Public servants are angry about the Canadian government’s anti-Palestinian bias and say there is an ongoing effort by management to vilify expressions of sympathy for Palestinians among federal employees by falsely conflating such statements with antisemitism.

Employees who spoke to The Maple said they are aware that some staff who have publicly expressed sympathy with Palestinians are currently being investigated or disciplined. Others fear backlash if they choose to organize statements of solidarity with Palestine through their unions.

Several employees also pointed to a staff “wellbeing” email sent by the Clerk of the Privy Council, John Hannaford, on October 11, four days after Hamas led a deadly surprise attack against Israel and took approximately 240 people hostage. The email was also published on the Department of National Defence website on October 13.

At the time the email was originally sent, Israel had launched a massive bombardment of Gaza that had already killed nearly 1,000 people, including more than 100 children.

As well, Israeli officials had engaged in rhetoric that observers said indicated genocidal intent and plans to inflict collective punishment against the entire Palestinian population in Gaza.

Hannaford’s email made no mention of the Palestinian casualties or Israel’s bombing campaign, and focused exclusively on those killed in Israel by Palestinian militant groups.

“On Saturday morning, Canadians across the country were horrified to learn of the gruesome terrorist attacks launched by Hamas against Israel, and shocked by the terrible loss of life that occurred,” Hannaford wrote. “I join those around the world in unequivocally condemning these inhumane acts and in supporting Jewish people. I offer my sincere condolences for all of the innocent lives lost.”

Hannaford then referred to “disturbing celebrations of violence and acts of antisemitism across the world, including in Canada,” echoing language used by Canadian politicians at all levels of government to describe protests that were held in solidarity with Palestine. He added: “Arab and Muslim communities are also fearing increased hate and discrimination due to a rise in Islamophobia,” before pledging to stand against “all forms of discrimination.”

“We condemn any behaviour or expression of hate in the workplace regarding the individual identities of others.” Hannaford then provided links to various programs aimed at supporting the “wellbeing of public servants,” as well as information on “Canada’s response to the crisis in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

The Maple interviewed five public servants who received the email and agreed to keep them anonymous in order to protect them from retribution by their employers.

An employee with the Department of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) told The Maple that emails from managers that take a position on world affairs are extremely rare. They found Hannaford’s message to be clearly “taking a side” with Israel.

By contrast, the employee said, public servants based in Ottawa received an email that provided information during the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied areas of the capital for several weeks last year, but that message did not take a stance for or against the protest.

“It’s shockingly one-sided,” the employee said of Hannaford’s email about Israel. “This conflict impacts two significant populations, and this email is only talking about one of them.”

“It really seems to counteract what some departments, and ours in particular, really stands for,” the employee added.

Public servants are discouraged from publicly taking positions on contentious issues, and the employee from WAGE told The Maple that this is something they are frequently reminded of by their human resources department and executives. The “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service” states that public servants should “maintain the tradition of the political neutrality of the Public Service.”

For this reason, the employee said they were all the more angered to see a staunchly pro-Israel position taken by Canada’s most senior public servant.

Based on Hannaford’s messaging, the employee said they feel that management would be much more tolerant of public servants attending pro-Israel “vigils” held in support of the country’s bombing campaign than those wanting to attend rallies calling for a ceasefire, for example.

In an emailed statement to The Maple, the Privy Council Office said: “Consistent with the government’s position, the Clerk’s message addressed this very sensitive, traumatic, and complex issue, offered sincere condolences for all of the innocent lives lost, and called for a united stand against all forms of discrimination.”

In fact, the Clerk’s email did not mention Palestinians or those killed in Gaza.

“The message also emphasized the Clerk’s commitment to ensuring that all public servants feel safe in their work environments and condemned any behaviour or expression of hate in the workplace,” the PCO’s statement added.

A second WAGE employee told The Maple: “I’m very disappointed with the direction the government and our department have taken in sending a pro-Israel biased email and merely suggesting we contact the employee assistance program if we need someone to talk to.” 

“As a union local we have debated whether we should make a solidarity statement for Palestine because of the fear of backlash from the upper management,” the employee added.

Some public service unions have issued statements calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

On October 26, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents federal government employees, joined calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and “an end to the blockade of Gaza and for the restoration of humanitarian aid and access to the basic necessities of life.”

PSAC’s statement added: “This crisis has reached a critical point that demands immediate intervention; the Canadian government must call for a peaceful resolution to this conflict and the end of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

The Professional Institute of The Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) called for a ceasefire on October 30. 

