Joanna Baron: Canadian politicians have suddenly forgotten how to denounce protestors

Those who had a lot to say about the Freedom Convoy are strangely silent about the pro-Palestinian demonstrators
Pro-Palestinian protesters are seen during a protest in downtown Ottawa, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

This past weekend, downtown Ottawa was occupied by a huge crowd of protestors. They danced, shouted angry slogans, banged on drums and created a noisy, inconvenient disruption for local residents and businesses. They even set off smoke bombs, creating hazardous air quality for bystanders and law enforcement.

Sound a bit familiar? Yes, there were some obvious parallels with the Freedom Convoy. But there were also a couple of very big differences. There were many more frightening messages directed at fellow Canadians this time, including “All Zionists are racists” and “All Zionists are degenerates.” 

Another big difference? Near total silence this time from the politicians. Virtually from the outset of the Freedom Convoy’s rumblings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave public appearances to loudly denounce their messages and tactics, decrying them, notoriously, as a “small fringe minority with unacceptable views.”

It wasn’t just Trudeau who loudly expounded on the limits of acceptable opinions during the pandemic. Progressive Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford famously called those protesting against lockdowns outside Queen’s Park “selfish” and a “bunch of yahoos.” 

So where, then, are Trudeau and other politicians including Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, or Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe now that the protesters are behaving far worse?

I’m not talking about those engaging in peaceful protests. In the days following the October 7th massacre of Israeli civilians, I wrote an op-ed here defending the right of pro-Palestinian and even pro-Hamas individuals to peacefully gather. Their expression is protected by the constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and free speech, and I believe it is in the long-term interests of both the Jewish community and a free society as a whole to embrace maximally open discourse where we counter bad speech with better speech rather than the criminal law.

But vandalizing Jewish-owned businesses, targeting Jewish hospitals, intimidating Jewish people taking their kids to daycare, blockading overpasses in Jewish neighbourhoods, firebombing Jewish community centres, calling for violence in front of synagogues and protesting in front of the Holocaust Memorial Centre—all of which we have seen continuously since October 7th—must be denounced, publicly, in the strongest terms. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators can no longer plausibly deny that their movement is thoroughly contaminated with hateful antisemitism. Those who naively argue this type of behaviour is benign should read up on some of the events in Germany in 1938. 

Most troubling is the complete lack of serious engagement with this obvious growing extremism by many of our supposed leaders, and their refusal to delineate bright lines between acceptable protest and direct incitements to violence.

There hasn’t been a trace of moral clarity from the federal government. Instead, we get statements that seem to have been spat out by a bot programmed with the Liberals’ increasingly dismal electoral math and concern about losing votes from those who despise Israel. It is entirely spineless to mention Islamophobia any time antisemitism is uttered considering that it is only synagogues and Jewish businesses that have been regularly targeted with harassing protests and attacks since October 7th.  

Trudeau’s favourite platitude that “this is not what we do here in Canada” rings hollow in the face of consistent and overwhelming evidence that for some Canadians, like it or not, it is.

People protest in support of Palestine in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press.

In some instances, the hate has been obviously inspired by Jihadism. Last week, protestors at a Montreal synagogue jeered at pro-Israel counter-protestors declaring that “every single tree and rock that you guys are going to touch will surely be free.” This was a coded call for violence and a reference to a long-standing antisemitic Hadith that is repeated in Article 7 of Hamas’ charter: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”

If Trudeau wants to push back against this hatred and intimidation, he might look across the pond to U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for an example of what a modicum of moral clarity might look like. It took five months of central London being overrun every weekend with protestors calling for “intifada” (violent uprising) and the election of the odious anti-Semite George Galloway as MP in Rochdale for Sunak earlier this month to finally grow enough of a backbone to explain to the public that there are limits to even the most expansive version of free speech. 

“Yes, you can march with passion. But no, you cannot call for violent jihad,” Sunak declared outside 10 Downing. Sunak’s address was light on policy proposals, but he drew a clear line for protesters and police: calling for violence crosses the line.

Sunak’s speech was met with cynicism from both sides. In the conservative U.K. Spectator, Gavin Mortimer wrote, “the sceptic might wonder why it’s taken the Prime Minister until now to face up to the fact that many Jews do not feel safe in the British capital. Those same sceptics are entitled to think that despite Sunak’s vow to ‘implement a new robust framework’ to tackle extremism, nothing will change.” On the left, a Green MP called Sunak’s speech “a masterclass in gaslighting” and added that “his performance made a new art form of rank hypocrisy.”

And yet, compared to the complete abdication of leadership in Canada, Sunak’s intervention feels courageous. In a democracy, we need our leaders to engage in public reasoning, persuasion, and line drawing. Their cowardice has enabled moral depravity to thrive in our midst. It’s past time for them to forcefully speak out.

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