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Ontario seeks to crush criticism of Israel through a BDS campaign of its own

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

On the same day that Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a bizarre bill passed first reading at Queen's Park.

Progressive Conservative MP Tim Hudak introduced "An Act respecting participation in boycotts and other anti-Semitic actions." It was co-sponsored by Liberal MP Mike Colle.

The bill is an over-the-top attack on free speech. It conflates anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israel and defines what university pension funds can and cannot fund based on entities' support or opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

I've written about the BDS debate and parliamentary proceedings before. Jason Kenney’s hyperbolic word-spew from when the federal government last discussed BDS is probably the best example of how this debate has spun out in very strange directions.

At Queen's Park, many of the same arguments are made in this legislation. Short of copying and pasting every sentence from the Act, I encourage you to read it for yourself: every sentence is rooted in fiction that has been masqueraded by right-wing forces as fact.

What makes this legislation different from others that have simply condemned BDS activists is that it violates principles of university autonomy while pretending to uphold academic freedom.

Nearly all Ontario universities directly manage their own pension plans. They have policies that detail the ins and outs of investment, how they're governed and how they are expected to remain accountable to the university community. They also list prohibited investments.

The plans fall under the scope of the Pensions Benefit Act and universities manage their plans within the broad framework as defined by the act.

Here's McMaster University's policy, for example. At McMaster, the pension plan prohibitions are mostly related to avoiding conflicts of interest among fund managers.

University pension plans are enormous sums of money and students have identified these funds as a location for social change. Divesting university money from fossil fuels, funding war, tobacco and so onare pretty much a normal part of campus activist life. The fight to divest from fossil fuels, for example, has been gaining traction across Canada.

In 2007, student pressure convinced Queen's University to divest from Darfur in protest of the political situation there. It was the first university to take this action.

There are many other examples of local prohibitions, which you can read about here.

Bill 202 prohibits university pension funds or foundations from investing in "any entity that supports or participates in the BDS movement." The bill extends this prohibition to all agencies of the Government of Ontario (ministries, agencies, boards, commissions etc.), any municipality and any local board that is defined under the Municipal Affairs Act: if this bill passes, none of these agencies can enter into a contract with an entity or individual that supports BDS.

Imagine how this might play out: the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Students' Union has endorsed the BDS campaign. Does the City of Toronto have to cancel its contract with the SCSU to administer and sell the TTC student metropasses?

The United Church of Canada has endorsed the BDS campaign. If Bill 202 passes, would it be illegal for a local municipal agency to partner with the United Church to deliver a local service?

The act also makes it illegal to enter into contracts with individuals who support the BDS movement. A contract would have to be cancelled if it were discovered that an individual supports BDS.

And, just to be desperately clear, the act explicitly states "No college or university shall support or participate in the BDS movement."

If any of these elements of the act are violated, the Lieutenant-Governor has in his power to enforce consequences.

So: it's illegal to sanction Israel in Ontario, but it's legal to sanction Ontarians who believe Israel should be sanctioned.

It's likely that this bill is, at least in part, a response to student organizing at York University, where students have been agitating for York to divest from all weapons manufacturers.

In a logic-bending op-ed, Avi Benlolo argues that the YUDivest campaign is anti-Semitic because one of the groups participating in the campaign is Students Against Israeli Apartheid. SAIA group opposes Israel's human rights abuses, so anything they touch must be denounced, even a campaign as important as arms divestment from public funds, by Benlolo’s logic.

This epic overreach was conjured by fringe right-wing elements that have no regard for local autonomy, democracy and critical debate. The fact that it's passed first reading should alarm anyone with the capacity for reasonable thought.

The link between the student success at York and the hammer that the Liberals and PCs are trying to reign down on critics of Israel should be obvious. How can Ontario's two main parties justify such an absurd attack on Ontarians' charter rights?

This is the face of the modern Red Scare. It's a direct and indirect attack on reasonable debate under the guise of rooting out something that all people should oppose: anti-Semitism.

Under no circumstances should this legislation pass.

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