Glaring Omissions

A federal employee who works for Statistics Canada told The Maple that they found the omissions in Hannaford’s email to be glaring.

“The word ‘Palestinian’ did not appear in the email, which is obviously a very deliberate choice of how to frame the whole situation,” the employee said. “It mentioned the loss of life on the Israeli side, but didn’t mention at all the loss of life on the Palestinian side, which had already started at that point and has now reached much greater proportions.”

“We haven’t had any communication about that since then.”

The employee said they believed the email could have made public servants feel obliged to hold a supportive position in regards to Israel’s war on Gaza.

“I’m angry that they are using the capacity that they have as an employer to present one political interpretation of a situation — one that I don't share,” the employee added. “It makes it much harder for someone who heeded that message to be open to hearing another position outside of the workplace.”

“It feels to me like an abuse of the communication channels that they have to disseminate a political message.”

The employee said they are unionized with the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which has so far not called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Some Government of Canada employees are pushing for the union to adopt that position.

Another CAPE member who is also involved with the group Labour For Palestine told The Maple that the union lacks a mechanism by which to give feedback to the leadership. Instead, rank-and-file members successfully worked through the Solidarity Caucus to democratically pass a ceasefire statement.

In response, the member said, CAPE leadership issued a cease and desist order against the caucus’ use of the union’s name.

“It’s really reflective of a CAPE leadership that is conservative and that has always prioritized looking agreeable to the employer over supporting its members,” the member explained.

CAPE’s leadership, the member said, has long maintained a “culture of silence” around what it considers to be “social issues” that are supposedly not directly connected to the workplace.

The union’s leaders have also emphasized the “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service” in its messaging, which, the member said, is the most common means by which members are being disciplined for speaking out in support of Palestine.

The CAPE member stressed that the Clerk’s email had a chilling effect on public servants wanting to speak out in support of Palestine, and that there has been a unique degree of scrutiny and readiness to discipline employees for speaking up on this issue.

“It set a tone from our employer and from our government that speaking out in any form for solidarity with Palestine, or about Palestinian rights, would be likely to draw negative attention,” they explained. “It left literally thousands feeling disregarded and ignored.”

“The continued silence [on Palestinian deaths] has sent the message to many public servants that some lives and deaths matter and others don’t.”

As well, the CAPE member said the Clerk’s email demonstrated that the issue is not external to the public service workplace, as CAPE’s leadership have tried to claim. A group of rank-and-file members put together a petition calling for CAPE’s leadership to change its approach to this issue.

CAPE is also currently undergoing a leadership election. “There’s a real hope that we will have change and we will be able to pressure leadership to behave differently going forward,” the member said.

Fears Of Backlash

The Stat Can employee said they are aware of colleagues who have been investigated for sharing pro-Palestinian social media posts. As reported by The Globe and Mail last month, the PCO launched an investigation into Nisam Siddiqui, a senior analyst at PCO, for criticizing Canada and other Western countries for aiding Israel in “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The employee said they believe Siddiqui has made comments in the past that were genuinely antisemitic, but is concerned that the PCO is deliberately targeting Siddiqui for pro-Palestinian comments in an effort to falsely conflate Palestine solidarity with antisemitism.

“It feels like there’s an effort to connect or tie those two things together and try to ensure that there’s a sort of association in people’s minds that Palestine solidarity is antisemitic,” the employee explained.

“I have suspicions that there’s a deliberate sort of strategy behind it. It’s not just random choices of who to target for discipline.”

An employee with Indigenous-Crown Relations told The Maple they have found the government’s overall support for Israel to be one-sided.

“Some of our deputy ministers do land acknowledgments; they even mention that we’re on stolen land, unceded land, but it’s happening right now in Palestine,” they said.

“‘We stand with Israel,’ is the only thing the government keeps saying, but then telling Indigenous people ‘oh, but we're going to work together.’”

The employee said that they believe it is important to recognize that there are Jewish Israelis with ancestral relationships to the land alongside Palestinians, but also that “the current and previous Israeli governments are and have been openly colonizing Palestine.”

The employee added that they believe it is possible to recognize that “what Hamas did is horrific and have empathy and compassion for friends and family of the victims and hostages,” but that this does not mean Canada should support Israel’s disproportionate retaliation.

The employee added: “It’s hard just to work in general, and go about my life while this is happening.”

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.