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) issued a statement decrying the arrest, saying there is no legal justification for the charges against Khaled: “We are appalled at the shocking overreach of the Alberta Government in carrying out this arrest, which is an example of anti-Palestinian racism. By cracking down on legitimate calls for Palestinian freedom, Alberta’s actions threaten to put a chill on the massive public displays of outrage over Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians.”

Groups like Independent Jewish Voices Canada have pointed out that “speaking up for Palestinian human rights in Canada has often come with a cost”.

Policing solidarity

As I have detailed recently, police forces across the country, and at all levels — from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to municipal forces like the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) — have connections with Israeli forces. This includes deployments through Operation Proteus to the West Bank. These same forces are policing, in large numbers, Palestine solidarity rallies and marches in Canada.

In addition to surveillance of rallies, the VPD have made several arrests at recent events. The Canada Palestine Association in Vancouver has been forced to set up a defense fund to support young people targeted by police and arrested at recent actions — including a minor.

During the October 30 day of action for Palestine, six people were arrested at the office of Justice Minister Arif Virani in Toronto. Police removed them from the premises and released them with a provincial offence notice for trespassing. Five people were also arrested at a blockade of the INKAS arms factory in North York.

Police are investigating other forms of pro-Palestine protest, including silent vigils and graffiti simply saying “Palestine” painted on a memorial at the Queen’s Park provincial legislature in Toronto.

Police targeting of Palestine solidarity marches is not new. Following Israel’s 2021 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which killed 256 Palestinians, organisers in Calgary held COVID-safe vehicle convoys to protest the Israeli assault, the evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the occupation of the West Bank. In response, Calgary police issued 100 traffic tickets and made two arrests, one for mischief and one for an “altercation”. At the time, organisers pointed out the disparity between these tickets and arrests and the comparative lack of response to the far-right anti-vaccine convoys in the city.

Academic Lucy El-Sherif, who researches the policing of Canadian Muslims at protests, concludes that across the country “the atmosphere is menacing for those who would speak up for justice in Palestine”. In her assessment, “When it comes to Palestine, Muslim and Arab Canadians are expected to be silent. This connects to a wider pattern of systematically silencing anyone who advocates for Palestine. People with no ethnic connection to the region are targeted as well.”

Protests grow

The arrests of Palestinian solidarity activists, and particularly the Calgary police decision to treat “from the river to the sea” as hate speech, have raised serious concerns that police are moving toward pre-emptive actions and a de facto ban on solidarity organising.

Such pre-emptive language has even been adopted by social democratic politicians, such as Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, who tweeted: “The rally to support Hamas [it was not] at Nathan Phillips Square today is unsanctioned, without a permit and I unequivocally denounce it.”

Notably, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called on police across the country “to pre-emptively shut down these pro-terror rallies” saying “the celebration of depraved acts of terror on Canadian streets must be unequivocally condemned and immediately stopped”.

From the start, politicians of various stripes have sought to demonise Palestine solidarity groups and events. Ontario’s Conservative Party premier Doug Ford called them “reprehensible and disgusting”. Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Palestinian solidarity events are “glorifying violence”. Vancouver’s Mayor Ken Sim also came out against Palestinian solidarity.

The police crackdown comes as the solidarity movement continues to grow, with direct actions, rallies and marches happening each week across the country.

A march and rally outside the United States Consulate in Toronto on November 4 drew at least 25,000 people and ended with an hours-long occupation of a major downtown thoroughfare.

Direct actions to shut down war profiteers have also stepped up. Clearly, state forces that continue to support Israel’s occupation and assaults on Gaza (and who fund and arm it) are getting worried.

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