What George Galloway's successful tour of Canada proved

| December 20, 2010

It lasted over 18 months, but Jason Kenney's attempt to ban George Galloway ended in complete and utter failure. On November 27, the former British MP, who was declared inadmissible to Canada in March 2009, joined hundreds of supporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa where he completed an 11-city, 12-day pan-Canadian speaking tour. In just under two weeks, Galloway sprinted across the country at break-neck speed, addressing in person nearly 8,000 people at sold-out meetings, reaching hundreds of thousands more through wall-to-wall media coverage.

"As any bookseller will tell you, the book you try to ban always ends up on the best-seller list," Galloway quipped in Ottawa. "Thanks to Jason Kenney, I have drawn thousands to my speaking events all across Canada."

What Kenney was trying to ban was not just Galloway himself, but his criticism of Canadian foreign policy on Afghanistan and the Middle East. Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley, in his 60-page decision that cleared the way for Galloway's return to Canada, agreed: "[T]he evidence is that the government wished to prevent Mr. Galloway from expounding his views on Canadian soil... [T]he concern with Galloway's anticipated presence in Canada related solely to the content of the messages that the [government] expected him to deliver" (paragraph 86).

The attempted ban was initiated by Alykhan Velshi -- Kenney's Director of Communications -- who communicated directly with senior bureaucrats in the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), pressuring them to find Galloway inadmissible in a preliminary assessment. The CBSA, acting on the online "evidence" provided by Velshi, dutifully ruled Galloway inadmissible in record time, just under two hours.

As the court records show, the process implicated the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS), which ruled that Galloway was not a threat to Canada's security; the Canadian High Commissioner in London, who objected to the ban; and the Prime Minister's Office, which gave the ban its blessing. You can read the full e-mail exchange here.

Even more interesting is how much the government changed its line as more and more evidence of political interference became available to the public. In March 2009, Velshi told the British tabloid the Sun: "George Galloway is not getting a permit -- end of story. He defends the very terrorists trying to kill Canadian forces in Afghanistan." Velshi's commentary appeared in the British media eight hours before the Canadian High Commission officially notified Galloway of his inadmissibility, a breach of Canada's Privacy Act.

Velshi later boasted to the Guardian: "I'm sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won't be one of them." 

But Velshi's arrogance quickly evaporated. Government lawyers attempted to separate Kenney from his staff's behaviour, describing Velshi's comments as "unfortunate expressions of opinion." Not long after Galloway launched his case in the Federal Court of Canada, Kenney's office suddenly fell silent, likely on the advice on its exasperated legal team.

Despite his unofficial stance of silence, Kenney nevertheless continued to fight Galloway in the Court -- even invoking "national security" claims in order to prevent the full disclosure of damning evidence against Kenney. When the Canadian High Commission released to Galloway's lawyers the embarrassing record of e-mail exchanges that reveals Kenney's role in the ban, government lawyers filed a motion, demanding that the record be returned immediately (document 41). Galloway's lawyers successfully resisted, as Justice Mosley eventually released the record to the public.

By the time the case was finally heard in Federal Court on April 28, 2010, the official line from Kenney's office had morphed into the opposite of what it had argued a year earlier. Instead of boasting about the ban, as it did to most of the British media in 2009, Kenney's office now claimed that there was never a ban in the first place! In much more cautious language, government lawyers argued that there was only a preliminary assessment of inadmissibility, and that no final decision had ever been made because Galloway never appeared at the border to test the assessment.

Justice Mosley ultimately agreed with this technicality. On September 27, he dismissed Galloway's case, but not before issuing a 60-page decision that condemned the political interference of Kenney's office. Justice Mosley also made clear that any future decision by the CBSA to ban Galloway would have no credibility: "Had Galloway actually been found inadmissible by a visa officer relying on the preliminary assessment and the alerts sent to the border points, I would have had little difficulty in concluding that the officer's discretion had been fettered by the process followed in this case and that the e-mails and statements to the press raised a reasonable apprehension of bias" (paragraph 148). More than anything else, this cleared the way for Galloway's swift return to Canada.

Just two days after the ruling, Galloway announced plans to return to Canada by the weekend -- confounding mainstream media that had smugly trumpeted his "loss" in court. On Oct. 2, Galloway arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto where he was met by a crush of journalists and dozens of cheering supporters. The next day, he addressed a sold-out audience of nearly 800 people at a downtown church. During his speech, Galloway said: "Jason Kenney, I'm challenging you to a public debate -- anywhere, anytime, any place, in any venue that you choose." Not surprisingly, Kenney never responded. Galloway later called for Kenney's resignation, and announced plans for a pan-Canadian speaking tour, entitled: "Free Afghanistan. Free Palestine. Free Speech."

Six weeks later, the tour began at York University, where 500 students packed a lecture hall to hear Galloway speak. Pro-Israel advocacy groups had campaigned to keep Galloway off campus, but failed to convince the university administration. Instead, about 50 people attempted to disrupt the meeting at a demonstration led by Hillel of Greater Toronto. But not even a bomb threat -- phoned in about 30 minutes before Galloway was scheduled to appear -- could stop the meeting from happening.

