Confronting Apartheid

The BDS Movement in Canada

Since Palestinian civil society groups launched a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS)1 against Israel in July 2005, growing networks of grassroots activists in Canada have mobilized behind the campaign. The recent surge in Palestine solidarity work comes at a time when official Canadian government policy – including that of both recent Liberal (Paul Martin) and Conservative (Stephen Harper) administrations – has shifted dramatically towards a narrow alignment with Israeli apartheid.

The new relationship is evident in the $1 billion in annual bilateral trade and $4 billion in bilateral foreign direct investment codified in the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement and in seed money provided for joint-partnerships between Canadian and Israeli business through the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. They are also reflected in the growing tendency of Canadian diplomats to vote against United Nations resolutions that criticize Israel.

Yet, as polls repeatedly show, significant pluralities in North America and Western Europe support a solution to the Palestinian question in accordance with international law. Nonetheless, Western governments continue to prop up an illegitimate apartheid regime that denies Palestinian rights, including the right of return, for strategic reasons. This underscores the divide between Western governments and the constituencies they formally represent.

Since these governments have, unsurprisingly, abdicated their responsibilities to uphold international law as members of the UN on this question, the global social movement-led BDS campaign against Israeli apartheid gains increasing urgency and salience. If governments aren’t going to hold Israel accountable, social movements must step in to do so, as they have done before in the long history of anti-imperialist international solidarity work.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, this article looks at how these efforts are developing in the Canadian context. To this end, it examines the latest phase of Palestine solidarity work that has been underway since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The article focuses on the role of organized labour in expanding the movement’s reach, on the ongoing importance of grassroots networks in sustaining the movement, and on the particularities involved in mobilizing against settler-colonialism in the Middle East from within another settler colony: Canada.

Preparing the Ground

The Palestine solidarity movement’s recent successes in Canada are the result of the tireless organizing efforts of activists over the years, mainly Palestinian refugees living in Canada, which have fostered a broader understanding amongst non-Palestinians of the core demands put forward by the Palestinian national liberation movement.2 These demands, endorsed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, trade unions, farmers’ cooperatives, women’s organizations, student groups, and political parties, are that Israel be boycotted until it ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantles the Wall; recognizes the fundamental rights of its Arab-Palestinian citizens to full equality; and respects, protects, and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

During the Al-Aqsa Intifada,3 these efforts translated into a solidarity movement that increasingly placed Palestinian perspectives at the centre of its analysis and initiatives. As a result, many non-Palestinians now openly advocate for the right of return and discuss the realities of Israeli apartheid, marking a significant departure from previous phases of solidarity work in Canada, which were dominated by approaches emphasizing compromise by “both sides” and a narrow focus on the occupation at the expense of the Palestinian refugee question. These frameworks, typically adopted by social democrats, state socialists, and a significant portion of the Israeli left, served to obscure the explicitly colonial nature of the conflict and frame the terms of the debate in ways acceptable to the colonizing population. This implicitly legitimated the racist processes of dispossession that lie at the core of the Zionist project.

Given this legacy, grassroots groups like Al-Awda (Canada) have actively sought to develop a broader awareness of the centrality of the right of return of refugees to the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Sumoud, a Palestinian political prisoner solidarity group, did much to publicize the plight of Palestinian political prisoners, which had been neglected in previous analyses. Finally, community-based organizations like Palestine House (Mississauga) and the Canadian Arab Federation have in recent years moved toward more grassroots approaches, reflecting the rise of a new leadership seeking to overcome a previously narrow tactical focus on parliamentary lobbying.

On Canadian university campuses, organizations like Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and the Arab Students’ Collective (ASC) have, through their activities, kept Palestine on the agenda. The September 2002 SPHR-led demonstrations against Benyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Concordia University in Montréal, and the February 2005 inauguration of Israeli Apartheid Week by the ASC at the University of Toronto, among many important actions, helped to stir media interest in the new movement.

Other organizations (such as the International Solidarity Movement, Project Hope, Christian Peacemaker Teams, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation and the Canadian-Palestinian Educational Exchange) have been introducing Canadians to the lived experiences of Palestinians through direct delegations, volunteer work, and accompaniment campaigns in Palestine and Lebanon. This work reinforces transnational linkages between solidarity activists and the Palestinian organizations engaged in resisting Israeli apartheid.

