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So-Called Canada

Much ink has been spilled about the Diaspora experience during this war. Much of said ink has been devoted to Jewish communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Typically, the Canadian Jewish community is of great less interest — something that is not surprising to me. I spent a number of years working cross-border with Jews from around the United States, and even these Jewish professional leaders often express surprise at how large and robust the Toronto Jewish community is, often ignoring Montreal and Vancouver altogether. Perhaps we’re also imbued with the typical Canadian politeness and minor importance relative to other Western “Great Powers.” But the experience of the Toronto Jews of the last three months betrays a level of antagonism and hatred towards Israel and the Jewish community, one rooted in a specifically Canadian context. Canada has a very nasty history of our own, one of our historical treatment of the indigenous populations here. In the last few years, some of these issues have come into the forefront of Canadian politics and social movements and informs the very specific understanding among many young people about the dynamics at play in the Israel-Hamas war. Perhaps Canada is worth taking a closer look at after all. In this first installment, I want to look specifically at the actions of unions at one York University, and try to explain how Canadian-specific history has shaped the understanding of Israel and Palestine. 

In the days after the October 7th attack, York University Student Unions issued a statement of “solidarity” with Palestinians, describing the attack as a “strong act of resistance, [when] Palestinian people tore down and crossed the illegitimate border fence erected by the settler-colonial apartheid state of so-called Israel. These resistance efforts are a direct response to the ongoing and violent occupation of Palestine. … from Turtle Island to Palestine, and across all occupied lands, these events serve as a reminder that resistance against colonial violence is justified and necessary. … Settler-colonial states like so-called Canada and their institutions continue to legitimize [so-called Israel’s] existence and those of other settler-colonial states making them complicit in the ongoing genocide.”

This was, of course, before the war even began. An interesting move, for Canadian students at a Canadian university to describe their own country as not worthy of its name (which, ironically, is an Indigenous name itself). While the settler-colonial narrative is far from Canada-specific, there are certain aspects of Canadian history that make it find far more fertile ground here, and may be one root of why the Jewish communities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver has been under such physical threat since the war began — a level of menace that anecdotally is far more prevalent here than many other North American cities. And before you argue that the settler-colonial narrative is also dominant in the United States, of course it is. It is part of the broader DEI movement, informed by experiences in both Canada and the United States, which promotes a level of intersectionality between every marginalized or victimized group, except the Jews, perhaps the most victimized group in history. But what is specific about the Canadian DEI movement on our campuses is how much it is informed by the Canadian Indigenous experience, the most direct example of a social ill towards the treatment of others. When Black Lives Matter tried to really expand into here, I found it somewhat less relevant — it is not to say that Black people don’t have issues here, of course they do. But the major group that has long received the brunt of racial issues, terrible treatment, and police mismanagement is our Indigenous. And it is the specifically-Indigenous reflected form of DEI that has caused rampant misunderstandings and misapplications of the history of the Jews, Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Canada, a British dominion, was not atypical in its treatment of indigenous peoples throughout history. John A. Macdonald, the founder of modern Canada, has been subject to the same ridiculous historical redress, where people are examining his late 19th century actions and beliefs through the lens of society in 2024 and finding him wanting. He has come under particular scrutiny due to recent macabre discoveries of the experience of children in Canada’s residential schools. 

The residential schools were born in the late 19th century, created and implemented by the Catholic Church but funded by Canada’s “Department of Indian Affairs.” Its explicit goal was to remove children from their parents and their traditional ways of life, to rear them with Christian European values, in the belief that they would then be able to be productive members of society. Those who study Jewish history should see a parallel in the Tsarist Cantonist system, which recruited young Jewish boys and signed them on for up to a 40-year tour of service in the Russian army. This was done similarly to remove them from their traditions and their connections, in the hope that they would return Russified. These residential schools were intentionally located far from the homelands of the Indigenous, and parental visits were restricted when Canada installed a “pass system” in which these communities were restricted to reserves. The level of cultural and social trauma engendered in this kind of program is obvious. Sadly, the last residential school closed in 1997, so they cannot be dismissed as a thing of the far past. 

While Canada has attempted to right some of this history by providing economic incentives — free universities, no taxes, etc. the realities of life on many reserves is one of want. Lack of funding for healthcare, for education, and a growing number of people dependent on welfare and substances. Many live in the far north, away from the major population centers, and live in abject poverty. Food prices there are astronomical, which results in fresh food being eaten infrequently in favor of cheaper processed items.

There have been many issues of unclean water making its way to these reserves, one issue relating to poor health among many. And while many are quick to claim that they have free university education so that they can advance in society if they so choose, it can be hard to get to university when your educational resources from K-12 are so low. Indeed, there are also a growing number of Indigenous women and girls who have disappeared or been murdered (particularly in Winnipeg) with very scarce resources (and interest) to solve these crimes. So clearly, we still have our own issues. But the residential schools and Canadian treatment of these populations came into the forefront in 2021 when mass graves around a number of residential schools were found by ground-penetrating radar. In the last two years, an estimated 1900 bodies, mostly children, have been discovered in hidden graveyards. Afterwards, a movement here started called “Every Child Matters,” and a day of remembrance in which students are all encouraged to wear an orange shirt in memory of these lost children. 

