Claims that the City of Montreal illegally confiscated 2015 electoral posters featuring a dead Palestinian child go to trial in Quebec Superior Court
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada. Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on the international stage. Harper’s ten-year reign ended in 2015, but not before his unqualified support for the state of Israel provoked a civil rights controversy in the city of Montreal, Canada’s second largest city. During Canada’s 2015 federal election campaign, Montreal-based supporters for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or BDS) Movement joined forces with local candidates of the Communist Party of Canada to draw attention to Stephen Harper’s indifference to the plight of Palestinians.
The tactic these activists and candidates employed to highlight Harper’s attitude toward Palestinians was to erect large posters in certain parts of the city who’s central and devastating image was that of a dead Palestinian boy. Emblazoned above the image of the dead child were the words “Israel assassinates Palestinian children. Harper applauds. What did the other parties say?” The dead child featured in these posters was one of four Palestinian boys who were killed in the summer of 2014 by an Israeli missile attack. At the time of the attack, they were playing soccer on a Gaza beach. The four boys, for the record, were Mohamed Ramez Bakr, 11, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both 10, and Ismail Mohammed Bakr, 9 years old. Three of these boys were killed as they sought to flee the beach after the first child was killed.
The attack was witnessed by foreign journalists and was widely reported in the international media. One of the witnesses was a reporter from The Guardian. In July 2015, approximately one year after the attack and just before Canada’s last federal election, The Guardian reported that Israel’s military had exonerated itself in the attack. The Israeli military claimed to have conducted an “extensive criminal investigation.” According to The Guardian, however the Israeli military never attempted to obtain any statement from The Guardian reporter who witnessed the killings.
Months after the Israeli military exonerated itself and during Canada’s 2015 federal election in the latter part of the year, BDS activists and Communist Party candidates began erecting these posters in certain parts of the city of Montreal. Within days, they received reports that Montreal city employees were removing and confiscating the posters. At the time, the mayor or Montreal was Denis Coderre. During his time as Montreal’s mayor, Coderre led a trade mission to Israel and his support for the state of Israel was so strong that B’Nai B’rith Canada, a pro-Israel lobby group, described Coderre as, “the toast of the Jewish community,” and “the apple of the Jewish community’s eye.” Of course, the many members of Canada’s Jewish community who are critical of Israel’s human rights records might dispute that claim.
The removal of the posters by city employees was captured on video by BDS activists. Let’s have a look at that video.
On September 28, 2015, Montreal lawyer John Philpot wrote a demand letter to the city of Montreal on behalf of BDS Quebec. His letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Real News stated, “The city of Montreal through its employees has illegally removed a large number of their electoral posters. The city is preventing BDS from participating in the elections and is abusing their rights of democratic expression. We seek your assurance that this illegal practice ceases immediately. My client reserves its right to pecuniary damages in the amount of approximately $20,000.”
On the following day, September 29, 2015, Domenico Zambito, a lawyer for the city of Montreal, responded to John Philpot’s complaint. Zambito’s letter, a copy of which has also been obtained by The Real News, stated “We would like to inform you that the posters were unfortunately removed by error and that, from now on, they may be put in place.” On that same day, September 29th 2015, Bruce Katz, the official agent of BDS Quebec, filed a complaint with Elections Canada over the illegal removal of the posters by the city of Montreal. Despite Mr. Zambito’s letter of apology, and despite the complaint that BDS Quebec filed with Elections Canada, the city of Montreal continued to remove the electoral posters. Moreover, the city has never compensated BDS Quebec or the Communist Party of Canada for the confiscation or their posters, which cost thousands of dollars to produce.
As a result, in June 2016, BDS Quebec, the Communist Party of Canada and 13 BDS activists and Communist Party candidates commenced a lawsuit in Quebec Superior Court. That lawsuit was against the city of Montreal. In the suit, the plaintiffs seek a total of approximately $250,000 in damages. The lawsuit went to trial last month, in January 2018, and I had the opportunity to attend the first day of the trial and to interview two of the plaintiffs outside of the courtroom. The two plaintiffs with whom I spoke were Bruce Katz, the official agent of BDS Quebec, and Bill Sloan, a Communist Party candidate in a Montreal area riding in Canada’s 2015 federal election. Let’s listen to some of what Bruce Katz and Bill Sloan had to say.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: What we’ve heard today in the courtroom is testimony involving the removal of certain posters apparently by employees of the city of Montreal. Why don’t you give us a bit of background about these posters. How did they come to be posted during the electoral campaign and who posted them?