The cumulative effects of this organizing have been profound, and include:

(1) Impressing the need to stand in solidarity with the entire Palestinian people: those living in territories occupied during the Nakba of 1948, those living in territories occupied in 1967, and Palestinian refugees living in the shatat (diaspora);

(2) Emphasizing the flaws of the “occupation framework,” which focused solely on Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, by instead drawing attention to the apartheid nature of Israel’s domination of the whole Palestinian people;

(3) Illustrating the importance of grassroots work and alliances with other struggles in North America (as discussed below);

(4) Stressing that solidarity work requires not only educational work but also ways of using knowledge to confront Canadian capital and its state at those points where it is most obviously complicit in sustaining Israeli apartheid.

While the consolidation of common frameworks and campaign objectives has been crucial to building an effective solidarity movement, these successes must be placed in the repressive context of a Canadian government that continues its rightward trajectory, aligning itself more tightly with US policy in the Middle East (after all, the US is, by a significant margin, Canada’s largest economic partner).

In this context, the consolidation of a sizeable Canadian elite consensus behind Israeli apartheid – including intensified mobilization by local Zionist organizations to suppress any challenge to the legitimacy of this project – underscores the nature of the challenge facing activists.4 Nonetheless, grassroots movements have scored some important successes in pushing BDS work forward and exposing the apartheid nature of the Israeli state. Particularly important breakthroughs have been made in the labour movement.

Resolution 50 and Resolution 338/339

In late May 2006, 900 delegates at CUPE-Ontario’s annual convention took a historic step by adopting, in a nearly unanimous vote, Resolution 50, which committed its 200,000 members to support the BDS call from Palestine. CUPE-Ontario, representing public sector workers (including those in education, municipal services, health care, and social services), is the largest regional division of Canada’s largest national trade union. By adopting the resolution, it became the first major North American union to acknowledge the apartheid character of the Israeli state and endorse the BDS call.

Reactions to the resolution were swift. The resolution was almost universally condemned in the conservative Canadian media and roundly targeted by Zionist organizations. Union staff and organizers received threatening calls and emails, including a number of death threats. Once the initial flak passed, the resolution stood and the real work of implementing it could begin. The task took on particular urgency that summer, when Israel invaded Lebanon and intensified its military operations in Gaza.

The resolution was supported by all nodes in the Palestine solidarity movement, local anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, and some union leaders (most notably Deborah Bourque, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, as well as members of CUPE-National’s Aboriginal Caucus). The global reaction was even more impressive, with letters supporting the vote arriving from unionists, activists, social movements and NGOs in Palestine, South Africa, the UK, Australia, and Nigeria.

What did the resolution say, and why was it so controversial? As Sid Ryan, president of CUPE-Ontario explained, “amid resolutions on health care, pensions, social services, education and matters of social justice, CUPE-Ontario delegates attending our annual convention in Ottawa voted overwhelmingly to support a global campaign against Israel’s apartheid-like policies until that state recognizes ‘the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination’.” The move represented a significant, and all too rare, recognition of the importance of international solidarity on the part of a movement facing significant challenges at home.

The resolution would not have passed without a committed core of organizers in the union working to ensure that it came to the convention floor and working with the leadership to implement a plan of action. Younger organizers pushing for a BDS campaign were inspired and given direction by movement veterans who had experience in the campaigns to boycott apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

The resolution has had several positive consequences, primarily by acting as a stamp of legitimacy that created space to push the BDS campaign forward. In October 2006, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) hosted a national conference on BDS in Toronto, which included participation from key organizers of the BDS movements in South Africa, the UK and Palestine. The conference enabled the formation of CAIA working groups to undertake BDS work in new organizing sectors such as labour, on campuses, among independent media workers, artists and cultural producers, researchers, faith groups and representatives from other Canadian cities. As a result, Resolution 50 was instrumental in triggering growing national interest in the BDS campaign.

Within CUPE-Ontario, the resolution led to the development of an internal education module to educate rank-and-file members on the nature of Resolution 50, the realities of Israeli apartheid, and the importance of trade-union support for BDS. It provided an outreach opportunity for Palestine-solidarity activists to directly speak to CUPE-Ontario’s 200,000 members, and it stimulated discussion within the broader Canadian labour movement on the merits of BDS and international solidarity work.

