Canada announces $90 million for Palestinian refugees. Good. But continues to ignore finding a solution to the refugee issue itself

On December 21st, the Trudeau government announced a $90 million contribution to UNRWA, the main UN agency for supporting Palestinian refugees. This humanitarian gesture is warranted and will be appreciated by Palestinian refugees. But while making the announcement, Canada avoided referring to its own policy on the issue of the Palestinian refugees and the need to find a solution to their status as refugees. Read more….

Canada’s announcement of a $90 million contribution (spread over 3 years) of humanitarian support to Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, is welcome and significant. Especially so given the USA decision last year to stop funding UNRWA, and the increased demands now put on UNRWA’s medical system by the COVID pandemic.

The Liberals will no doubt face intense criticism from the Israel lobby. For many years, Bnai Brith Canada has been campaigning to end all Canadian funding to UNRWA, claiming it “promotes hatred toward Israel and Jewish people”. Bnai Brith’s underlying motive, however, is to weaken UNRWA which it sees, rightly, as an important institution for Palestinian refugees. In that context, it took some political courage for the Liberals to act.

However, the Liberals seem intent on continuing Canada’s historic policy of seeing the Palestinian refugee issue only through a “humanitarian” lens, (aimed at giving immediate help to needy refugees) rather than a “political” one (aimed at resolving their status as refugees.)

But no amount of humanitarian aid can resolve the Palestine refugee issue. It is the ongoing result of the “Nakba” – the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1947/48 in order to turn historic Palestine into a Jewish state. Every year since then, the UN has voted to affirm the Palestinian right to return, but Israel refuses to accept that right, and has shown it is prepared to use deadly military force to prevent it happening.

The “right to return” is not a special right that Palestinian refugees enjoy. It is a universal right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adopted by the United Nations in 1948. This right is not unique to Palestinians.

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Article 22, Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Adopted by UN, December 10 1948

The right of return is an individual right that cannot be negotiated away, and it is one of the three durable solution rights anchored in international law available to all refugees and their descendants: (i) the right to return to their homes and homeland; (ii) to reside in the host country; or (iii) to resettle elsewhere.

However, Palestinians are almost unique in the world in seeing their right to return denied for over 70 years. Since 1947/48 those refugees and their families have been held “in limbo” waiting to exercise their right to return to where they came from.

Our official policy… versus our actions

According to Canada’s official policy, “Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is central to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) (…) This solution should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.”

Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of International Development, announced $90 million in urgent support to UNRWA. But she didn’t mention Canada’s official policy which is to find a just solution for the refugees.

But what has Canada done to find a just solution? What pressure are we putting on Israel, the USA or our allies toward find a “just solution”?

At one time Canada was asked to take the lead in a “Refugee Working Group (RWG)” aimed at resolving the Palestinian refugee issue. We even organized international workshops on the issue.

The Refugee Working Group was a US/UN approved multilateral approach aimed at encouraging negotiations between Israel and those Arab countries where Palestinians expelled from Israel had found refuge in 1948. From its inception, however, the Israeli/US focus was on improving the living conditions of the refugees “in place”, whereas the Palestinians wanted to push toward implement the relevant UN resolutions concerning their right to return.

Even on the very limited humanitarian objective, there was little progress. Israel denied any significant responsibility for the refugees. Faced with Israeli intransigence (backed by the USA), meetings of the RWG were scheduled and cancelled repeatedly, said an anonymous Canadian diplomat who was involved in the frustrating exercise. And today Canada doesn’t even talk about resolving the refugee issue… just about throwing money at it from time to time.

In fact, Trudeau’s government appears no longer willing to support UNRWA at the UN General Assembly. Earlier this month, Canada abstained on a resolution to renew UNRWA’s mandate at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and voted “No” on another motion supporting the activities of UNRWA.It is hypocritical when Canada funds UNRWA to the tune of $90 million, but then refuses to stick up for the agency politically on the international stage,” said Michael Bueckert, Vice-President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

The Trudeau Liberals should be praised for the humanitarian support to UNRWA, but they should not be allowed to let the fundamental issue – that of the “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees – to be buried in the process.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. Well stated, Peter. The hypocrisy of the Canadian government lives on. We love to portray ourselves as generous and caring, but scratch that surface and you see the real policy, that essentially perpetuates the current situation.

  2. It’s refreshing to have a concise, clear restatement of the irrefutable historical facts that you’ve provided here. I hope our Canadian political leaders are reading this post.

