3 min

Pride Toronto plans to censor the term ‘Queers Against Israeli Apartheid’

Festival organizers 'will not allow participation with this message': documents

Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands Credit: Jenna Wakani photo

Pride Toronto has no intention of letting anyone march in the parade under a banner “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.” That, at least, is what the festival’s organizers have been telling city officials, according to documents released by the city.

The documents, obtained through the city’s access to information laws, paint the clearest picture yet of Pride Toronto (PT) handwringing over the pro-Palestinian group.

They show PT vowed to city staff that they will keep slogans criticizing Israel out of the parade.

From letters dating back to the fall, it appears that the only stumbling block to an outright ban is that the group that calls itself Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) isn’t incorporated — and therefore is not a legal entity. No legal action can be taken against them as a group, the documents say.

Instead, Pride Toronto told the city it plans to weed out QuAIA’s messages during the application phase or on the day of the parade.

A letter dated April 14 from the office of Rita Davies, the city’s executive director of culture, summarized a discussion with PT executive director Tracey Sandilands and co-chairs Jim Cullen and Genevieve D’Iorio. The letter is addressed to the city manager, gaybourhood councillor Kyle Rae and others.

“A review will be made as to whether they can ban a group on the basis of being called ‘Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.’ If that is the registered name of the group this would prove difficult. If not, it is ‘messaging’ and can be covered under the need to abide by the City’s anti-discrimination policies.”

A similar summary was produced by another city official, Lori Martin.

“Further to our discussion with you and Pride’s co-chairs yesterday, our understanding is, given that this is not a registered name, Pride will not allow participation with this ‘message.’”

A briefing note from Davies’s office
dating back to November, 2009, shows that plans were in the works long before the sign vetting policy was announced in March.

“In response to city staff’s continuing concerns, Pride Toronto has confirmed that it is working with a consultant and has been receiving legal advice on how to curtail the anti-Israel marchers in next year’s Pride parade.”

In an interview with Xtra, Davies confirms that the city had “ongoing concerns” about PT’s ability to implement the city’s anti-discrimination policy, and that those concerns stem from a 2009 complaint about QuAIA. But she insists that the city has not taken any position on that group.

“What you’re reading is a summary of, or some interpretation of, something that was said at a meeting,” says Davies.

“When we have a complaint, we review it, and in this case, the complaint had to do with the city’s anti-discrimination policy. So the city manager’s office was involved in those discussions,” she continues. “What we, as staff, were doing, through the city manager’s office, was working with Pride to ask them to show what processes they have to be able to comply with those policies. “

In March, PT announced it would vet all messaging in advance of the parade through an ethics committee. After a loud protest from free-expression advocates, the policy was retracted two weeks later.

At the time, Cullen said that the sign-vetting rules were “not based on any particular word or group.” Also, Sandilands told Xtra that QuAIA wouldn’t be banned from the parade unless its application was found to be objectionable.

Neither Cullen, D’Iorio nor Sandilands responded to our requests for interviews by the time of publication.

But these documents show that Pride has been telling the city one thing and the gay community another, says Elle Flanders, a spokesperson for QuAIA.

“Although we’ve been led to believe, and [Sandilands’] ongoing line is, ‘Well, they haven’t made an application yet,’” says Flanders. “They’re talking out of two sides of their mouth, obviously. On the one hand, they’re telling us they can’t judge us until we make an application, and on the other hand, we have been judged.

Among the documents is an email from Sandilands to senior staff sent shortly after a meeting between PT and city staff, which no one has talked about publicly.

“Well, as expected, as soon as the news broke the left began howling again. This morning on the Facebook group ‘Don’t Sanitize Pride’ there is a call for members to write to the City regarding this issue, so expect to start getting letters soon. I have no doubt we will also be getting them again, as will our sponsors, and we will be mostly ignoring them. This is how they managed to pressurize us into rescinding the Ethics Committee idea, and so will be expecting it to work again” she wrote on April 19.

And that’s disheartening, says Flanders.

“For a long time, I was defending Pride, I was suggesting that Pride is trying to work through a very difficult situation,” she says. “With this information, I can not only say I’m disappointed — it provides us with enough proof that Pride has no interest in community. First, they responded to sponsors. Then they responded to the city and city pressure. It’s no longer a community organization that responds to community needs.”