BRUCE KATZ: As part of the BDS Coalition, which was a committee that was created by the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine several years ago, we consulted the electoral law of Canada and we found that it is possible for a third party, unincorporated, to participate in the federal election as long as it meets the stipulations of the federal electoral law as also enforced by Elections Canada. This we did, I function as the official agent for the coalition. As the official agent for BDS Quebec as a committee of the CGPP, we all sat down together and we decided that we would use the image of a child killed on the beach in Gaza in 2014 by Israeli forces. As a matter of fact, there were four children, but there’s the image of one child who was killed on the beach and in our discussion we said. “Well it’s, some people may find it provocative, but it happens to be the truth and we have to put that out that, put it out there.
One, to inform the public of what is really happening on the ground and what is not being covered in the media and secondly to challenge political parties and politicians in an election period to state exactly what their position is on the Palestinian question and on Israeli abuses of the Palestinian people in particular of Palestinian children. We first of all based the choices on verifiable documented evidence of Israeli abuses of Palestinian children. So everything that appears there is based on documented fact, there’s nothing that is unverifiable there.
And we know for a fact, we know this for a fact that there was a standing order issued by the city of Montreal to take down our signs.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And how do you know that?
BRUCE KATZ: We know it as a result of our lawyer’s discovery interrogation that we were, we found out that there was a standing order.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And do you know, or have you been able to ascertain, who issued that standing order within the city administration?
BRUCE KATZ: No, all we know is that a lady who was replacing another gentleman who had just gone on sick leave while under questioning admitted that when she got to her post there was already a standing order to take all of our posters down. The thing is what we want to know, what we’d like to know, is who issued the order. And how high did it go? I filed an official complaint with Elections Canada and they kept up a frequent communication with a gentleman, Mr. Thouin, who at that point was in the enforcement office of Elections Canada, and I do believe that that is what resulted in Election Canada’s official denunciation of the city of Montreal’s practice of having taken down our posters. But there was no sanctions behind that, simply a slap on the wrist.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Bill, between the time that all of this occurred and the current time, the commencement of this trial, there was a change in the administration of the city of Montreal. The mayor Valérie Laplante succeeded to the mayoralty after Denis Coderre, who I think is fair to say during his tenure was not shy about expressing support for the state of Israel. Have you noticed, you know, Valérie Laplante I think is widely perceived to be significantly more progressive than Denis Coderre. Have you noticed any change in the way the city is litigating this case since the change in the administration?
BILL SLOAN: No.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And why do you think that is?
BILL SLOAN: Well I’d be guessing, but it would seem to me that the Zionist lobby will be landing on anybody’s head with all four feet if any money is voluntarily quote unquote given to the BDS coalition or to monsters like the Communist Party. So I suspect that their position is “Well, let’s let the courts make the decision and nobody will say that we did it. It’s the courts that did it and they sort of keep their hands, you know, clean sort of, yeah.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, ultimately, what is it that the Communist Party of Canada and the candidates that are party to this litigation seeking from the city of Montreal?
BILL SLOAN: Money.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And how much are they seeking?
BILL SLOAN: A lot of money. I mean, they, look, I started this back in 2008, I ran a campaign back then where we had two posters. One said, “End Canadian support for apartheid Israel.” And the other said, “Canada out of Afghanistan.” Nothing about voting for me, no picture of me anywhere. And they all got torn down. And the ones that I had put in Westmount around the Israeli consulate were torn down within an hour or two of my putting them up on a Sunday.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I understand the city of Westmount is taking a different approach to litigating the claims that you might have had arising from that.
BILL SLOAN: It’s not so much that they took a different approach, I mean, they had admitted to taking them down, because their private security people, ’cause they have a private security as well as the police, so the private security had taken, had gotten the blue collar workers to take them down. And they took examples of the posters to make a police report. As though we had done something illegal I suppose and made a report and noted, and it got into a local newspaper, and I found out about it actually through Abby Lipman, who just passed away the day after Christmas. She had noticed and brought it to my attention. So we had them cold. That they had taken them down on the same day that they were put up. So they made an offer. And we settled.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Are you at liberty to say for how much?
BILL SLOAN: Yeah, $10,000.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: The trial of this action concluded on January 24th 2018. The judge has reserved her decision. In the interim, the Real News reached out to the new administration of Montreal mayor Valérie Laplante for an explanation as to why the city of Montreal continues to expend taxpayer money to defend a case, which seems indefensible. The answer we got back from the city of Montreal was as follows: “This case is currently the subject of a court trial. The lawyers of the city of Montreal would put forward several defenses before the judge who’s assigned to the file. In order to respect the ongoing legal process, we decline your interview request.”
This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Quebec.