Justin Trudeau Justin Trudeau. Photo: Government of Ukraine / CC BY 4.0

The Palestine solidarity movement in Canada has forced the government into a more critical stance on Israel, but the arms embargo suffers from serious loopholes, argues John Clarke

The Trudeau government has gained some international attention recently over its claims that the flow of weapons and military equipment from Canada to Israel will be discontinued. In light of this, it’s worth sounding a note of caution over just how effective the measures that have been taken really are. It is necessary to understand how this supposed arms embargo came into being and to explore its obvious limitations.

On 9 February, a report in Al Jazeera showed how the Canadian government was trying to avoid criticism of its role in supplying the Israeli war machine, even as the Gaza genocide unfolded. Their conduct opened the Trudeau’s Liberals up to accusations that they were violating Canadian legislation that ‘prohibits the government from exporting military equipment to foreign actors if there is a risk it can be used in human rights abuses.’

Al Jazeera noted that ‘Canada’s foreign affairs ministry has tried to downplay the state’s role in helping Israel build its arsenal.’ Global Affairs Canada claimed that the ‘permits which have been granted since October 7, 2023, are for the export of non-lethal equipment.’ This, of course, begs the question of just what is to be understood by the term ‘non-lethal’.

Henry Off, representing Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR), responded by asking what ‘does this mean? No one knows because there’s no definition of it and it really could be quite a number of things.’ Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Ploughshares, noted that a lot of Canadian military equipment that ends up in Israel consists of component parts which are first exported to the US. ‘These exports are treated with zero transparency. There is no regulation of, or reporting of, the transfer of Canadian-made military components to the US, including those that could be re-transferred to Israel,’ he said. This makes both the scale of Canada’s role in supplying Israel’s military needs and the question of lethal weaponry even murkier.

A 22 February article in The Breach notes that in ‘just the first two months of Israel’s war on Gaza, Canada issued more than $28 million worth of export permits for military goods that would be sent to Israel’ and lays bare some of the trickery that is employed to maintain that items being sent aren’t lethal. A particularly glaring example is found in the fact that previous ‘non-lethal’ exports to Ukraine included rifle scopes and laser range finders. ‘Sure, a rifle scope isn’t going to deliver a killing blow, but it is an integral part of a weapon system that does kill people.’

Ducking and weaving

On 15 February, Al Jazeera reported that ‘Canada will stop all arms shipments to Israel, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced on Tuesday a day after the House of Commons passed a nonbinding motion to stop the weapons sales.’ According to the report, ‘Canada joins the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and Belgium in suspending arms sales in the wake of Israel’s brutal military offensive in Gaza.’

The parliamentary motion that Joly responded to had been put forward by the New Democratic Party (NDP) but the Liberal government was very aware that there would be major support for it among its own MPs, a number of whom had spoken out against Israel’s assault on Gaza. This, in turn, reflected widespread popular sentiment within Liberal constituencies across the country.

Though Joly was ready and anxious to assure the media that her government’s declared arms freeze is ‘the real thing,’ it has become apparent that it isn’t actually as solid as she would have us believe, as we can see from a 20 March article in The Maple. The motion that the NDP put forward had been watered down in negotiations with the Liberals. The original version had called for the government to ‘suspend all trade in military goods and technology with Israel’ but, by the time it made it to the floor of the Commons, this had been reduced to ‘cease the further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel.’

Based on this modified language, Joly could now ensure the restriction would only ‘apply to future applications for permits to export military goods.’ This is no small matter, since there ‘were at least 315 active permits for military sales to Israel listed in GAC’s most recent report on non-U.S. exports.’ Since Joly had already ‘stopped approving new permits for exports of non-lethal military goods to Israel on January 8,’ the government’s response to the motion was largely illusory.

All this ducking and weaving will ensure that tens of millions of dollars’ worth of Canadian military equipment will still arrive in Israel as it perpetrates genocide in Gaza. Moreover, we may be sure that the companies that produce this equipment, with the assistance of an opaque regulatory system that disregards the Canadian components incorporated into US weaponry, will be able to ensure that Canada’s contribution to the Israeli war machine is able to continue.

Though it is important not to engage in wishful thinking or to exaggerate the measures taken by the Trudeau government, it remains entirely true that the wave of Palestine solidarity that has emerged all across Canada has the Liberals on the defensive and is forcing them to make some very reluctant concessions. Last December, Canada voted at the UN in favour of a ceasefire in Gaza, in opposition to the US position. This would never have happened without the movement on the streets and the sea change in popular opinion that has taken place since Israel launched its attack. The same pressure underlay the decision to restore Canadian funding to Unwra in March.

Police attack

The existence of a powerful and determined movement that challenges Israel’s onslaught on Gaza and Canada’s complicity in it, continues to infuriate many within the establishment. I’ve written previously on the developing effort to contain and intimidate pro-Palestine protests but a police attack on the recent Land Day protest in Toronto has taken this to a new level, as we can see from a report in The Grind.

Having initially gotten underway without incident, the protest made its way through the streets, but was then blocked by a solid line of police for an hour and a half. ‘They wanted to seize our truck,’ said Yara Shoufani with the Palestinian Youth Movement. After allowing the passage of sound vehicles during previous marches since 7 October, the police suddenly decided to use a provision within the Highway Traffic Act as a pretext to stage a confrontation.

At this point, an attack on the crowd was launched that involved the use of mounted police and that led to arrests and injuries. ‘Police did not respond to questions from The Grind about protocols for using horses in a crowd and whether those protocols were followed on Saturday.’ As Dalia Awwad, with the Palestinian Youth Movement, accurately noted, ‘A big part of why they’re escalating is because the pressure that we’re putting on Canada to end its complicity in this genocide is working.’

Calls have been issued for a public inquiry into the police violence and for the avowedly progressive Toronto Mayor, Olivia Chow, to express her support for the democratic rights of the Palestine solidarity movement. Most importantly, however, calls are being issued for maximum participation in the next scheduled protest. Calls have gone out on social media for trade unions to mobilise contingents and show their solidarity. It will be vital to demonstrate clearly that police repression will only increase the momentum and political impact of the movement.

As in many other countries, the social mobilisation against the Gaza genocide in Canada is striking a chord and generating widespread sympathy. Under great pressure, the Trudeau government has been forced to place some limits on its support for the Israeli war machine, but it is vital to sustain and increase that pressure. With an obdurate Netanyahu government preparing to intensify the slaughter with an attack on Rafah, the challenge to Israel’s Western enablers is more important than ever.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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