  3. I shall send this on to Trudeau, with two comments:
    (1) Nora Carmi, of Sabeel, has said that probably not all that many exiled Palestinians would want to go back to Palestine. “But we want our right acknowledged.”
    (2) When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some took the keys to their homes with them – like the Palestinian woman in the photo. A few years ago, Spain offered any Jewish family that still had their key the right to return to Spain. Eight families accepted the offer.

    1. Hey Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Perhaps a Palestinian refugee can respond.

      As you know, the decision to actually return or not, is an individual one. Different families will be free to make decisions based on their current situation and the options available. (Just as you might weigh the idea of moving to Vancouver). My guess is that few Palestinian refugees living in Canada would be interested in moving back to Palestine/Israel. However, I also guess that MOST of those living in Gaza would want to do so…. unless they saw a better option.

      In any event, Israeli Jews fear that if Palestinians return, the Jewish majority will become a minority. Since the numbers of Jews and non Jews “between the river and the sea” is approximately equal now, the return of even a small number of refugees will change the demographics significantly.

      1. Hey Doug,
        I know that some people argue that its “either return OR compensation”. That will certainly be the legal argument used by those who want to minimise the effect of return.

        But it seems to me that fairness would dictate “return AND compensation”.

        Think about it for a moment. You lost your land and property through no fault of your own. And for 70 years you were held in what amounts to a virtual prison. Now you are let out. And come back home… penniless. Even if you take possession of your home, do things just end there? Wouldn’t natural justice say that you should get some compensation for the pain and suffering?

        We gave David Milgard $5 or $7 million for the 7 or 8 years he unfairly spent in a Canadian prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

  4. Of course the pressure on Trudeau’s government has always there by the these fanatic Zionists. This support to UNRWA is once again a business as usual to divert people attention from the more critical issue of Palestinians rights of return. Double standards is pretty deep in our politicians and there seems to be no changes in that front at all. It is now up to Canadians to defund Israeli organizations while supporting the BDS in Canada.

  5. Good comment Peter to welcome and advocate for the new Canadian financial support for UNRWA against the outrageous inhumane opposition of the Israel.lobby Bnaibrith.and the US withdrawal of supoort which will be reversed by yhe Biden administration.. Also, good to point out the inconsistency even hypocrisy of Canada’s abstention and negatuve vote on UNRWA in the two UNGA resolutions.

    Probably cannot expect much more from Canada than encouraging the setllement of the right of return in the context of establiahing and confirmng an independent state of Palestine. Such a stste should have the capacity and resiurces to wrlcomec back and absorb any bona fide Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the same way that Israel welcomes back Jews in aliya. On the side some sort of compensation and symbolic return to homes in Israel proper could be arranged as was being discussed in the Kerry initiative that could satisfy the ” right to return ”

    With this kind of settlement in a real 2 state solution of Israel.and Palestine, the rights and return of Palestinian refugees would finally be achieved, as were the rights of Jewish refugees who went to Israel and elsewhere, therebye ending and eliminating UNWRA and leaving the UNHCR to concentrate on the 10s of millions of refugees left in the world and others displaced in refugee like situations.

  6. I am a Canadian citizen who comes from a Palestinian refugee family. I have few words that I would like to share with you.

    I definitely appreciate the Canadian Government’s support to UNRWA. However, I believe that it is much more important if Canadian government stops its political and military support to Israel. That would make a much bigger long-term positive difference. Here is why.

    Canadians need to know that most of the Palestinian refugees live in the middle east within less than 100 KM from their original towns and cities in historic Palestine (that is called now Israel). These families became refugees because Jewish militia (that became the core of the Israeli army later) forced them to leave their villages and towns in 1947- 48. This was not an accident of war as some Israeli propaganda claims. Listen to this Israeli historian who explains that Palestinian refugees were forced to leave as part of a systemic ethnic cleansing plan:

    Also, take a look at this visual story by an Israeli organization:

    Palestinian refugees, as you can imagine, have deep personal, emotional, historic, and national attachment to their homes in Palestine. My father passed away in exile dreaming of seeing his home town in historic Palestine for at least once. Israel prevents Palestinian refugees from returning or even visiting their homes. There should be a just political approach to address this tragedy. Canada can make a difference by stopping supporting Israel.

    1. Thank you for this video which I had not viewed before .I have read Ilan Pappe’s book ” The Ehnic Cleansing of Palestine ” which was more or less my first education of the Middle East situation .A very well elucidated book regarding the history of the region .I have said for many years that history cannot be denied and much as Ilan states , in order to go forward into the future with a just peace in mind, we must be cognizant of it .
      For Canada to take a meaningful role in solving the problems in this part of the world , our best tool available to us ,is the non violent BDS movement .It worked in South Africa and it can work again in the land of Palestine /Israel .

