Five Years of BDS Work in Canada and Quebec
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
In Canada the 2005 call for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) has succeeded in pulling various solidarity groups together and provided concrete actions for people to take. Most importantly, the call for BDS has encouraged debates concerning how people outside Palestine are implicated and have a responsibility to act. The strategic demand of BDS helps to illustrate the powerful ties between the Eurropean and North American multinationals and apartheid Israel.
The first BDS conference was organized in October of 2006 by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), under the slogan “The Struggle Continues: Boycotting Israeli Apartheid”. It brought together over 600 activists around one challenge: How can we move the global BDS campaign against Israel forward? Smaller workshops at the conference developed strategies and cultivated networks around specific sectors of work such as labour and the campuses. Committees were also formed to research possible consumer boycott targets and to publicise the BDS agenda in the alternative and mainstream media.
Labour for Palestine
The most advanced BDS organizing across Canada and Quebec has happened in the labour Sector. In May 2006 the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) passed a historic resolution supporting BDS. This inspired Labour for Palestine (a rank and file network of labour activists involved in building BDS) to support an educational campaign within the union about Israel’s policies towards Palestinian workers. In 2007 for example, over 25 training sessions were carried out in workplaces, conventions and council meetings across Ontario. Thousands of CUPE members have received educational materials on Israeli apartheid and participated in these training workshops. The emphasis within Labour for Palestine has been on rank and file education to assure that motions surrounding BDS are not simply ink on paper, but are actually followed through with concrete actions.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers was the first national union in Canada to pass a BDS resolution. Since then the union has sent members to participate in delegations to Palestine and is also focusing on rank and file education on the subject of BDS.
A substantial section of the organizing in the labour sector is the production of educational materials that can be used across unions. To that end, in March 2007, Labour for Palestine published a 100 page book entitled Labour For Palestine: A Reader for Unionists and Activists. Over 300 copies of the book were sold within the first six months of its release and a second edition released.
From 2006, it also became a tradition for a BDS contingent to march in the Labour Day parade in Toronto, distributing information to fellow workers about the conditions of Palestinian workers and the necessity of BDS.
In Quebec, the BDS work within unions is advancing steadily with very clear victories. For example, the Conseil Central du Montréal Métropolitain of the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CCMM-CSN) adopted a resolution in support of the BDS campaign. This is a great achievement by the members of the CCMM (CSN), a labour council that represents over 80,000 members in 12 federations and more than 600 unions from various sectors and CSN federations, including construction, education, health, and communications.
In June 2009, the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (CSQ), a major trade union federation, joined the campaign. CSQ represents 170,000 members in 12 federations and 230 unions across Québec.
On Campuses: Students and Faculty
On the campuses, both Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) have been actively organizing educational campaigns on campuses. Specifically around BDS, Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) which started in Toronto in 2005 has greatly expanded and in 2010 was held in 60 cities around the world. A remarkable achievement in international coordination which points to the growing coherence of the student movement in support of BDS.
The steady educational work during IAW provided the groundwork and momentum which resulted in the first ever official debate on academic boycott of Israeli institutions at a Canadian University. Held at Ryerson University in November 2007, the debate brought the issues of Academic Boycott and BDS to a large live audience. A similar debate was later organized at York University.
Student activists organizing around the call for BDS have paid particular attention to maintaining a constant presence on campuses through tabling, leafleting and postering as well as building coalitions with other progressive student groups and unions. Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) is also consciously attempting to avoid the problem of most student groups that collapse after a few of the main organizers graduate - so there are constant training sessions that involve all the student members, workshops range from Israeli Apartheid 101, to public speaking and tabling.
In 2010 SAIA Carleton launched a very impressive and well researched divestment campaign, similar campaigns will follow at York University and the University of Toronto.
On the Quebec student union level, in 2008 the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), one of Québec’s student unions, endorsed BDS. This union represents over 50,000 members. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has an active campaign around the right to education for Palestinian students and passed motions against the bombing of universities in Gaza.
Following the students' lead, the academics soon formed Faculty for Palestine, and their first effort was to sign an open letter in response to increasing efforts to suppress support for Palestinian rights in Canadian universities, a suppression of both freedom of speech and of assembly. Attempts to silence organizing around BDS on campuses included:
Statements from 19 university presidents in the summer of 2007 to foreclose debate on the academic boycott of Israel, citing “academic freedom”.
Visits to Israel by eight university presidents in the summer of 2008, with no equivalent visit to Palestinian institutions.
Efforts to ban the use of the term “Israeli Apartheid” at McMaster University in February-March 2008, overturned only through a campaign of protest.
Discipline against students involved in peaceful protests for Palestinian rights at York University in March in 2008.
Attempted discipline against a faculty member who addressed a rally against Israeli Apartheid at York University in 2008.
A pattern of cancellation of room bookings for meetings concerning Palestinian rights at the University of Toronto and York University in 2008.
The use of security clearance requirements and fees to cover security costs to impede campus meetings about Palestinian rights.
The passing of legislation in the Ontario provincial assembly condemning the term Israeli Apartheid
This harassment on campuses showed very clearly that the BDS movement was making an impact and it was critical that faculty come together to form a group in support of freedom of expression around the subject of Israeli Apartheid. Faculty for Palestine has taken the initiative to organize panels at academic conferences on the issue of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
In 2008, a new group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) was formed in Toronto. In response to Israel’s use of queer rights to boast its liberal credentials, the group emphasized the rights of queer Palestinians and helped to build support for Palestinian solidarity and BDS in the queer community. After marching in Pride parades in 2008 and 2009, an organized effort by the Zionist lobby to ban the term Israeli Apartheid from 2010 Pride celebrations was met head on by QuAIA. The group was eventually successful in overturning a decision by Pride Toronto to ban the term.
Cultural and Consumer Boycotts
In a major achievement on the cultural boycott front, the grassroots activist group Tadamon’s tireless efforts resulted in 500 Montreal Artists signing an open declaration in support of BDS in March 2010, this signatories included well-known Quebec artists, such as Richard Desjardins.
Also on the cultural front, a major success was the organizing against the Tel Aviv spotlight at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009. Film maker John Greyson pulled his film out of the festival and hundreds of film makers signed the open declaration that condemned the Tel Aviv spotlight. This effective action highlighted the difficulties Israel will face when attempting to use cultural spaces to whitewash its crimes against the Palestinian people.
As for the consumer boycott, there are ongoing campaigns to boycott Chapters/Indigo bookstore because its majority shareholders established the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers, a fund to support Israeli soldiers. Ahava, a product produced in illegally occupied territories, has also been boycotted as has Mountain Equipment Co-op for its sale of Israeli products.
It is difficult in a short overview to capture the momentum gained for BDS across Canada and Quebec over the past five years. Since BDS work began, the concept of Israeli apartheid has come from the fringes into the mainstream consciousness. The debate, in both mainstream and progressive circles has moved on from whether or not Israeli apartheid exists to the questions like "how bad is it?" and the extent to which it is analogous to South African apartheid. Now the efforts of the BDS movement are being directed towards moving public consciousness and acceptance of BDS from the fringes to the centre. We face this challenge amidst a well organized harassment campaign to shut the movement down. However, the more effort put into silencing BDS, the more determined organizers become. In this work, the use of BDS in the struggle against South African apartheid provides not only a well known and accepted historic precedent but also an arsenal of strategies and tactics which can be adapted to the current circumstances.
Rafeef Ziadah is a third generation Palestinian refugee and a founding member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. www.caiaweb.org
Photo credit: John Bonnar