City of Toronto staff have once again determined that the use of the term “Israeli apartheid” is not a criminal offence and does not contravene any city policy.
Three staff reports about the matter will head to executive committee on April 23. Many city councillors and community groups hope this finally puts to rest a three-year censorship battle that has annually put funding for Pride Toronto in danger.
But the decision doesn’t just affect Pride, reminds Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) member Tim McCaskell, who is encouraging Torontonians to write letters or get on the list to make deputations to the executive committee.
QuAIA recently partnered with two of the other 10 major cultural organizations that receive City of Toronto money: the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Toronto International Film Festival.
TIFF and QuAIA hosted renowned lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer in April at the AGO and the TIFF Lightbox on King Street. Hammer screened her film Witness: Palestine at the AGO’s Jackman Hall on April 5 as part of the Images Festival. McCaskell says Hammer and others used the phrase “Israeli apartheid” several times over the course of the festival, yet he’s heard no official calls to cut funding to TIFF or the AGO.
It’s unfair to target Pride, McCaskell says. “How can council try to make funding for Pride contingent on no one uttering the words ‘Israeli apartheid’ when it doesn’t make the same restrictions on the AGO or on TIFF?
“Here was a situation where a distinguished artist, in her opening remarks, said ‘Israeli apartheid,’ then two nights later at the AGO, she said those words again.”
Caitlin Coull, manager of communications for the AGO, declined to comment but states in an email that “the AGO is proud to be a community partner of the Images Festival, and we don’t dictate the content that is shown as part of the Festival.” TIFF staff also declined to comment until after council has come to a decision on the matter.
Councillor James Pasternak, who asked the city last year to withhold Pride’s $123,807 cultural grant if QuAIA participates in Pride, says there is a difference between QuAIA’s participation in Pride and the events at the AGO and TIFF.
“There’s a big difference between a small closed-door event, and a big cultural event that attracts a million people, which has essentially been hijacked by this group,” he says.
But Councillor Paula Fletcher says Pasternak’s logic is faulty and hypocritical. She says city rules must be applied evenly across the board, noting that the size of an event, and how many spectators it attracts, should not make any difference.
“That’s actually incorrect of Councillor Pasternak,” Fletcher says. “If something is illegal, it’s illegal. If something is accepted, it’s accepted everywhere. It makes no difference how many people see or hear it. Councillor Pasternak feels very strongly about this, and his community feels strongly about this . . . But if something is not considered hate speech, we have to learn to accept it, even if we don’t like it.”
Nick Mulé, co-chair of Queer Ontario, who plans to depute at executive committee, agrees with Fletcher and says Pasternak’s position is “flawed.”
“It’s very problematic,” he says. “[Pasternak] also asserts that people with religious beliefs are automatically right if they are offended, and we have to listen to them. That just totally dismisses all other viewpoints. It feels like he’s just making up the rules as he goes along.”
Meanwhile, Councillor Gord Perks says the latest staff reports make the rules abundantly clear: censoring political speech — regardless of the venue — puts the city in a legally precarious position. “I’m glad that city staff continues to inform council that it would be illegal of us to forbid an organization like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to take part in any event. I’m glad they continue to point that out.”
Perks says the report on the city’s grants policy states that funding should not be contingent on the use of the words “Israeli apartheid.” The report’s author, Chris Brillinger, executive director of social development, finance and administration, says Pride has complied with all city conditions and relevant policies, including the establishment of a dispute-resolution process. He says the city should not put any special conditions or restrictions on Pride.
“We have an obligation to protect freedom of speech and expression of Torontonians,” Perks says. “As someone who has been an activist, organized protests against all kinds of destructive and oppressive government actions, the worst thing we could ever do is restrict people’s right to complain about the actions of a government.”
Still, Brillinger says, there is a need for a broader discussion about “conflicting interests,” such as the emotional debate that surrounds the term “Israeli apartheid.”
“[Saying] the term ‘Israeli apartheid’ is not a criminal act. That would require a charge, or a complaint, and a process. In our eyes, there has not been discrimination,” he says. “Nevertheless, it’s clear that the term is extremely hurtful for many residents of the city of Toronto. It is important to respect the fact that others find it hurtful.”
