Boycott Divestment and Sanctions – Québec (BDS) and the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) are suing the City of Montreal for damages resulting from the removal of elections signs that denounced Canadian political support for Israel’s bombing of Gaza. The city removed the signs during the fall 2015 federal election. The 5-day trial is set to begin next Monday on January 22nd.
Back in 2015, BDS and the CPC joined forces to oppose the pro-Israel policies of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party during the electoral campaign. BDS was registered as a third party and the CPC is a registered party which ran four candidates in Montreal, meaning that both the CPC and BDS were registered with Elections Canada and their signage protected by elections law.
Both of the election posters featured the picture of a Palestinian child murdered on a beach in Gaza during the 2014 Israeli bombing operation called “Operation Protective Edge.” The BDS posters had the message, “Israel assassinates Palestinian children. Harper applauds. What do the other parties say?” The Communist Party posters used the slogan, “End Canadian support for Israeli Apartheid.”
These posters were systematically removed by the City of Montreal. According to a press release, BDS and the CPC say that their removal resulted in “undermining the fundamental right to freedom of expression of BDS members and reducing the visibility of candidates of the CPC in the midst of an election campaign.”
Adrien Welsh, the candidate for the Communist Party of Canada in the 2015 election in the Outremont neighbourhood in Montreal, told the People’s Voice that the campaigns had “acted in total accordance with electoral law.”
BDS and the CPC have been in communication with the city since the posters started being removed, as Adrien Welsh explained: “On September 28th, 2015, BDS sent a letter of formal notice to which the administration responded by admitting the error and saying that the city will compensate us for the posters that were removed. However, after this letter, we learned the practice not only continued but that the City had issued a standing order to remove all of the signs. This proves that it was not only an error, but a deliberate action taken by the City of Montreal and a violation of our fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
There were also complaints made to the Chief Electoral Officer at Elections Canada about the removal of the posters, after which the City of Montreal admitted to violating the law.
Organizers and community members who have spoken out against Israeli human rights abuses and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories have regularly had their freedom of speech attacked in recent years in Canada. Some examples include McMaster University trying to ban the use of the term “Israeli Apartheid” by student clubs in 2008. In 2009, an “Israeli Apartheid Week” poster featuring a cartoon of a helicopter attacking a Palestinian child was banned by the University administration at Carleton University. Pro-Israel groups have regularly used the courts to stop Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organizing, most recently at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
While opposition to what is widely recognized as gross violations of human rights and international law by Israel is attacked in Canada, the false use of the “right to freedom of speech” has been used by ultra-right, misogynist, racist and Islamophobic groups to deflect from their use of hate speech with the purpose of demonizing a particular social group, including anti-Semitism.
As the lawsuit goes to trial, it appears that the double standard surrounding criticism of the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestine is also central to the issue.
“Is it too much to ask that our rights are respected and to have a guarantee that this situation doesn’t happen again?”, asks Adrien Welsh.
The results of the lawsuit’s trial will be reported in future issues of People’s Voice.