The federal ministry in charge of public safety knew that early pro-Palestine rallies held across Canada in response to Israel’s attack on Gaza last October showed no signs of “mobilizing to violence” at the behest of an unconnected call to action put out by a former Hamas commander.

But a minister in the Trudeau government and other politicians continued to falsely portray the protests as “advocating for violence in Canada” in response to the Hamas-linked call to action anyway — a narrative that would help set the tone for smears against pro-Palestinian demonstrations for the next eight months, and preceded a ramping up of policing efforts against activists in some cities.

Internal communications obtained by The Maple through an access to information request show that in mid-October, Public Safety Canada (PSC) focused on pro-Palestine rallies, with less attention paid to those held in support of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza.

The ministry was also told by law enforcement that some pro-Palestinian events had already gone ahead peacefully and without any incidents.

None of these facts were reflected in the ministry’s public statements, which came at a time when some prominent pro-Israel voices had called for other pro-Palestinian rallies to be pre-emptively banned over alleged safety concerns.

In a joint statement co-signed by PSC before rallies on October 13 took place, public safety ministers across the country falsely suggested that the upcoming demonstrations amounted to “supporting terrorism or advocating for violence in Canada.”

The statement added: “Our law enforcement and security partners remain vigilant in the face of these potential disruptions and are monitoring the situation closely to ensure the safety of all Canadian citizens.”

On its website, the federal ministry framed the quote as a response to “calls for global protest and unrest from the terrorist organization Hamas.” The statement made no distinction between the Hamas-linked call and independently organized peaceful protests in Canada.

The following day, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc cited a “Hamas-led call for mobilization around the world” and suggested protests in Canada, which included Jewish organizers and activists, posed a direct danger to Jewish people. The minister said he was in regular contact with senior leadership of the RCMP “to remain apprised of their efforts to keep the Jewish communities and their institutions safe.”

LeBlanc’s statement also did not distinguish between the Hamas-linked call and independently organized protests.

At that time, deputy ministers and assistants at PSC were keeping an eye out for any signs of trouble on Canadian streets in coordination with the RCMP and CSIS, Canada’s spy agency. Despite the rhetoric used in official statements, the ministry reported no evidence connecting the rallies to any Hamas-linked call to action.

On the same day as LeBlanc published his statement, senior assistant deputy minister Patrick Boucher, of PSC’s national and cyber security branch, reported to the deputy minister and other assistants that “there are no indications of domestic mobilizations to violence (same as in the U.S.A.) relating to the [Hamas] call for protest.” Boucher listed three protests due to be held in Windsor, Ont., Hamilton, Ont. and Montreal.

Boucher’s assessment matched that of several Canadian police forces, which told news outlets at the time there were no signs of any specific threats to communities in cities across Canada.

Boucher warned the deputy minister and assistants that “the threat could manifest itself from both the IMVE [Ideologically motivated violent extremism] and RMVE [religiously motivated violent extremism] milieu,” but did not identify any specific group or individual that might engage in such actions, or connect such actions to the pro-Palestine protests in Canada.

CSIS similarly told The Canadian Press in May that “violent rhetoric” from “extremist actors” could “impact certain individuals’ intent to mobilize to violence.” However, the wire service’s account of the spy agency’s warning was short on specifics.

Attacks against both Muslims and Jewish people have been reported since October 7, with increases in both types of incidents reported by Toronto’s police chief in November.

PSC was aware at the time of the October protests held in solidarity with Palestinians in the face of Israel’s war on Gaza that other events in Canada had already gone ahead peacefully.

Three days before the public safety ministers’ joint statement was published, Boucher reported to the deputy minister and assistants that “RCMP has confirmed with me that outside of these noted events nothing concerning domestically at this point,” before summarizing developments in Israel and Gaza, and listing pro-Israel and pro-Palestine rallies that were planned in cities across Canada.

It is not clear from the email whether the “noted events” referred to any action in Canada, events in Israel, or both. 

Regarding three pro-Palestine rallies that had already taken place, Boucher noted that there were “no incidents reported.”

The ministry was also assessing the “threat level” against “Israeli interests in Canada” in a partly censored section of the report. No specific threats were identified in the sections of the report that were released by the ministry.

