In February 2016, the Parliament of Canada voted to formally condemn the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against the State of Israel by a vote of 229-51. The condemnation, which came in the form of a motion, was introduced by the (opposition) Conservative Party and was backed by the (ruling) Liberal Party.
Taking advantage of the momentum generated by the motion, in May 2016, the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party of Ontario, in partnership with the Ontario Liberals, introduced their own anti-BDS measure to the Ontario Legislature in a bill called “Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act” (Bill 202). The legislation sought to blacklist persons or entities supporting BDS from entering into contracts with the provincial government.
The bill was defeated (39-18) because of its potential implications for freedom of speech. This compelled the PC Party to introduce a non-binding motion condemning BDS in December 2016. Unlike Bill 202, the motion passed 49-5.
BDS is an international campaign supporting “proven methods of conscientious objection” to compel Israel to recognize Palestinian rights and respect international law. Supporters of anti-BDS parliamentary initiatives claim, however, that the movement is anti-Semitic and that its proposed methods (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) are generally ineffective. Indeed, Stephane Dion, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, insisted that “peace emerges from building bridges,” not burning them. This is an odd position to take for a representative of a country that currently sanctions twenty-one states.
Anti-BDS parliamentary initiatives were introduced at a time when the movement was gaining momentum on university campuses across the country. Fast forward one year later and the Canadian government is not only out of step with campuses, but also with a majority of Canadians.
Between January 25 and February 2, 2017, EKOS Research Associates conducted a Canada-wide survey on sanctions (generally), BDS (specifically), and Canadian policy and attitudes towards Israel/Palestine, using a random sampling of 1,000 adults. The survey was sponsored by Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, Dimitri Lascaris (lawyer/political activist), and Murray Dobbin (journalist). The survey is the first of its kind to be conducted on a national level in Canada. The results were packaged into two press releases on February 16 and March 2.
As the first release shows, 46% of Canadians surveyed hold negative attitudes toward the Israeli government (28% hold a positive view). Crucially, in “all ethnic categories including ethnically identified Jews,” negative opinions outweighed positive opinions of the Israeli government. When asked whether criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic, almost all those surveyed (91%) answered “no.” In addition, 61% of respondents consider the current (Canadian) government to be biased towards Israel, while 34% think Canadian media coverage is “pro-Israeli” (21% think it is “pro-Palestinian”).
The second release reveals that 91% of Canadians polled regard sanctions to be a “reasonable” way for Canada to censure countries violating international law and human rights norms. When asked whether sanctions against Israel were a legitimate strategy to censure Israel for its colonial project in Palestine, this number drops to 66% in favor. Still, a whopping 78% polled think the Palestinian call for boycott is “reasonable.” Moreover, 53% of those polled oppose the February 2016 Canadian parliamentary motion condemning the BDS movement.
To be sure, one should not read too much into a single poll. Indeed, the results of this survey point to a significant divide in opinion when broken down by party affiliation, province, education level, and age. Nonetheless, the survey suggests that BDS is more mainstream in Canada than previously thought, and that there is generally a disconnect between popular political opinion and Canada’s policy towards Israel. This, in itself, is encouraging news for the BDS campaign in Canada.