Going to the candidates’ debate: The CJN and CIJA hosted an ‘E-lection’ parley

A screenshot from the federal debate on the night of Sept. 13, co-hosted by The CJN and CIJA.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) joined forces with The CJN on Sept. 13 to host the first-ever “E-lection Debate.”

Some 1,250 participants were online to hear issues of concern to the Jewish community. Panelists were Marco Mendicino, the Liberal minister of immigration who’s seeking re-election in Eglinton-Lawrence; Michael Chong, Conservative shadow critic for foreign affairs who’s running again in Wellington—Halton Hills; and Hal Berman, a palliative care physician and the NDP candidate in Willowdale riding.

The subjects under discussion, noted organizers, ranged beyond Israel and combating antisemitism. “There are Jewish connections to climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and Canadian foreign policy beyond the Middle East.”

The evening was moderated by CJN podcast hosts Ellin Bessner and Avi Finegold. Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party, brought greetings from Prince Edward Island, where she was campaigning.

Berman, who ran for the NDP in York Centre in the 2015 federal election, placing third with about 3,000 votes, began by noting a strong historic connection between Canadian Jewry and New Democrats, as well to its predecessor, the CCF. He recalled the leadership of the NDP by David Lewis, the first Jewish leader of a major federal political party, and the NDP’s strong opposition to racism and antisemitism.

“I am a friend,” said Mendicino. “I am proud of my close relationship with the Jewish community. I am gravely concerned about the rise of antisemitism.”

He enumerated the Liberal record: adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism; quadrupling funding to the Security Infrastructure Program (SIP) which helps synagogues, day schools and other facilities defray security costs; intending to legislate against hate speech; and appointing former justice minister Irwin Cotler as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.

Mendicino said if re-elected, the Liberals will introduce legislation to tackle online hate “within the first 100 days.”

Chong, who served in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet but quit it over passage of a motion that recognized “the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada,” pointed out that he had a Chinese father and has had personal experience with racism. “We as Conservatives believe strongly in standing up against hate and discrimination,” he said.

He said the party is committed to funding the SIP, and supporting better resources for law enforcement and “other new measures.”

Berman said he doesn’t think antisemitism is a partisan issue. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would be in favour of antisemitism. If we make this political, all it does is cause more fighting and conflict, and we get nowhere.”

He said the NDP was “very disappointed” that Paul, the only Jewish leader of a federal political party, was not invited to the national summit on antisemitism, hosted by the federal government in July.

Turning to Indigenous issues, Berman lamented that it, too, has become partisan. “It breaks my heart that while all the parties are fighting about who is going to take care of the Indigenous population, nobody is taking care of the Indigenous population.”

He said lack of clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities is “a disgrace… we have done things for our own benefit, not for their benefit.”

Chong said partnerships should be formed between Indigenous bands and governments “to look at new models of governance” and delivery of resources.

Mendicino said that since they took power in 2015, the Liberals have lifted 115 water advisories in Indigenous communities, and have taken steps to protect Indigenous languages and to better protect children.

Moving on to Israel, Berman parried a question from a viewer in British Columbia, who asked why the “most important” issue at last April’s NDP convention was the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and why party leader Jagmeet Singh condemned Israel amid the spike in antisemitic incidents in May without commenting on the acts themselves.

Berman replied that the IHRA definition was not only not given high priority at the party’s convention, but that it never even made it to the floor for debate.

The party, however, did pass resolutions in support of a ban on trade with Israeli settlements and one calling for an arms embargo of Israel.

Asked how he supports a party that endorses the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and has called for outlawing the arms trade with Israel, Berman said the NDP “does not support BDS. We do not think it’s appropriate.”

He said the resolution passed in April was about banning trade with settlements “occupied by Israel, not with Israel itself.” He said neither he nor Singh support BDS. “We do not support it because it’s not good for anybody involved in the conflict. It’s not going to help Palestinians. It’s not going to help Israelis.”

On the question of why Liberals reinstated funding to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that oversees aid to Palestinian refugees, which has been accused of inciting antisemitism, Mendicino said there is “a strong consensus that Canada needs to play a role in fostering peace in the Middle East,” which is why it is delivering humanitarian aid, including health care, education and social services “for the innocent civilians, children and families,” in Gaza.

He said the Liberals have withheld funds to UNRWA until they received assurances that problems were resolved. Canada will continue to demand transparency, oversight, and accountability from the agency, “as imperfect as it is.”

Chong said Canada should support Israel and its right to self-defense, as well as Palestinian aspirations. Conservatives believe in a two-state solution, and will create a trust account at the International Monetary Fund that could be accessed by the Palestinians upon the creation of two states.

He said the Conservatives also support humanitarian aid to Palestinians “provided that aid is consistent with our respect for human rights, our belief in democracy and the rule of law.”

Berman said if Canada takes sides in the Mideast debate, “we take ourselves out of the game. We are no longer seen as a legitimate mediator.”

Mendicino said the Liberals have “tangibly and concretely” strengthened the relationship between Canada and Israel through an expanded free trade agreement, especially in the tech and innovations sector, and in public safety.

On the question of Canada’s role in the world, specifically in China and Afghanistan, “Canada cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities and genocides around the world,” said Chong. “Canada needs to stand for things in the world to ensure that ‘never again’ is not just an empty slogan but is backed up by real action,” he said.

Berman said he was disappointed that instead of working to get people out of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election.

Mendicino countered that Canada has condemned China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority “repeatedly,” including at the UN Human Rights Council, and has sanctioned Chinese officials.

He said Canada evacuated some 3,700 people from Afghanistan, the “vast majority” Afghani refugees.

Asked by Jewish environmentalist Hannah Alper how the candidates would make the voice of youth heard, Berman addressed the issue of climate change, saying “we have to leave oil in the ground. We can’t keep increasing our production. We can’t buy pipelines and increase emissions.”

He said the NDP advocates lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 to empower youth.

Canada needs “tough” actions to reduce its ever-growing emissions, said Chong, who noted this country has failed to meet international targets on environmental benchmarks.

Mendicino called for banning single-use plastic and the planting of two billion trees.

Finally, on fighting COVID, Berman called for everyone to get vaccinated and keep on social distancing and wearing masks wherever new virus variants appear.

Chong called for a cooperative approach among the provinces, and for Canadians to come together to achieve 90-plus per cent vaccination rates.

Addressing recent anti-vaccination protests outside hospitals, Mendicino said a re-elected Liberal government would make it a criminal offence to obstruct access to any building providing health services, including hospitals, vaccine clinics, testing centres, pharmacies, and abortion clinics.