By Judy Haiven
“Continue your excellent work” and “Consider joining us for a guided tour in the future.” These were the jaunty remarks in an official letter that disinvited three Black delegates from a meeting with the law clerks of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in January.
Chantal Carbonneau, chief clerk of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) disinvited the three from a meeting convened to discuss the 2022 Halifax Declaration for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination and anti-Black racism in the justice system.
Carbonneau’s reason was laid out in a statement: “We became aware of controversial posts and comments made about the conflict between Israel and Palestinian on social media. These posts and comments had negative and concerning effects on a number of our law clerks.”
The three Black leaders are researchers and advocates on race and racism in Canada. Dr El Jones is a poet, activist and political science professor at Mount St Vincent University in Halifax. DeRico Symonds is Director of Justice Strategy with the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute. Benazir Tom Erdimi is an Ottawa-based student and founder of The People of Tomorrow, a group in support of BIPOC youth. The three were working with Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s former Governor General, and her respected Michaëlle Jean Foundation.
With no further explanation, no proof of specific objectionable social media posts or tweets, and no right to question the decision to exclude them, the three were cut out of the meeting held on January 15.
As Dr El Jones noted, people at the SCC “said that we couldn’t present on anti-Black racism due to unrelated social media activity, which they won’t identify and then said it was a distraction to the presentation. We know that there’s a deep repression of Palestinian speech in Canada. I think it’s particularly shocking coming from the Supreme Court.”
Jones and Symonds have said they are open about their support of Palestinian human rights, and they should not be excluded for expressing solidarity with another oppressed group. But they will not tolerate “surveillance” of their social media accounts by employees at the Supreme Court in order to ignore and silence the activists’ views.
Chief clerk Carbonneau explained that she had to ensure her staff would be “safe” when the Black group was supposed to come to the Supreme Court. What does that mean?
Carbonneau hid behind her statement: “As an employer, the Office of the Registrar of the Supreme Court of Canada has a responsibility to safeguard the mental health and well-being of its employees.”
What nonsense! “Safety” is not the same thing as “comfort” – and what the law clerks demanded was comfort. Clearly, they didn’t want to be confronted with ideas they don’t like. The clerks objected to even hearing about Israel’s bloodbath in Gaza. The clerks didn’t want to know about criticism of Israel.
Not only is this de-platforming and censorship, but it also compounds the silencing Black and Brown people face when they support justice for Palestinians.
As Jones noted, “Just the very fact that [we] mentioned Palestine is damaging to us [clerks at SCC], and you can’t come. What does that say about their ability to rule mutually on these really important issues?”
Carbonneau and the law clerks danced around the question of criticism of Israel. Three Black people were expected to address merely the question of Blacks and human rights in Canada, but someone at the SCC searched the three people’s social media and noted their pro-Palestinian views. These views are neither illegal nor dangerous. And given Israel’s murder and maiming of nearly 100,000 Palestinians – including 20,000 women and children in the last four months – their criticisms have reverberated through every economic level, race, ethnicity, culture and class of Canadian society.
The three Black activists who were de-platformed and a fourth, Léandre Nawej who works with the Rideau Hall Foundation, have written a letter of complaint to the SCC’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner. They wrote that no one at the court spoke or wrote “directly with those of us accused and disinvited.”
The letter goes on:
“Racism is not simply personal bias or hatred; it is an interlocking set of power relations. Black people are regularly disciplined for including other oppressed groups in our race analysis. We ask to meet with you immediately to discuss this serious issue.”
So far there has been no response.
This is far from the first time that racism has surfaced on Parliament Hill.
In June 2022, a former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who is Black, was questioned by the Parliamentary Protective Service officers when she tried to walk into the precinct wearing her parliamentary pin. The pin is given to current and former members of parliament to enable access to parliament’s buildings. It allows the wearer to bypass security searches and checks on handbags. Caesar-Chavannes was the Liberal MP for Whitby from 2015-2018. Just after she was stopped, former NDP MP Peggy Nash (who is white) walked through security without a second glance by officers.
Caesar-Chavannes received a spoken apology from the acting head of Parliamentary Protective Services who suggested she attend a meeting with their diversity, equity and inclusion specialist – five weeks later. Caesar-Chavannes did just that; however, a statement released by the Parliamentary Protective Services said it was going through “a process of assessment and capacity building. We remain committed to continuous improvement, to fostering authentic exchanges, and to receiving constructive feedback.” Their “highest priority is the safety and well-being of employees and visitors to the Hill.”
As Erika Ibrahim of The Canadian Press notes, “This is not the first time the security service has been called out for profiling people of colour on the Hill.”
In February 2019, the commissioner of the Parliamentary Protective Services had to apologize after racially profiling young people at a lobbying event called Black Voices on the Hill. One hundred and fifty representatives of a coalition of Black, human rights, labour and youth groups had been invited to meet with eight federal cabinet ministers. Security officers labelled some participants “dark-skinned people” and asked them to leave a parliamentary cafeteria.
At the time, Peter Flagel of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation said at a press conference held by coalition members, “There was quite a lot of sadness and quite a lot of hurt. There were people that were crying. There was this general sense that they didn’t belong on Parliament Hill, that they didn’t have a place within democratic spaces.”
The “incident” was so serious – and perhaps so emblematic – that later in the month, Prime Minister Trudeau had to apologize in person at a community event at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia in Cherry Brook, a historic Black community outside of Halifax.
What does this most recent incident tell us?
It seems few lessons have been learned. Black people in Canada are ignored, excluded and surveilled, especially on Parliament Hill. They are considered even more of a threat if they voice support for others who are oppressed. In this case, their support of Palestinians – and opposition to Israel’s genocide – was forbidden. The powerful control the discussion and the powerful include law clerks at the Supreme Court of Canada.
It’s not a one-off. And there are more to come – more people in this country will be censored, fired, suspended and have opportunities curtailed every day Israel’s war on Gaza continues. And make no mistake, it’s Black and Brown people who are in the crosshairs of the powerful.
Judy Haiven (jhaiven <at> gmail.com) is a Halifax member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, and a principal of Equity Watch, a Nova Scotia based non-profit that fights against discrimination, sexism and bullying at work. This article is edited from a longer one at her blog at judyhaiven.ca.
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