Canada’s government has indicated it may begin applying hate crimes legislation against groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to put economic pressure on Israel regarding its treatment of Palestinians. The move, which could potentially target organizations ranging from campus protest groups to the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers, would mark one of the most assertive measures in support of Israel’s government by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The possibility was revealed by the office of Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, which pointed to Canada’s updated hate crime laws in response to press inquiries about the government’s recent statements it would take a “zero tolerance” approach to groups advocating BDS, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday.
"I can tell you that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world," Blaney’s office said in a statement responding to a question about the enforcement of the government’s zero tolerance vow. "We will not allow hate crimes to undermine our way of life, which is based on diversity and inclusion." The statement also highlighted “hate propaganda” provisions in the Criminal Code that ban the promotion of hatred against “identifiable groups,” noting such groups now include any section of the public distinguished by "among other characteristics, religion or national or ethnic origin."
The tactic would be in line with the Harper government’s vocal support for Israel and its stated commitment to routing efforts it says delegitimize its existence. This commitment was highlighted earlier this year after a meeting between then-Foreign Minister John Baird and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman after which Baird said: “Canada will fight any efforts internationally to delegitimize the State of Israel, including the disturbing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”
Under the Harper government Canada has been one of the staunchest political allies of the Jewish state on the international stage. Canada was one of only nine countries, including the United States, to vote against the recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state at the 193-member United Nations General Assembly in 2012.
Civil liberties activists had been wary of the possibility of hate crime legislation being leveled against Israel boycott activities since the country’s Criminal Code was updated last year to revise the definition of hate speech to include “national origin” as a criterion, which some feared would conflate anti-Israel criticism with anti-Semitic hate speech.
Organizations like the United Church, the country’s largest Protestant church, have reacted with dismay that their targeted boycotting of products from Israeli settlements would effectively be equated with hate speech in the eyes of the government. "It is the right and duty of citizens in any free state to engage in constructive nonviolent peaceful criticism of state actions and behaviors," Patty Talbot, a senior staff member at the church, told the CBC. "How is [zero tolerance] going to manifest itself? It could be directed against the United Church, it could be directed at a gamut of individuals in Canadian civil society. People of goodwill." Others also reacted with indignation on social media:
â€” Betty (@Bonnie1776) May 11, 2015
Making it hate speech 2 support BDS waters down seriousness of hate crime + has chilling effect on #cdnpoli and Charter right to expression.
— Will Tao (@TheWillTruth) May 11, 2015
The BDS movement has seen its support grow internationally since it was founded by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups in 2005 as a nonviolent means to pressure Israel’s government to change its policies toward Palestinians. In the U.S., support for the movement has primarily emerged on college campuses and among academics but has been less widespread than in Europe where some financial institutions have begun divesting their holdings from Israeli banks and pension funds. Israel’s government has condemned the campaign, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once referring to proponents of BDS as "classical anti-Semites in modern garb."