It’s important to emphasize that the union’s internal education work has been the single most important achievement of the resolution. It has enabled activists to get the message of Palestine to thousands of individuals who had never been exposed to an analysis of the Palestinian struggle. The passing of a resolution is a powerful educational tool: it provides an opening to reach people and engage in discussion. The success of a resolution cannot be measured primarily by the action the union takes at the leadership level, but by how it is animated at the grassroots.

Most major union conventions have since organized panels on Palestine. In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, a Palestine contingent was present in the annual Labour Day march in Toronto, which featured floats dedicated to Palestine and decorated by images produced by Palestinian artists Abdel Rahman al-Muzayan and Naji al-Ali. Thousands of leaflets on the BDS campaign were distributed to the 25,000 unionists and spectators at the parade.

In particular, the Labour for Palestine (L4P) network has worked to build a steadily growing network of rank-and-file organizers across the Canadian labour movement. The L4P network has focused on stimulating discussion and providing education within the broader labour movement, despite open hostility to BDS on the part of the presidents of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

This network has also published a book (currently in a second revised edition) entitled Labour for Palestine, which has become an essential handbook for rank-and-file activists involved in union solidarity with Palestine, forcefully making the case for Palestine solidarity as an important concern of the broader labour movement. In May 2008, this network organized the Brick-by-Brick: Building Labour Solidarity with Palestine conference in Toronto, which brought together unionists from across Turtle Island, South Africa, and Palestine. The L4P network was also instrumental in working with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) National division to mark another historic milestone by passing Resolution 338/339 in April 2008, becoming the first national union on Turtle Island to endorse the BDS campaign.

Compared to the hostile responses from pro-Zionist groups and their allies to CUPE-Ontario’s Resolution 50, reaction to CUPW’s resolution was muted. This could reflect the desire in some sectors of the Zionist movement to downplay the successes of the BDS campaign within organized labour. Nonetheless, CUPW has taken a firm stance in defence of the resolution, affirming in a communiqué signed by current national president Denis Lemelin that CUPW stands behind the demand for “the boycott, divestment and sanctions to continue….”

Despite these significant successes, broader institutional endorsement from the Canadian union movement has been slow to materialize. This is partially the result of a general rightward trajectory of many unions, most notably the CAW and the CLC, as well as successful deployment of intimidation tactics by pro-Israel advocacy organizations. One cannot discount the shameful history of traditional North American union support for Israeli colonization policies built around identification with labour Zionist discourses of socialist colonization and land “redemption” (thus giving a leftist veneer to ethnic-cleansing); the racially-exclusivist cooperative settlements known as kibbutzim (through visits that were popular until the 1980s); and the Israeli union federation, the Histadrut, which has shared in the Israeli state’s general history of racial exclusion directed at indigenous Palestinians.

These influences are much stronger in the United States, where some 26 union presidents signed a statement denouncing the British University College Union decision to endorse the BDS campaign in 2007. This legacy of settler-colonial union “solidarity” found its most recent Canadian expression in the September 2008 endorsement by the Canadian Carpenter’s Union of a resolution condemning the BDS campaign as “reinforcing terrorist groups.” The press release was co-signed by a union representative, Ucal Powell, and by Avi Benlolo, a spokesperson for the neoconservative Friends of the Simon Weisenthal Center, which actively attacked union democracy in the wake of the CUPE resolution by pressuring the union leadership to overturn convention votes and has openly advocated shutting down on-campus discussions of Israeli apartheid.

Building a National Grassroots Network

The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) was formed in Toronto in January 2006, following the successful collaboration between a number of Palestinian and Palestine-solidarity organizations on a number of local initiatives that began to galvanize opposition to Israeli apartheid in the previous year. These events included an invitation extended to Ariel Sharon by the United Jewish Communities, the visits of a number of Israeli war-criminals – including General Doron Almog – to Canada, the visits of Ontario police chiefs to Israel, and the participation of Toronto police chief Bill Blair in the annual “Walk for Israel.”

