Liberal Minister’s letter implies continuation of Harper policy on denying funding for Palestinian refugees

pal refugees in beqaa

Among the millions of new refugees displaced by the war in Syria are hundreds of thousands of existing refugees – Palestinians who have been stuck in camps in Syria and Lebanon since 1948. They depend on UNRWA, a UN organization, for the basics of survival. But in a recent letter, Liberal minister Marie Claude Bibeau seems to say that the Liberals are not in any hurry to reverse the Harper government’s decision to cut off UNRWA funding. Read more.

In what many saw as a reflection of its very public pro-Israel stance, in 2012 the Harper government cut off Canada’s contribution to UNRWA, the main UN agency for Palestinian refugees. That money goes to provide humanitarian assistance, medical services and education to over 5 million Palestinian refugees.

With the election of the Trudeau government, however, many expected this to be reversed. A number of NGO and church groups have written Stephane Dion asking that critical funding be resumed. Perhaps they were hoping that the Trudeau team’s stated sympathy for refugees would lead it to take a more humanitarian stance toward those made homeless with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Refugee children headed for UNRWA schools on their first day of the school year in Gaza Strip despite the harsh economic conditions people in Gaza Strip are suffering from.

First Day at School in Gaza . Thousands of refugees’ children have access to education, health services and even basic food thanks to an increasingly overstretched UNRWA.

The urgency of the issue has been raised by both the Green Party and the NDP. On June 14th, NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Hélène Laverdière called on the Liberals to immediately renew its contributions to the agency.

“In February, the Liberals seemed ready to resume contributing to UNRWA, and start reversing this damaging Conservative policy that began in 2009 and led to a complete cut off of aid in 2013,” said Laverdière. “But in the months since, there has been no news from the Liberal government – while the crisis in the broader region has only increased the humanitarian need among Palestinian refugees.”

There has also been some grassroots pressure.  A petition to Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, launched by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) gathered several hundred signatures.

But the Liberals are also being lobbied hard on the other side by Israel’s supporters.Simon Fogel, President of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs stated a strong opposition to funding in a Globe and Mail article.

Dr. Charles McVety, national chair of an organization which calls itself Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Canada, and calls itself “the largest pro Israel advocacy organization in the country”, has strongly denounced the idea of giving $15 million to an agency “known for its support of terrorists and anti-Semitism”. (This is an accusation which UNRWA officials strongly deny.)

The Liberal answer has been slow in coming

Faced with these competing pressures, the Liberals continue to dither. Those who signed the CJPME petition are just now (2 months later) getting a non-committal (some might say evasive) response from Mme. Marie Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development. Here is an excerpt from the letter she sent to me:


 July 14, 2016

Dear Mr. Larson,

Thank you for your email of May 5, 2016, regarding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). I regret the delay in replying to you.

Canada is committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel, resulting from direct negotiations. (…) .

Our government remains concerned about the needs of vulnerable Palestinians and funds a substantial package of humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza through experienced partners. Prior to 2012, Canada provided assistance to Palestinian refugees through UNRWA. Global Affairs Canada is currently reviewing assistance to Palestinian refugees, who remain vulnerable and in need of support.


We are assessing how best to provide our response to vulnerable Palestinians, based on needs, ability to deliver assistance effectively and accountably, and available resources. The government has not yet made a decision regarding funding to UNRWA for this year. (Ed note: emphasis mine). However, please be assured that all options for providing assistance will be assessed in the decision-making process.

Thank you for your interest in this matter.


The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, P.C., M.P.

Minister of International Development and La Francophonie

Mme Bibeau’s answer seems to diminish hopes that Mr. Trudeau’s “sunny ways” will lead to a change in policy on this file any time soon.

“I am disappointed that Minister Bibeau and the Trudeau government have dithered on the question of UNRWA funding for so many months.”  notes Thomas Woodley of CJPME, whose organisation initiated the petition. “For all intents and purposes, Canada has missed a chance to contribute for 2015 – which was perhaps their strategy for dithering from the beginning.”

Mr. Woodley may be right that the Liberals are just ragging the puck. But since Mme. Bibeau says that “no decision has yet been made”, it is probably not too late to write her ( and to your own MP to tell them if you think this is one Harper decision that the Trudeau government should reverse.


Comment? Do you think that the Liberals are really opposed to UNRWA funding, or are they just dragging their feet because there hasn’t been enough lobbying in favour of restoring UNRWA funding?



  1. I got the identical empty letter from Mme Bibeau in response to a letter I sent to Stephane Dion on this subject. In my opinion the Liberals are clearly dominated by the usual pressure groups who are against justice or human rights for the Palestinians whose horrendous conditions are hidden from the general public by the mainstream media.

  2. And also the continued denial of Palestinian refugees. While some private Palestinian Syrian Refugees have been part of Canada’s “proud” refugee settlement work, the government is quite clear, as expressed in letters some of us DID eventually receive from Minister McCAllum that we do not work with UNWRA and we do not sponsor Palestinian Syrian Refugees (PSR). He refused to provide information requested, and I have not taken time to do an access request yet.

  3. Before coming to Canada, I lived in a Palestinian refugee camp and, like all other Palestinians there, I attended a UNRWA school. UNRWA provides health, education and infrastructure services without which life would not be possible for Palestinian refugees. I got the opportunity to immigrate to Canada as a professional because UNRWA exists. I am not sure who would I have been without that. I am very disappointed with this position of Liberal govnt. If this govnt is serious about restoring Canadian international credibility and respect, it can not discriminate against Palestinian refugees for political reasons. Supporting UNRWA is the least one would expect from a govnt saying that it is concerned about refugees and their dignity and basic human rights. This is the right thing to do on moral grounds, and important politically for stability and peace in the middle east.

  4. I have to admit that I find it strange that one of the arguments justifying Canada spending hundreds of millions in Afghanistan was so that girls can go to school, but in Gaza and elsewhere, the girls want to go to school, the schools are there, the teachers are there, and their parents want them to go to school. But Canada Is not yet sure if helping them go to school is a good idea. Do we want girls to go to school… or not?

  5. Thank you Peter for this clear article. I have been in refugee camps in the Palestine in the West Bank, but not yet in Lebanon or Syria. It seems totally inconsistent for our government to support the immigration of Syrian refugees, a laudable move, yet not reverse the Harper government’s decision to cut off UNRWA funding. Consistent with our law and our cultural history, we should pay our UNRWA dues.

  6. Reblogged this on Peacing Stories and commented:
    With thanks to Peter Larson for this posting. Echoing his invitation, please write to Mme. Bibeau “( and to your own MP to tell them if you think this is one Harper decision that the Trudeau government should reverse.”

Comments are closed.