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Ontario's move against the BDS movement is an attack on free speech

Image: Flickr/Ontario Chamber of Commerce

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UPDATE: Bill 202 was defeated Thursday at its second reading by a vote of 18 for, 39 against.

In honour of a friend who seeks to foster dialogue on Israel and Palestine by "raising the issue and lowering the temperature," let's have a look at a pernicious bill now steamrolling through the Ontario legislature, but concentrate on some first democratic principles here at home rather than rehashing the situation in the Middle East.

The bill seeks to suppress the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Ontario. BDS is a completely non-violent movement seeking to put political and economic pressure on the state of Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinians. Now, you might not like that; you might not approve of the premises of BDS; but, if you respect democracy, you have to accept that expressing opinions in a non-violent manner, short of criminal hate speech, is part of the democratic process. (I challenge anyone to find anything at the BDS link that even remotely approaches hate speech.)

The preamble to the bill is grossly misleading. BDS isn't, as claimed, promoting anti-Semitism. It's a reaction to the current policies of a nation-state. Criticizing a nation-state is not in itself racist or otherwise intolerant. We aren't sinophobes because we disapprove of China's human rights record. We didn't call for the destruction of the South African state when we boycotted the apartheid regime there. Disliking President Bush, père or fils, doesn’t make anyone anti-American.

In fact, other than Israel, nation-states are likely all subject at one time or another to robust criticism without accusations of racism flying about. Our reasons for disliking Kim Jong-Un are not based, I hope, on a general antipathy towards Koreans. Ditto our concerns about Turkey sliding into theocratic dictatorship. Or our views of the vile Saudi regime.

One could go on. Only the state of Israel gets to undermine its critics at one fell swoop by calling them "anti-Semitic." And in this they are disingenuously joined by a chorus of right-wing voices who see in Israel a bulwark against Islamism, and who will use this rhetorical low blow to defend every move that the country makes.

Back to Bill 202. "The BDS movement violates the principle of academic freedom," trumpets a Bill that then goes on to state: "No college or university shall support or participate in the BDS movement."

BDS is termed "anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli." Both of these claims are ugly lies. People are not the target of BDS: the policies of a nation-state, including occupation and annexation, are.

(Again, you might not like that. But we are talking about democracy here. How can one defend, in the name of democracy, the silencing of human rights activists, even if you happen to believe they are wrong-headed?)

Further, even if you disapprove of BDS, you might agree that lying about it isn't appropriate in a piece of legislation. BDS doesn't promote a boycott of "Jewish Canadian" businesses, corporations and cultural institutions. It never has, and it never will. "Jews" and "Israel" are not synonymous. One is a people; the other is a nation-state. That's no fine distinction: it's a major categorical one.

So here's what the former head of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, Tim Hudak, wants to accomplish in his Bill:

Anyone who "supports or participates in" the BDS movement cannot contract with any Ontario public body. That includes "any ministry, agency, board, commission, official or other body of the Government of Ontario...any municipality in Ontario, or...a local board, as defined in the Municipal Affairs Act, and any authority, board, commission, corporation, office or organization of persons some or all of whose members, directors or officers are appointed or chosen by or under the authority of the council of a municipality in Ontario."

So much for working at an Ontario university or college if you have personally expressed support for BDS. Good luck if a union supports BDS -- under this legislation, its collective agreements with a municipality, hospital, school board or the province of Ontario would be torn up. Pension funds would also be cleansed of political impurities.

The point is not that the Charter of Rights would eventually land on all this like a sledgehammer. It's that our Ontario legislators seem to be giving the Bill serious consideration. It doesn't matter, in the final analysis, what your views of Israel, Palestine or the Middle East in general happen to be. What is slowly going on before our eyes in Queen's Park exposes the shallow roots of our democracy: the relative ease by which legislators prove willing to silence ordinary Canadians without a second thought.

In 1998, the Ontario Supreme Court made an important ruling in the case of Daishowa Inc. v. Friends of the Lubicon. The latter were supporting a small band of Cree whose ancestral lands were being logged without permission by a major corporation. They had initiated a consumer boycott of Daishowa, and the company was seeking a permanent injunction to prevent them from doing so. The court did not impose the injunction, and stated:

The expression engaged in by the Friends relates directly to a very important public issue which deserves respect, protection and a forum. If the Canadian Constitution protects a corporation's expression where the context is largely economic, then the common law should not erect barriers to expression by consumers where the purpose and effect of the expression is to persuade the listener to use his or her economic power to challenge a corporation's position on an important economic and public policy issue.

Why should a nation-state be any different in this respect than a corporation? In either case, the law should not erect barriers to expression. But that's precisely what Ontario lawmakers are attempting to do now. Is that acceptable in 2016? Let your MPP know what you think.

UPDATE: And…the Bill is defeated on second reading by a vote of 39-18.

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Image: Flickr/Ontario Chamber of Commerce

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