However, in contrast to the reactive nature of these demonstrations, CAIA was designed to act in a proactive fashion, placing the Palestinian civil-society call for BDS at the centre of its basis of unity. From its inception, the aim of CAIA has been to build broad-based support for the BDS campaign in Canada. It has provided important grassroots support to unions passing BDS motions and student organizers facing on-campus repression, and a platform for launching organizing in other cities and across other organizing sectors and spaces.

Since CAIA took up the BDS campaign, the group has grown into a loosely coordinated national network in major Canadian cities, including the Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign in Vancouver, CAIA-Victoria, CAIA-Montreal, Tadamon! in Montréal and related groups in Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa, Peterborough, Hamilton and Halifax.

The main national campaign CAIA developed is the Chapters/Indigo boycott, which urges people to call on Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz – the majority shareholders of Canada’s largest book retailer – to cut all financial ties to the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers. HESEG was founded by Reisman and Schwartz to provide scholarships to foreign mercenaries (“lone soldiers”) who successfully complete service in the Israeli military and subsequently wish to settle in Palestine. As in the case of solidarity organizing within the unions, the significance of this campaign is not so much to be found in the economic pressure exerted on Chapters/Indigo, but in the opportunity it provides to educate thousands on the reality of Israeli apartheid and the direct links between the activities of Canadian businesses and the oppression of Palestinians. The campaign includes weekly pickets at stores in a number of cities and routine disruptions of the company’s events, including their annual shareholders meeting.

CAIA’s various sub-committees have organized art exhibitions, film screenings, speaking tours, and drafted responses to pro-apartheid groups and organizations. They have been instrumental in organizing Nakba commemoration events held in May 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of over 450 Palestinian villages. Since the summer of 2007, the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) network has been working to build a solid response to the June/July 2007 publication of a number of letters by Canadian university presidents condemning Britain’s University Colleges Union for passing a motion that had the audacity to call for discussion of an academic boycott of Israel.

Student organizers at Ryerson University successfully secured an endorsement from their president Sheldon Levy for a public debate on the topic of BDS, attended by nearly 500 individuals in the broader university community. Other chapters of SPHR and SAIA are now working to push forward officially sponsored debates on BDS at university campuses throughout Canada at which presidents unilaterally signed similar statements condeming Britain’s University Colleges Union. This growing network of student organizations has effectively worked to neutralize intensified attempts to shut down Palestine solidarity organizing on university campuses, including the successful overturning of a March 2008 decision by McMaster University to ban use of the term “Israeli apartheid.” Most recently, Tadamon! in Montréal helped the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, which represents 60,000 CEGEP students in Québec, pass a BDS motion.

CAIA’s success can be attributed to the importance of a new generation of Palestinians in Canada who have a different awareness of the politics of Palestinian liberation, as well as important moves towards overcoming some of the sectarianism that has haunted this kind of work in the past. Palestine solidarity work has also benefited from a transition within the Left away from the politics of white-privilege evident in the anti-globalization movement, and towards foregrounding the struggles of migrants/refugees, working people, and racialized and gendered communities targeted for criminalization, exploitation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. It must be emphasized, however, that these important gains are unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, occurring in a broader context of increasing corporate and statist militarization, xenophobia, and patriarchal neoconservatism.

Leadership, Privilege, and Alliance Building

In response to this general context, an important feature of CAIA’s work, as well as that of both the Palestinian national and solidarity movements in Canada more generally, has been to stress the need for awareness of other struggles on Turtle Island as a way of strengthening the movement. In the context of the union movement, this has meant building links with other social justice and equity-seeking groups, caucuses, and lobbies within organized labour. In terms of engaging with Canadian society more broadly, it has meant a similar alignment with indigenous sovereignty struggles, black liberation groups, anti-poverty organizations, migrant rights movements, anti-war and anti-imperialist groups, and prisoner and environmental justice coalitions.

For example, important alliances have been forged in the southwestern United States between organizations working to oppose the militarization of the US-Mexico border (including the construction of a giant wall) and organizations working in solidarity with struggles against the Israeli Apartheid Wall. Similarly, solidarity work with hurricane Katrina survivors has served to build important links in the struggles to realize the right of return of internally displaced African Americans to New Orleans and of Palestinians to their homeland.

