For the second time in four years, people from across Canada met to discuss strategies for developing support for human rights for Palestinians. Following up on the first BDS conference held in Montreal in 2010, this meeting of nearly 200 activists, educators and concerned citizens took place in Ottawa as one “stream” of the massive People’s Social Forum. There was a feeling that another significant step had been made.
See my report below:
A wide range of people and organizations in Canada and Quebec involved in defending human rights for Palestinians actively participated in making this second pan-Canadian meeting a huge success. Among the most visible were BDS-Quebec, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). NCCAR was also well represented. In addition, many individuals participated in a personal capacity from churches, labour unions and human rights organizations.
For two days, the participants took part in over a dozen different workshops on a wide range of issues relating to the Israel/Palestine conflict – ranging from the boycott movement called BDS, understanding the Jewish National Fund, the right of return of refugees, to the situation of the Palestinians living inside today’s Israel.
Evenings were filled with networking, often around a powerful photographic exhibit prepared by CJPME drawing parallels between the dispossession of Palestinians, Canadian Aboriginal people and South African blacks.
The “Convergence Assembly”
The two days of workshops were followed by a day-long “convergence assembly” in which different groups shared their perspectives and their strategies, and then struggled to agree on a common declaration.
The discussions were informative, and the debates and discussions vibrant, yet all done in the spirit of learning from each other. Facilitator Barbara Legault impressed everyone with her deft handling of complex issues and gentle sense of humour.
I personally drew 5 significant conclusions from this historic meeting.
- The diversity of our movement is a strength. The movement to support Palestinian human rights in Canada includes a wide range of people. Different organizations have different strengths, different mandates, different approaches. We can all learn from each other and make the overall movement more powerful. In particular, the strong role played by the participants from Quebec was very impressive. English Canadians saw that they could learn a lot from their Quebec counterparts.
- There is widespread support for all 3 demands of the Palestinian civil society. Increasing recognition that while “ending the occupation” is a valuable objective, it only speaks to one aspect of the Palestinian issue. There was widespread agreement on the need to also support the “right of return’ for the refugees, and “equality’ for Palestinians living inside Israel.
- Recognition of the need for education. Changing Canadian public opinion on the Israel/Palestine situation will required a combination of action and education. Actions promote education, and education supports action. A change in Canadian policy on the Israel/Palestine issue will not come about until a much broader section of the Canadian population has a better understanding of the issues involved.
- Evidence of the significant development of the BDS movement in Canada in the last 4 years. It was interesting to see how much the BDS movement has gained ground in Canada since the BDS conference in Montreal in 2010. At that time it was a “radical” demand, supported by a very few organizations. Today, many unions, student groups and Palestinian Canadians have endorsed BDS, and an ever wider range of Canadians are aware of the Israel/Palestine issue. Some recent successes include getting some stores to boycott Sodastream, and a decision by the Ontario Students’ Federation to endorse BDS.
- Recognition of the need to further develop a pan-Canadian framework in which different organizations can talk to each other. There was an agreement for a 3rd Canadian BDS conference to be held in the next few years.
For the last several decades, the only support Palestinians had in Canadian society was from people and organizations which were in some way “radical”. But there is increasing recognition that human rights for Palestinians is not a radical demand. It is simply a liberal demand based on human rights, and the potential for support is very broad once we get past the fear and ignorance that has so far prevented a serious discussion from taking place.
Was this really an historic meeting? That is perhaps hopeful thinking. Despite the announcement of a ceasefire in Gaza, the blockade continues, the occupation continues, and the rights of Palestinians are still denied. But the Ottawa meeting is a sign that the discussion around Palestinian human rights is broadening in Canada. Lets move that along.