    2. Thank you for these references.
      It is through our inaction that hundreds of thousands have been denied, like your father, even one last look.

      Paraphrasing Ilan Pappe : the realities on the ground, although well documented, are not making it into the media, academic lectures or political speeches.
      With the adoption of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism I am afraid this will only get worse.

      In rural Saskatchewan people look blank when I mention Gaza or the West Bank. Your video will be helpful here.

      Two e-petitions -e 2667 and 3031 -supporting Palestinians have been launched in the last few months. A positive sign?

      IJV Canada is planning to take on CBC next year. We can all help to put Palestine back on the map.

  7. As it’s been said above,the right of return of Palestinians is not the only option, although the recognition of their right is Paramount. Another way if fair compensation. The European Jews know this full well, after all they received billions of dollars from Germany. If I’m not mistaking, a few who still are alive are getting monthly cheques.
    Also the restoration of funding to UNRWA should not be taken that than all is good. The absolute main burning issue is stopping the daily Israeli atrocities, land and water theft, demolitions, torture of children and killings plus restoration of human rights. Just giving a few millions here and there, although is very necessary in the short term, is not solving any problems or injustices.

  8. We should not forget the rights of those who never left, those who managed somehow to return, and those whose flight from their homes ended in what is now known as the occupied territories. Even the luckiest ones, those whose homes were in the part of Palestine renamed Israel, never fled, and became citizens of Israel do not have the rights enjoyed by Jews in the so-called “Jewish State”. Non Jews face both discrimination built into the law and maltreatment by officials and many of their “fellow citizens”. Israel does many things to discourage the return of Palestinians; their mistreatment of those Palestinians who are under their control is part of that campaign.

    Canada’s continued acceptance and support of a country that ignores international law is shameful. Canada’s contribution to UNRWA may ease our conscience but it does not remove our guilt.

  9. Thanks also for the video of Ilan Pappe as well as the visual story. I often find that I learn a lot from the comments that follow Peter’s blog. It seems indeed unjust that Israel prevents Palestinian refugees from returning or even visiting their homes when , as I understand, a Jewish person anywhere in the world can move to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship( The Law of Return) .

  10. So pathetically sad that Canada continues to cling to whatever piece of distorted logic our American neighbours dream up to support the continued abuse of the people of Palestine.
    Seems American legislators will do anything asked of them if the demand arrives around the same time frame as a massive surge in political contributions.

  11. Both right of return and compensation must be given to Palestinians if we all truly believe in justice. Will it happen? No, Israeli have no human dignity to allow Palestinians to return homes. Dig into their history nothing but denial……….over and over.

    1. Hey Muazzam,
      I understand your frustration. I share it. Of course Israel will resist the right of return as long as it can.

      But instead of saying it will “never” happen, i think we should be asking ourselves “what would be needed to make it happen?”.

      Refusing the right to return is just a political decision by a small country backed by the USA. Israel would like the whole world to believe it can “never” happen. That is a good way to prevent it from happening.

      But if public opinion around the world changes to thinking that it SHOULD AND COULD happen, then discussion can turn to “how” to make it happen.

      1. Canada support for Israel -Dec 30 20
        Thank you Peter, your positive approach is a wishful thinking but we are talking about an evil idea of a Jewish bogus state. More than 70 years are gone by – do we see any changes in the hypocritical mentality of world leaders including the Arab puppets that are now forced to normalize the relations with a regime that occupies, kill and murder children.
        Look at ourselves in Canada, 73% public opinion shows that Canada has been unfair with Palestinians and do not want to blindly support the Israeli occupation but the government continue to do so. Bold decisions are taken by strong leaders not by week politicians like Canada, UK and many other from civilized world. This injustice will unfortunately continue until they are apprehended, how, I don’t know. One thing I can say for sure is that
        ,there will be an end to this injustice soon, God knows when?

      2. Hey Muazzam, thanks again.
        i don’t want to be disrespectful, but it seems to me you are saying two contradictory things at the same time.

        In this comment you say “”one thing i know for sure is that there will be an end to this injustice soon”.
        But in the prior comment you had said ” Will it happen? NO”. (i.e saying in effect that Israel would never allow it)

        Do you agree that these statements are contradictory?

  12. Peter, let me clarify this. In my first comment “Will it happen? No” simply means that Israel on its own will never make it happen the return of Palestinians or compensate for that matter. This is just not in its tradition, total refusal and denial is a part of its existence.

    My second comment refers to the fact that there is an ultimate justice with God that he will punish the transgressors and the corrupt ones on earth one day and God knows better.

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