Crucially, in the North American context, it has been vital for those working in solidarity with Palestinians to understand their own settler-colonial context. It is hard to believe that North American governments would recognize the rights of Palestinians to self-determination as they continue to deny the rights of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island to self-determination and sovereignty. As Ward Churchill succinctly argued during the closing session of Israeli Apartheid Week 2008 in Toronto, every inch of territory liberated by indigenous peoples in any part of the world is a victory for indigenous peoples everywhere.

In Canada, this has meant that Palestinian organizations and solidarity activists have actively participated in indigenous land-reclamations carried out by the Secwepemc nation at the Sun Peaks Resort, and have assisted Anishinaabe land reclamations at Grassy Narrows, KI, Barrier Lake and Ardoch, and of Haudenosaunee land in Tyendinaga, Kanenhstaton, Kanehsatake and Kahnawake (among other struggles). Most recently, this solidarity work has meant active support for native political prisoners Shawn Brant, the KI Six, and Bob Lovelace. It has also meant participating in the building of an anti-Olympics network following similar efforts by aboriginal organizers during the 2004 Sydney Summer Olympics and by Tibetan organizers in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with the aim of placing indigenous sovereignty struggles at the centre of the agenda during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Above all, it has been important to continue emphasizing where the leadership in the Palestinian anti-apartheid struggle is coming from. Solidarity activists must continue to take direct leadership from those most affected by Israel’s apartheid policies: organizations representing the various components of the Palestinian people. This is especially true now that a clear and unambiguous statement has emerged from Palestinian civil society calling for BDS. This statement has been reaffirmed several times by a growing list of Palestinian organizations and the campaign continues to be directed through a formally constituted Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) and coordinated through an International Coordinating Network on Palestine, in addition to more informal and interpersonal networks of communication and solidarity between different organizers and organizations.

CAIA and other organizations in Canada have attempted to work closely with the BDS campaign steering committee in Palestine, including component groups like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Ittijah - Union of Arab Community Based Organizations, BADIL - Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, and the Stop the Wall Campaign, in order to reconcile the contextual specificity of Palestine solidarity organizing in Canada with the broader global currents propelling the BDS movement forward. It has also meant working closely with allies in places like the UK and South Africa in order to coordinate international campaigns in response to calls from Palestine and to share experiences during critical moments in the struggle.

Further Reading

Adam Hanieh, Hazem Jamjoum, and Rafeef Ziadah. “Challenging the New Apartheid: Reflections on Palestine Solidarity.” (

Dan Freeman Maloy. “60 Years Later: Canada and the Origins of the Israel-Palestine Conflict” (

Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Labour for Palestine, 2nd revised edition. To order, email


1 Palestinian United Call for BDS Against Israel

One year after the historic Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which found Israel’s Wall built on occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal, Israel continues its construction of the colonial Wall with total disregard to the Court’s decision. Thirty-eight years into Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel continues to expand Jewish colonies. It has unilaterally annexed occupied East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and is now de facto annexing large parts of the West Bank by means of the Wall. Israel is also preparing – in the shadow of its planned redeployment from the Gaza Strip – to build and expand colonies in the West Bank. Fifty-seven years after the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners, a majority of Palestinians are refugees, most of whom are stateless. Moreover, Israel’s entrenched system of racial discrimination against its own Arab-Palestinian citizens remains intact.

In light of Israel’s persistent violations of international law; and

Given that, since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel’s colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal and called for immediate, adequate and effective remedies; and

Given that all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine; and

In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment, and sanctions; and

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

2. Throughout this article I use a distinction introduced by Hanieh, Jamjoum, and Ziadah (2006) between the Palestinian national movement and the Palestine solidarity movement. The distinction is important because, as the authors stress, “Non-Palestinian solidarity activists cannot substitute themselves for the lack of Palestinian leadership. But building an effective solidarity movement that consistently tries to make links with Palestinian initiatives can push forward and inspire the reorganization of the broader Palestinian national movement.” Left Turn, Issue 20, June 2006.

3. The Al-Aqsa Intifada is the name generally given by Palestinians to the popular uprising that erupted in late September 2000, following attempts by Ariel Sharon to assert Israeli sovereignty over the Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem (the compound housing the Al-Aqsa mosque).

4. For the historical roots of Canadian policy toward Israel, see Dan Freeman Maloy’s (2008) “60 Years Later: Canada and the Origins of the Israel-Palestine Conflict” (