As Canada’s Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Jason Kenney, castigated Palestine solidarity activists for organizing Israeli Apartheid Weeks across the country, and as its Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, threatened “consequences” for Palestinians if they pursue Israel in the International Criminal Court as he spoke before AIPAC in Washington, DC, students on campuses across Canada have come together to build a new alliance to educate, inform and organize for Palestine.
The Canadian Student Coalition for Palestine emerged from a weekend conference organized in London, Ontario in late February by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) at the University of Western Ontario, and the Palestinian Solidarity Group at the University of Windsor.
Students participated in the gathering from a number of campuses – University of Toronto campuses in Toronto, Mississauga and Scarborough; George Brown College; McMaster University; the University of Guelph; Wilfrid Laurier University; the University of Waterloo; and travelling from Western Canada, the University of Calgary; as well as representatives from the Canadian Federation of Students.
Student organizers came into the gathering with momentum behind them – in Canada, the undergraduate student unions of the University of Regina, Carleton University, Trent University and University of Toronto-Missisauga, alongside the graduate students’ unions of York University, Concordia University and the University of Toronto, have all adopted resolutions in favour of some form of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against corporations complicit in Israeli occupation and apartheid in the past year.
BDS was a major theme of the conference, where Remi Kanazi, spoken word poet and organizing committee member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Ben White, author of Palestinians in Israel, presented in-depth workshops on cultural and academic boycott. Many student groups represented at the conference were also taking part in solidarity hunger strikes in support of Palestinian prisoners, particularly Samer Issawi, currently engaged in lengthy hunger strikes in Israeli prisons.
Randa Farah, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, presented a key workshop on advocacy, dealing with opposition, and building alliances with broad social justice movements. “Students have to get involved on their campuses, not only advocate for Palestine, but for all those who are oppressed worldwide. The struggle of the oppressed is one,” said Salah Khalaf of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at McMaster University.
A workshop on student unions presented by Mohammad Akbar indicated not only the importance of student union resolutions in Palestine advocacy on campuses in Canada, but also a broad sense of engagement with student politics – building progressive coalitions, opposing tuition increases, and building strong student unions.
One executive member of the Palestinian Solidarity Group at the University of Windsor drew comparisons to the Quebec student strike that mobilized students across the province and led to the fall of the Liberal government under then-Premier Jean Charest, who had proposed tuition hikes: “The student movement in Quebec…was supported by different groups all over the country, and shows the true influence students have with regard to policy. The Palestinian cause on campus can have the same effect and influence if Palestinian activist groups unite.”
The development of this new coalition is the latest step in a long history of Palestine solidarity and community organizing on campuses across Canada and Quebec. Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) was formed in 1999 after several Palestine advocacy groups based on Montreal campuses unified, expanding over time to include chapters in 13 university campuses across Canada and Quebec. SPHR’s national profile rose when a student protest at Concordia University in Montreal organized by SPHR led to the cancellation of then-former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech. SPHR at the time had a strong alliance with the Concordia Student Union, which was led by a progressive, activist slate that was one of the first student unions in North America to pass resolutions in support of Palestinian rights.
Israeli Apartheid Week, now in its eighth year, was initiated by the Arab Students Collective at the University of Toronto in 2005, soon spreading first across Canada and then globally, and now marked on hundreds of campuses and communities.
Many of the organizers of IAW events include Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in the United States who have, in the past two years, embarked on an initiative to increase national coordination, bringing hundreds of students on campuses across the US together to plan joint events, actions, share strategies and resources and learn together in two national conferences, as well as working together to issue statements, coordinate to combat on-campus repression, and build a student movement.
The experiences of students in the US in facing repression by university administrators and local and national authorities, as urged by national and local Zionist organizations, including the Irvine 11 case, the University of California “campus climate” process, and Title VI investigations by the Department of Education, played a major role in inspiring the launch of the new Palestine Solidarity Legal Support project by the Center for Constitutional Rights, working with the National Lawyers Guild, Asian Law Caucus and other organizations.
