Canadian grassroots actions for Gaza pave way for change of consciousness

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Photo: Matt Adams

Since Israel's attack on Gaza on July 8, protests have erupted in every major city in Canada. A group of activists in Nova Scotia have vowed to stand outside the Public Gardens everyday at noon until the attack on Gaza ends. In Vancouver, activists are calling out to people to "raise a clamour" against the crisis by banging pots and pans to make noise until the war ends. In Ottawa, a group of activists delivered a "moral compass" to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's official residence, saying its purpose is to help the party find a position on Gaza that respects international law. 

Just last weekend, thousands across Canada took to the streets to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. People also marched against the Canadian government and official opposition parties' stance on the conflict.

 Miriam Katawazi

Canada's three major political parties have all asserted that Israel has the right to defend itself. The Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP have also condemned and blamed Hamas for the loss of civilian life. Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has spoke against the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, for criticizing Israel's attack on Gaza. 

The stance Canadian elites and politicians are taking is very different from the one taken by people in Canada, said David Heap, activist and professor at the University of Western Ontario. "An overwhelming number of Canadians feel quite strongly that we should have an approach to foreign policy, around Gaza, around Palestine, which is informed by human rights rather than an unconditional support of the Israeli occupation," said Heap.

Activists have occupied various political offices across the country demanding a meeting with their political representatives. Last week, activists laid outside NDP leader Tom Mulcair's office in Montreal with red paint splattered across their clothes to protest the party's position on the crisis. Many mothers and families also took part in Vancouver, where they had occupied NDP MP Don Davies' office. Protesters also occupied NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar's office in Ottawa. Numerous cross-country writing and phone campaigns also target the offices of various political parties.

Historically grassroots action has always paved the way for a "change of consciousness," noted Heap. Grassroots action, he said, led to a shift in thinking that surrounded the apartheid in South Africa. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, very few politicians opposed the apartheid in South Africa, but by the end of the 1980s, even the Conservative party had come around. "If we analyze what happens, it comes from the grassroots first, it's not politicians who lead, it's the people who lead and the politicians follow," said Heap. 

 Miriam Katawazi

Grassroots groups, student groups, trade unionists, faith groups, peace groups and human rights groups from across the country led the changes. "These groups gradually influenced more people until it became unstoppable and the politicians had no choice but to follow," said Heap. 

"They change because we've reached them one way or another, we've reached them by speaking to them, by writing letters to them, making phone calls, by sitting in offices and protesting on the streets, and by direct action through the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement," he added.

The volume of support for Gaza has increased dramatically, said Christine Jones, co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA). A large volume of emails have been pouring in to the CPA, she said, thanking the group for sharing information on rallies happening across the country.

"People are seeing the reality of what is happening in Gaza, they understand that human rights are universal and not to be cherry-picked. They understand that it is wrong to bomb hospitals and UN schools, and its wrong to destroy infrastructure and sewage systems," said Jones.

"I have been quite surprised and gratified that there seems to be an emergence of people being able to publically identify that this is a fundamental human rights issue," she said. As people express their concern over Israel's violations of international law, she added, others also start to catch on.

In order for this movement to be sustained, Heap said, Canadians must continue to participate in the BDS movement, push for the end to the blockade on Gaza and continue to pressure elected representatives.

BDS is a global movement calling on universities, unions and religious organizations across the world to withdraw their investments in Israeli companies and institutions until the country complies with international law. The campaign states that Israel has denied Palestinians their fundamental right to freedom, equality and self determination through ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination and military occupation.

The BDS movement continues to grow in Canada as an Ottawa store Terra20 agreed to remove SodaStream off its shelves. The store has decided to not sell items produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

The movement is getting even more impactful as activists turn to technology to increase momentum. A new app called Buycott helps consumers avoid products that are produced in controversial areas. The app allows shoppers to scan product barcodes to avoid the purchase of Israeli settlement products.

"But the most important work out of all," Heap noted, "is education."

Heap added that a ceasefire, although it would be met with relief, does not mean true peace for Palestine. "We need to keep raising awareness… true peace can only come with respect for all human rights and in particular, in this case, the human right of freedom of movement," he said.  


Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats. 

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