These horrifying revelations have brought the questions of indigenous rights and responsibilities to the forefront of the Canadian government and, expectedly, Canadian schools. Enter York University. York is not alone, of course: indeed, the “Israel Apartheid Week” inaugural event was here at the University of Toronto. But that’s a story for another day. York, once strongly populated by Jews and, indeed, sometimes a haven for them, has been emboldened by the intense dichotomies of the DEI age. You are either an oppressed group or you are an oppressor. You are powerful or you are powerless. You are settler-colonial or you are indigenous. And, if you are Jewish, you are simultaneously the oppressor, powerful and settler-colonial, despite the fact that for almost all of history, they have been powerless, groveling, and removed forcibly from their indigenous state. This of course betrays any knowledge of history, or understanding of nuance — and yet it is a narrative being allowed to run unchecked at one of the larges universities in Canada. York University has, for years, even had a mural up in its main dining room, showing a man wrapped in a kefiyyah, holding a rock, with a (presumably) Israeli building in front of him. Its inscription reads “Justice. Peace.” 

Things took a more dramatic turn in the last week, when the York University CUPE branch (the statements of whose leader can be seen here) issued a ‘toolkit’ for all of their contract lecturers, teaching assistants, and part time professors this weekend. It advised all members of the union to “collectively divert this week’s tutorials to teaching on Palestinian liberation” and that to condemn the settler-colonialism of the “Zionist Israeli state” — regardless of what the course is supposed to be about. In an interestingly honest turn of phrase, it also denounced the very presence of Hillel on campus. Once again, it was “the Canadian Settler State” or “Turtle Island” (an indigenous name for the whole of North America) that is complicit. 

The administration at York University threatened to end recognition of student groups in response to the initial statement, something that is still being fought out in court (to my knowledge). I wonder what they will do with this? Where the actual union is advising all of staff that “Palestine is a human issue. It is a medical issue. An arts issue. A feminist issue. A society issue. A political issue. A cultural issue. A geography issue. An engineering issue. An architecture issue. It is all of our issues.” I have to imagine this reaction will be even stronger. Universities are supposed to be a hotbed of ideas and conversation, but to explicitly order your teaching staff to deny business as usual and participate in a screed on a complex and nuanced situation that very few know the history of? Well, that’s a move. 

What strikes me about all of these moves is the way in which these York students refer to Canada as “so-called Canada,” “a settler-colonial state,” and Turtle Island. Almost everyone in North America is an immigrant themselves. Where do they think the rest of the Canadian population is going to go, if it is successfully “decolonized”? This idea of decolonization is completely absent reality; it is an attempt to rewrite history that has already happened, states that have already been established, power structures that are already imposed. You cannot reverse the past, you can only try to do better; but this is not really understood or accepted. They themselves are at an institution that they claim to be illegal. These black and white dichotomies, absent history and nuance, are now vigorously applied to the history of Israel, which makes them categorically unable to understand the complexity and nuance required; although, to be fair, I imagine they reject complexity and nuance in all things.

But it is this deep affiliation with the Indigenous here that has allowed an artificial conflation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the fundamental issues being, of course, that Jews are also indigenous to the land. It is both a modern state and a reclamation of an ancient one. And for all of the perceived powerlessness of the Palestinians — which of course they are in many ways — it fails to address the reality that generations of Palestinian leadership have failed to take numerous opportunities that would have given them a Palestinian state decades ago. When people reflect on the people of Gaza as powerless today, they fail to understand that Hamas, their leadership, is far from powerless and has invited this war into their own borders with pride. That they have rejected multiple ceasefire (albeit temporary) offers in exchange for a deal that no one in Israel would ever accept — no return of the hostages, and for Hamas to stay in power after the war. In many ways, their historical understanding bears no connection with reality, but who cares about truth these days? I wonder if these same people would advocate wholesale murder, destruction and kidnapping of Canadians by armed Indigenous. Or if they would accept violence directed at them for being who they are? Attempting to conflate two very different stories, very different populations, and very different realities is impossible; and yet, at York (among others) it is the status quo. 

But nobody likes to be told that the argument is more complicated than they wish it to be. The danger in these actions above is that they are providing an “acceptable” context for barely-disguised antisemitism. Where people can say that they are not attacking Jews, they are attacking Zionists. They need not to refer to Jews as people, they are merely “settlers.” The Jewish history of oppression and the Israeli realities of being under existential threat do not matter. The argument that it’s representative of “white supremacy” when the majority of the Israeli population isn’t white themselves is irrelevant. In tying Israel in with the default narrative of DEI, and the Canadian-specific context of indigenous, all of this becomes a way to legitimize hatred against a group that has always been hated. It’s merely a veneer of acceptability now, and that veneer has been ripped away since the October 7th attacks. But don’t take my word for it, take CUPE’s. “We have to narratively and materially refuse, disrupt, and confront all forms of colonialism, racial capitalism, cishereopatriarchy and Empire. Let’s continue talking together, thinking together, listening very seriously to Palestinians in struggle, and collectively building towards dismantling settler colonialism in/ on Turtle Island and Palestine.” Oh, and that violence and threat to the Jews, here and in Israel? Justified.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory.
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