“It’s time to get out of this debate about whether the phrase is hate, discriminatory or free speech. It is hurtful for some people. It’s worthy of attention.”
The second report proposes amendments to the city’s anti-discrimination policy, which all recipients of city funding must follow. None of the proposed amendments mention “Israeli apartheid.” The third report is from the city solicitor and is not being released publicly. It addresses legal issues with regard to “litigation or potential litigation affecting the City of Toronto,” which is why it is confidential, Brillinger says.
The report references the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal ruling against Bill Whatcott, a self-described Christian activist who distributed flyers targeting gay and lesbian Canadians.
Councillor Adam Vaughan says the city solicitor report advises that complaints of a legal nature must now be directed to the Human Rights Tribunal, which has the mandate and the authority to decide on cases of discrimination. It’s a recommendation city staff also made last year.
“[The reports are] very clear, and this issue should now be resolved,” he says. “This is one of those situations where we were being asked to do something that we don’t actually have the power to do. If people are concerned that the Criminal Code is being violated and human rights are being infringed upon, there are tribunals and courts to pursue those interests.”
But Pasternak says he is not prepared to let the issue drop. He still wants Pride Toronto to ban QuAIA from marching in the Pride parade. He says Pride has the authority to deny any group from participating, and he’s confident the mayor’s executive committee will agree. “The Pride parade is not a political demonstration,” he says.
Pasternak references a recent “disturbing” letter distributed to city councillors by Pride’s co-chairs. It expresses support for the dispute-resolution panel’s 2012 decision.
“Basically, it says that the philosophy of QuAIA and Pride are quite similar and carry the same messaging. I have spoke to colleagues who are astounded the chairs would release such a letter and actually endorse QuAIA,” he says. “So, that’s changed things. It’s a real problem. Up to now, Pride has always argued that ‘we don’t agree with their message, but we can’t stop them.’ Now they are saying there is very little difference between Pride and QuAIA. That’s a major step backwards. And it has upped the ante.
“Pride is a cultural event that includes a street protest group. There’s no reason that QuAIA can’t go protest on their own. The problem is that city funds cannot be used for street protests, which come with demonization, bullying and harassment,” Pasternak says.
Francisco Alvarez, co-chair of Pride Toronto, says Pasternak is completely wrong in his interpretation of the letter (see below). “That is just not true,” he says. “We do not hold any view with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict at all. We simply provide a platform for groups that are organized within our community to express their views, as long as they conform with the laws of the land.
“It sounds to me that, since we won’t reject QuAIA, [Pasternak] is making a link that we are supporting their perspective. We support them as a community group. We support other groups as well.”
Of the city’s executive committee members, only Frank Di Giorgio responded to Xtra’s request for comment. He sees the situation as one of “competing rights.”
“The message that [QuAIA] sends out — it’s not so much about using a phrase,” he says. “I think it needs to be looked at. It’s a matter of interpretation as well. There’s freedom of expression. You have a right to express an opinion, but you can’t in the process try and impose your opinion on someone else.
“I believe in protecting rights, but I draw the line when you start protecting one right that infringes on another right. Then you have to look at it in closer detail.”
Despite the latest reports, DiGeorgio says the city should continue to scrutinize participants in the Pride parade. “I suspect we will try and use sanctions if we have to, like, for example, not providing funding if they don’t fall in line.”
If that’s the case, activists are vowing to continue their fight. Singling out Pride for scrutiny and continuing to threaten funding seems to indicate homophobia, McCaskell says, noting QuAIA members do not attempt to impose their opinions on anyone. “If council only requires this stipulation for Pride, clearly it’s because of the sexual orientation of the people involved. It’s the only reason I can see.”
Queer Ontario’s Mulé says councillors like Di Giorgio and Pasternak are more interested in censorship than protecting rights. It’s also inaccurate to call the issue one of “competing rights,” he says, because the right to religious freedom doesn’t mean freedom from other people’s opinions.
“They are trying to shut down dialogue and infringe on freedom of expression,” he says. “QuAIA is not a people-hating group. Their message is a critical analysis of political policy. If we don’t have the freedom to critique policy, then we are really in trouble as a society.”