The success of the York event was replicated everywhere: in Montreal, Galloway addressed nearly 500 people at the Université du Québec à Montréal; over 400 at a local church hall in Halifax; over 1,000 at an Islamic Centre in Richmond Hill, Ontario; over 600 at McMaster University in Hamilton; nearly 1,200 at a downtown church in Vancouver, the biggest event on the tour; over 800 at the University of Calgary, just hours after visiting Jason Kenney's constituency office; close to 200 at a community centre in Yellowknife; almost 600 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton; about 400 at a local church in Winnipeg; and nearly 900 in Ottawa, followed by a march of hundreds to Parliament Hill.

The tour was organized by the Canadian Peace Alliance, the Canadian Boat to Gaza, the Canadian Arab Federation, Independent Jewish Voices, and the Defend Free Speech Campaign. The national media sponsor was rabble.ca. You can see the full tour schedule here.

The level of support exceeded the expectations of organizers in every city, but it also demonstrated an important lesson: the struggle to fight Kenney -- both in the Federal Court and in the anti-war movement -- had been worth the cost. When the ban was first announced, not many were confident that Kenney could be stopped or the ban overturned. Indeed, the arrogance of the Harper government and its contempt for Canadian law limited what many thought was possible.

But the outcome of the struggle -- despite its many twists and turns, and the countless obstacles in its path -- proves that Kenney can be beaten. It demonstrates a number of other important lessons, too.

First, the decision to respond to Kenney's attempted ban in terms of defending free speech helped mobilize support from all over the political spectrum, including from those who do not agree with Galloway's political opinions. Even Conrad Black, from the confines of his Florida prison cell, expressed support for Galloway in the Guardian. This approach also helped situate the Galloway ban within the broader attack on free speech -- in particular, on all Palestine solidarity initiatives -- led by Harper's Conservatives since coming to power. It further exposed right-wing hypocrites like Ezra Levant, who played "free speech" martyrs during Ann Coulter's visit to Canada, but who backed banning Galloway.

Second, the massive turnout at each event showed that the interest in what Galloway had to say reached well beyond the left. This fact means that a wider audience of people is now paying attention to issues like the war in Afghanistan, the siege of Gaza, and the state of free speech in Canada -- and on favorable terms to the anti-war movement. The generous response to Galloway has helped the movement to measure the potential for more serious mobilizations in the months to come, especially on the question of Afghanistan following the Conservative-Liberal extension of the mission to 2014.

Third, the large proportion of students, young people, and new activists who helped organize the tour -- especially on university campuses -- represents a new generation of leadership in the anti-war movement, many of whom radicalized years after the movement's peak in 2003. Their fresh perspectives, innovative methods, and genuine enthusiasm played a large part in making the Galloway tour a success, and represent the potential for a re-invigorated and re-energized movement.

Fourth, the success of the Federal Court case -- despite how long it took to get a decision, and the fact that it was ultimately dismissed -- demonstrates the potential for other legal challenges to Kenney and the Conservative agenda. One such challenge is the case launched by the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), in response to Kenney's unilateral decision to cut funding for CAF's immigrant settlement programs. Other groups that have been targeted by Kenney, but have not yet responded in the courts (including KAIROS and Rights and Democracy), should consider the potential of a legal challenge to resist the Conservatives' attack on free speech. The Conservatives may continue to show contempt for the law, but there won't be any consequences unless the courts can hold them to account.

Finally, the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements must build on the momentum of the Galloway tour to reach even bigger audiences and to expand their influence. The political terrain is more favourable than it has been in years: a solid majority remains opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and does not support the recent extension of the mission to 2014; in the wake of Israel's war on Gaza and the brutal assault on a humanitarian aid flotilla, public opinion is moving closer to the Palestinian struggle; and, as Harper continues to shut down any form of opposition in Parliament and civil society, more people are prepared to stand up to defend civil liberties and the right to free speech.

As Galloway said at the end of his tour, just moments before leaving Canada: "This is not the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning." Galloway has committed to pursue Kenney in court, seeking redress for his countless acts of defamation. Galloway has also committed to donate any compensation he might win in court to Canada's anti-war movement, to help build an even bigger campaign to end the war in Afghanistan and the siege of Gaza.

The anti-war movement must take the same approach, and see this struggle as "just the end of the beginning." The Galloway case is only one part of a much bigger struggle to defend free speech and civil liberties in Canada, especially the right to criticize Canadian foreign policy, and the right to stand in solidarity with Palestine. The movement must find ways to build on the momentum of Galloway's speaking tour, to expand the existing anti-war networks and create space for new leadership, to build the confidence of all those who thought a victory against Kenney was impossible, and to organize a co-ordinated and united response to the Conservatives' ongoing attacks.

When Galloway made his triumphant return to Canada only days after the Federal Court ruling, his supporters welcomed him at Pearson Airport with chants of "Galloway in! Kenney out!" The next day, hundreds chanted the same slogan at a downtown Toronto church before Galloway even entered the room. Supporters chanted the same slogan as they welcomed Galloway in cities across Canada.

More than just a slogan, it remains a very real possibility. After a gruelling 18-month struggle, the movement, thanks to the work of a brilliant legal team, finally managed to get Galloway into Canada. But it has yet to force Kenney from office.

The success of the Galloway tour, in the wake of his Federal Court victory, demonstrates the potential to make that slogan a reality. Indeed, the movement is already halfway there.

James Clark was an applicant in the Federal Court case against Jason Kenney's attempt to ban George Galloway from Canada, and helped organize Galloway's recent pan-Canadian speaking tour, "Free Afghanistan. Free Palestine. Free Speech." Follow him on Twitter: @2jamesclark.

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