So-So-So-Solidarité – with Palestine

By Dan Delmar on February 5, 2009

Pro-Palestinian marchers now weave their way through Montreal’s downtown core on a weekly basis since Israel began its military operation in Gaza last month. To say the crowds are diverse would be an understatement. Aside from groups whose main purpose is to defend the Palestinian cause, there are pockets supporters who wouldn’t normally be associated with that movement: New MNA Amir Khadir and his Québec Solidaire party, la Fédération des femmes du Québec, housing rights group FRAPRU, the neo-Rhinoceros party, Christian groups and even the Raëlians. 

Among the groups that lent their organizational might behind the largest of the Gaza rallies on Jan. 10 were Quebec’s major labour unions, the Confédération des syndicates nationaux (CSN), and the Centrale des syndicates du Québec (CSQ) .Facing an economic crisis and an increasingly unsympathetic Liberal government, why are the unions pouring their resources into weighing in on a conflict happening half a world away?

“It’s an involvement that goes back many years,” CSN president Claudette Carbonneau told The Métropolitain. “It is a human tragedy, where a civilian population is under attack, and we feel the need to intervene.”

Although the CSN is making headlines over their involvement with the Palestinian cause, Carbonneau says the union lends their support to the needy in various parts of the world, particularly in Africa and South America. Similarly, the head of the CSQ said their international work is not limited to Palestine; Réjean Parent said his group has spoken up recently for Afghans, the Sudanese in Darfur and other civilian populations worldwide facing the hardships of war.

“We have four values: Solidarity, democracy, sustainability and pacifism,” said Parent. “Today, we’re talking about the Gaza strip. But we’re also favourable to the development of peace in many other areas.”

Both union leaders chose their words carefully: They don’t condemn the Israeli people, of course, but instead their government for committing what they call an illegal war crime. They don’t support Hamas’ military tactics, but Palestinian people in distress.

“The State of Israel has defied U.N. resolutions,” Carbonneau said. “We can not remain indifferent.”

It is unclear how many union members – average, working-class Quebecers – were in attendance at the Jan. 10 protest, although they were certainly a minority in the crowd. During that protest, some masked demonstrators waived Hezbollah flags, while chanting vile slogans. “Slaughter the Jews,” and “the Jews are our dogs,” were among the highlights. CSN and CSQ brass marched in the same demonstration, but Carbonneau and Parent are now distancing themselves from the extremist elements present that day.

“Never would the CSN support hateful slogans,” Carbonneau said. “That doesn’t mean that the government of Israel should be sheltered from all criticism.”

“When the slogans are in Arabic, we can’t repudiate them,” Parent said. “A culture of hate has no place in the Middle-East and certainly not in Quebec.”

That won’t cut it for the Canadian Jewish Congress, who has asked the unions to publicly apologize for participating in the march. During a similar event in 2006, former PQ leader André Boisclair and Liberal MP Denis Coderre both expressed regret for walking alongside Hezbollah supporters. The CJC’s director of community relations, Enza Martucelli, expects the CSN and CSQ leaders to do the same and wonders how they missed the Hezbollah flags; large, bright yellow with Arabic writing and a machine gun printed on them.

“You would think they would be a bit more careful this time,” Martucelli said. “I don’t buy their arguments. They validate these kinds of demonstrations by placing their names on the event. They were out giving credibility to the devilification of Hamas. It was irresponsible.”

Martucelli also questioned if union members really approved of their dues going to support these kinds of political protests.

“The union leadership is reflexively critical of most things that Israel does,” she said, “but the rank-and-file – no. I don’t think the unions have a place in deciding their views. I don’t believe a vote was taken or if it was brought up in their meetings.”

“I think that the majority of our members think we’re standing up for values that affect our base,” Parent said, adding that his predecessor, Monique Richard, went so far as to go on a fact-finding mission to Palestine. Carbonneau said the sympathy her union and Quebecers in general have for the Palestinian people goes beyond a desire to support innocent victims of war.

“We stand in solidarity with Palestinians,” she said, “because they’re in a similar situation: A people, a nation without a State.”


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