Protesters holding signs reading "Scotiabank funds genocide" at the 2023 Giller Prize Awards Gala.
Protesters holding signs reading "Scotiabank funds genocide" at the 2023 Giller Prize Awards Gala. Credit: Palestinian Youth Movement / X

As a Jewish person, I have spoken out and written against Israeli occupation and now genocide upon Palestinians—in order to say, not in my name. As a Canadian writer, I feel a similar obligation to speak against writers, in this country, who have been silent in the face of genocide—to say, they do not represent me.

This past Tuesday, at the Scotiabank Giller (for best work of literary fiction) Prize gala in Toronto, three pro-Palestinian supporters disrupted the festivities to protest Scotiabank’s investments in Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms company. They accused the bank of funding genocide. 

I know the term genocide can be a cause of uneasiness, but with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) having already killed over 11,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, including thousands of children—not to mention the many wounded, facing severe disability, if not death, from Israel’s cutting electricity, preventing water, and medical supplies to Gaza, there really is no more accurate term for it. UN experts are largely in agreement, stating Israel’s assault on Gaza “points to a genocide in the making.”

To be clear, I do not support the events of October 7 of this year, that are the pretext of the current genocide: Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, killing approximately 1,200 Israeli civilians and taking close to 250 people hostage. While Hamas, the political and military organization governing the Gaza strip, acted unconscionably, historically, those subject to colonial rule as is the case, for the past 75 years, for the Palestinian people, inevitably resort to extreme violence. Hamas does not have the power, despite what Israel might have some believe, to wipe Jews off the face of the Middle East. Israel does though and is doing that (that is, to Palestinians in Gaza) as I write this.

The video footage available from the Giller Prize Gala shows, the audience, partially, made up of some of the most prominent authors in Canada, either booed the protestors for disrupting the festivities or remained silent. At approximately the same time the IDF was bombarding Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza—with, along with patients—including newborn babies—approximately 2000 of displaced Palestinians took refuge. Three of the protestors have since been arrested and now face charges.

The most cringe moment caught on video is when two of the protestors appeared behind the host, political-commentor, and comedian Rick Mercer with signs reading “Scotiabank Funds Genocide.” Mercer attempted to cover up the signs or knock them to the ground, first the one to his left and then right—missing both. I could not help thinking the comedian’s funniest performance was the one he did not intend.

Later in the evening another protestor was met with groans, boos, or silence after disrupting the announcement of the night’s winner Sarah Bernstein. 

It is difficult, from video footage from that night, to tell who booed (and how many) and who was silent. Anjula Gogia, co-manager of Toronto’s Another Story Bookshop, was in attendance and told me those booing were definitely in the minority and that she thought at first the protest might have been a skit. She noted she saw only one person clap in support of the protestors (they were drowned out by the boos) and at least a couple others walked out in disgust. Aside from that, silence reigned. 

She also observed that several writers in the room were people of colour with precarious incomes—who are dependent on the white dominated literary world for financial support of their work. I am sympathetic to this; I save my contempt for the upper echelon or “CanLiterati”—Margaret Atwood and Vincent Lam, for example, were among the high profile authors in attendance.

What was most deafening to me, watching the videos of the Giller protests, was not the boos so much as the silence.  There is a pathetic irony in beginning a literary event with a land rights acknowledgment and then remaining tight-lipped while people protest, right in front of you, genocidal, settler-colonial violence—that has been occurring in plain sight and in real time for over a month now.

There is a notable gap between the more famous writers—the face(s) of CanLit—and comparatively less big names in terms of supporting Palestine. Hundreds of writers (myself included) have signed an open letter in support of the protestors and urging charges be dropped—as well as calling on Canadian literary organizations to condemn Israeli war crimes (that the Canadian government supports) and demanding a ceasefire. The Giller Award winner herself, Sarah Bernstein, signed the letter. Anjula Gogia is also one of the signatories. Notably, this past Thursday, the majority of the nominees in all the categories of The National Book Award, (in the United States) made a collective statement, at the award ceremony in New York, to call for a ceasefire. This appears to be unrelated to the Giller protest. 

For those Canadian writers who were and continue to be silent, I will observe that, with significant motivation, we can ignore virtually anything—even a genocide happening before our eyes. I speak here of more than literary ambitions (though that too) or moral confusion (though that, as well) but of the new McCarthyism: writers, academics, students, and politicians are facing significant and intimidating reprisals for pro-Palestinian activism and advocacy (and Canada is no exception). And, as with the McCarthyism of the 1950s, we do not look back kindly on those who buckled under it—and few people hold more responsibility for speaking against injustice, not just abroad—but in the face of soft-censorship and attempts to stifle dissent, in our own backyard—than writers. What is the point, otherwise, of literature, where the author brings to the page a promise: they have something important to say—and  then are silent at a moment of such historic horror: what could be more important to speak about then that?

In response to genocide and McCarthyism, the CanLiterati have shown their teeth—or rather lack thereof. If I sound unfairly judgmental to these writers, history, I am certain, will hand down a harsher verdict.

Scotiabank, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Elbit Systems, Margaret Atwood, Vincent Lam, and Rick Mercer, could not, at the time of this writing, be reached for comment.

Jacob Scheier

Jacob Scheier is a Governor General’s Award winning poet, as well as an essayist, journalist, and activist.