The rallies were called in solidarity with Palestinians after Israel launched its massive assault on the Gaza Strip in revenge for a Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 764 civilians, and hundreds of soldiers and security officers.

The narrative falsely connecting Palestine solidarity rallies in Canada to instructions from Hamas would largely set the tone for how such protests would be covered by dominant media outlets and politicians over the following eight months.

Canadian news reports claimed that a former Hamas commander had called for Palestine solidarity actions to take place “across the world,” as CBC News paraphrased it, on October 13. In fact, in the Reuters article cited by CBC, the former commander was quoted as saying: “[We must] head to the squares and streets of the Arab and Islamic world [emphasis added].”

News reports and public officials in both Canada and the United States implied, often indirectly and without specific evidence, that the protests were organized as a direct response to that call — with sometimes deadly consequences.

In the U.S., a landlord killed a six-year-old Palestinian boy and wounded his mother in a hate-motivated stabbing after consuming right-wing talk radio and citing reports about the Hamas call to action.

Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, pointed out that regular protests in Canada calling for a ceasefire in Gaza were organized before the former Hamas commander issued any call to action, and have taken place every weekend since.

“From the outset, there was an attempt to conflate these protests with support for Hamas,” Bueckert told The Maple. “There were politicians like [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford calling them ‘hate rallies.’ You have politicians talking about ‘pro-Hamas gangs.’”

“The statements from public officials about the call to action really was a conflation of what Hamas was calling for [...] with what Canadians were doing across the country in support of Palestine. These were totally separate phenomena.”

The narrative, Bueckert said, helped to generate undue suspicion towards peaceful protests.

“We see the legacy continuing today with the demonization of anyone who speaks up for Palestine,” he explained.

At the time of the October rallies, Israel’s attacks had already killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and to date have killed more than 37,000 people. Israel is currently on trial for genocide at the International Court of Justice.

The statements from federal leaders in October did not mention rallies that were held in support of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, although ministry officials were aware that such events were taking place. 

Prior to the publication of those statements, PSC deputy minister Shawn Tupper applauded a pro-Israel statement published by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police condemning Hamas, and which also said it “supports Israel’s right to defend itself” and pledged to “do what it can to support the Israel National Police.”

“Good statement from chiefs of police this evening,” Tupper wrote to assistant deputy ministers on October 11 as preparations were made for the ministerial statements.

Aggressive Policing

The October protests ultimately went ahead peacefully. At later protests, police attempted to charge some organizers and other participants with hate speech and other alleged offences.

Bueckert said that while it is tricky to identify specific national trends in policing of pro-Palestinian activism, there have been clear examples of attempts to repress such actions at local levels.

In Calgary, police arrested a pro-Palestinian activist and charged him with causing a disturbance with hate as a motivation after he led chants of, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The charges were eventually stayed

The chant in question is often and falsely described as a call to kill all Jewish people in Israel. In fact, it calls for equal democratic rights for Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

In Vancouver, an activist was arrested for leading chants of “Long live October 7!” in April, but was released. According to The Tyee, no charges had been laid as of May 29. 

In Toronto, 11 protesters were charged with mischief and criminal harassment after leading a protest action at an Indigo bookstore over the company owner’s involvement in a foundation that provides funds for people who volunteered to join the Israeli army. In May, charges were quietly dropped against four of those protesters.

Some supporters of Israel have also been charged with making threats and engaging in violent actions against pro-Palestine demonstrations across the country. 

In some cases, police have engaged in violence against pro-Palestine demonstrators, and other protests have been approached by alleged members of the Jewish Defence League, a far-right group that is listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S.

This spring, police forces violently stormed peaceful pro-Palestinian encampments held at some universities, where students called on their school administrations to disclose investments in Israeli companies and to divest.

As reported by The Breach, a heavily-resourced “Hate Crime Unit” within the Toronto Police Service has aggressively cracked down on the city’s Palestine solidarity movement, including with pre-dawn raids, snatching people on the street, attempting to recruit informants and showing up at university lectures.

As well, The Breach revealed that a secretive committee within Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General has given “politically-motivated” support to the Toronto police’s targeting of pro-Palestine activists, and has sought to increase the severity of charges laid against those activists.

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

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