During the early 2000’s, when the Concordia Student Union worked closely with SPHR and other groups on Palestine solidarity activism on campus, the student union, which represents the over 35,000 undergraduates at the university, was attacked publicly by B’nai Brith, whose executive director, Frank Dimant, compared the student union to “Bin Laden’s youth program.”
In 2008, students at McMaster University in 2008 were prohibited from using the term “Israeli Apartheid;” students at the University of Western Ontario were banned from holding events for a year, for displaying a map of historic Palestine; the national IAW poster was banned on the Carleton and University of Ottawa campuses in 2009; York University activists, including SAIA members, have faced administrative sanctions, fines and attempted expulsions; and Jenny Peto, masters’ student at the University of Toronto, was attacked by Members of Parliamentand national newspapers, for her critical scholarship and activism.
While the successful BDS votes on many campuses point to progress on Canada’s campuses around Palestine, ongoing experiences with repression pointed both to the urgency of involvement with broad student politics as well as the need to bring student groups together, particularly amid the anti-Palestinian politics espoused by Canada’s federal government under Stephen Harper. “The Canadian government is the most pro-Israel government in the world,” said Tristan Laing of Students Against Israeli Apartheid at the University of Toronto.
Baird’s featured speech at the March 3-5 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, threatened Palestinians that “further actions, like we’ve seen at UNESCO, like we’ve seen at the United Nations, particularly at the International Criminal Court will be ones which will not go unnoticed and will have certainly consequences in the conduct of our relations with the Palestinian Authority.”
Kenney, Harper’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, said on March 4, in an statement now issued annually, “Operating under the guise of academic freedom, Israel Apartheid Week is a misleading attempt to delegitimize and demonize the only true liberal democracy in the Middle East. IAW’s organizers choose to promote inflammatory propaganda over civil and enlightening debate. Their approach is at odds with the Canadian values of tolerance and mutual respect, and prevents meaningful dialogue from taking place.”
Kenney is also known for his promulgation of increasingly restrictive immigration policy, cuts to refugees’ health care, and denial of appeals to refugee claimants, in addition to his avid anti-Palestinian advocacy; Kenney visited a store selling Israeli products in Vancouver in order to oppose BDS and has slashed funding to groups and community institutions that expressed support for Palestine, including Toronto’s Palestine House.
Through the two and one-half days of conference, student organizers met, debated, discussed in small discussion groups, focusing on movement-building and new connections. “We had students participating here in what was originally an Ontario initiative, all the way from the University of Calgary, which showed real hope for strengthening the ties of all solidarity groups, but we still have a long way to go, especially in implementing BDS on our campuses,” said Ayham Salameh of the Windsor Palestinian Solidarity Group.
Organizers plan a follow-up conference in Toronto in December 2013, planning to reach out to other campus solidarity groups to become part of the coalition’s new leadership committee, where each participating student organization is represented, as well as connecting with activities and events across the country, starting with Israeli Apartheid Week, which is being marked in early March on most campuses.
“One upcoming event that we are focusing on is the Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North America that is taking place in Vancouver in May, as an opportunity to build connections among students, in particular Palestinian students, and to connect with the broader movement, build unity and share experiences from our respective communities,” said Haneen Karajah of SPHR at the University of British Columbia. “We need to work on cross-movement solidarity. It’s very important for us to connect with indigenous movements…like Idle No More.”
Organizers identified challenges for the future – including building closer relationships with Arab student organizations, confronting campus repression, and developing deeper ties with student unions and joining progressive student union slates. “CSCP is looking to pool resources, share ideas, act in unison, and speak with one clear voice rather than several discreet whispers,” said Jamilah Chybli of SPHR Calgary.
Planning for the December 2013 meeting, students not only called out the names of Palestine solidarity groups at universities across the country, but also discussed SJPs in the US, reports of Palestine student activism from London, Glasgow, Europe and Latin America, as well as the youth movements in Palestine. “The catalyst for movement is the youth. Hamas and Fatah today are so disconnected from the Palestinian people inside and outside. The refugees are extremely unrepresented, the PA is collaborating with the occupation. It is time to recognize that the solution is in the hands of the people. The answer is Bil’in, Gaza, Samer Issawi, and part of that is our BDS work on campus,” said Khalaf.