This year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize award ceremony was interrupted – twice – this week. During the live broadcast, protesters shouted anti-Israel slogans and held up signs accusing the award’s title sponsor, Scotiabank, of being complicit in genocide, as a result of its investment in an Israeli arms manufacturer.
Three people in their 20s now face charges of obstructing, interrupting and interfering with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property, and use of a forged document. Toronto Police allege the demonstrators used fake or doctored credentials to get into the event, identifying themselves as event crew, media or guests.
Protesters also shouted at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week at a Vancouver restaurant. When he moved on to a different establishment, the police sent 100 officers to the scene as a large protest formed outside. Two people were arrested – one for allegedly assaulting an officer, the other for obstruction.
These incidents have generated a lot of discussion about when and where protest is appropriate. Is it okay to mar one of the rare occasions when Canadian writers are celebrated in grand style? Is it okay to throw a wrench into the Prime Minister’s social evening?
Protest is a cornerstone of any democracy and should not only be allowed, but encouraged. That said, it doesn’t belong everywhere – courts have set out that the right to free assembly does not include the right to physically impede or blockade lawful activities. But there are certainly more urgent examples than those two where protest should be considered offside, as war in the Middle East rages.
Protests, for instance, do not belong outside a Jewish-owned restaurant, as happened at Café Landwer in Toronto. Or on the windows of a Jewish-owned bookstore – Indigo – especially on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when German pogroms targeted Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues.
Protests do not belong outside synagogues and mosques.
Protests of course belong on university campuses, but not when they are intimidating or threatening. Universities have an obligation to allow for protest but even more importantly, to ensure the safety of their students. Jewish students do not feel safe at many Canadian universities right now – and back home, their parents are freaking out.
In Toronto, pro-Palestinian protests have been held outside Chrystia Freeland’s constituency office. Fine. Except some crossed the street to face a Jewish community centre, which houses a daycare and schools.
Antisemitism has infiltrated some of these demonstrations. If the protesters are not concerned with how this makes their Jewish fellow citizens feel, they should know that it delegitimizes the message.
At a Vancouver protest, the former head of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Harsha Walia, said: “How beautiful is the spirit to get free that Palestinians literally learned how to fly on hang gliders.” Consider what those paragliding people did after they landed on Oct. 7: murdered, raped and abducted innocent civilians attending a concert in the desert.
Incendiary language of any type is dangerous. Online white supremacist rhetoric has clearly led to deadly consequences, including the murders of the Afzaals, a Muslim family, in London, Ont.
Mr. Trudeau trying to enjoy a dinner out? Fair game. He’s the Prime Minister.
Targeting the biggest night in Canadian literature took the shine off the event; some people left, no longer comfortable being there. But comfort is a lot less urgent than babies dying in Gaza. When things are dire, decorum can of course fall away.
Besides, isn’t it a writer’s prerogative – obligation, even – to speak out?
At the National Book Awards this week, a group of writers, in a co-ordinated move, took the stage and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. It was meaningful and impactful.
Many Canadian writers believe the Giller protest was appropriate. Many have signed an open letter in support of the protesters, urging that the charges against them be dropped. They include this year’s winner, Sarah Bernstein, as well as previous winners Omar El Akkad and Sean Michaels.
The letter would have been stronger had it not led with the protest specifically, but the real matter at hand, which it does eventually get to: It urges a ceasefire, condemns the Israeli government and calls for an end to the “75-year occupation of Palestine.”
I do wonder where this kind of support from artistic quarters was for Israeli hostages (who did earn a brief mention in this week’s letter) and around 1,200 murdered people, including babies and children. Instead, after Oct. 7, there was deafening silence – or even worse, justification.
Justifying murder is never okay. Neither is racism, or making kids feel unsafe.
But protest is powerful. And we need artists’ voices. Let’s hear them, from all sides.