Toronto asked to beef up discrimination policy

Toronto Councillor James Pasternak

TORONTO — The City of Toronto’s executive committee has asked the city manager to strengthen its anti-discrimination policy in the wake of anti-Israel messaging at this summer’s Pride parade.

At its Sept. 10 meeting, the committee heard from various citizens and Jewish groups who want to beef up the policy in order to hold parade organizers more accountable for the groups they allow to take part each year.

The move came in response to the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) in the 2012 parade. The controversial group sat out the 2011 event after threats by the city to revoke nearly $124,000 in funding to Pride if it marched.

QuAIA’s presence at Pride has been denounced by Jewish and pro-Israel organizations since the group first started participating in them four years ago.

After its meeting, the committee issued a four-fold directive to city manager Joe Pennachetti to revise the city’s declaration of compliance to include anti-discriminatory city policies that go beyond provincial and federal statutes and legislation; report back on amendments to the city’s anti-discrimination policy; report on amendments to the city’s grants policy, and consider banning the term “Israeli apartheid” from Pride events as a condition for the city funding 2013 Pride Week.

The last point was tabled in a motion by Ward 10 Councillor James Pasternak.

Pennachetti has until April to report back to council.

Representatives from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) all asked the city to strengthen its anti-discrimination policy.

In 2011, Toronto city council ordered Pennachetti to consider whether QuAIA’s messaging violated the policy and to rewrite it to ban the term “Israeli apartheid” from city-funded programs.

But Pennachetti’s report ruled that the term wasn’t hateful, because it had never been ruled to be hate speech by any court or tribunal.

As a result, Pasternak told The CJN at the time that the rewritten anti-discrimination rules were just a “mish-mash” of the old policy.

Jewish and pro-Israel groups have been reluctant to bring the matter up in court or at the Ontario Human rights Commission.

Howard English, CIJA’s senior vice-president for the greater Toronto region, helped draft his organization’s latest plea to the city. He told The CJN he hopes Pennachetti will revise the policy so that groups such as QuAIA can’t take part in city-sponsored events.

“While it is understandable that city staff would look to the human rights and criminal codes for direction, these statutes should not represent the sole criteria for the city to formulate a policy – whether it involves the Pride Parade or any other event,” CIJA’s deputation reads.

“City policy should be broader than one which is tied only to anti-discrimination considerations. It should rest on other factors, in addition to compliance with provincial and federal statutes.”

One of those “factors” should be the city’s own condemnation of the term “Israeli apartheid,” which it passed last June, CIJA said.

CIJA also asked the city to consider demanding that groups such as Pride be held more accountable for their actions. That would help create “more transparency about the nature of an event for which funding has been approved,” it said.

“After careful consideration of many factors, with the utmost respect for free speech, council would decide to grant, maintain or deny funding to an organization, guided by broader criteria.”

Meanwhile, FSWC asked the city not to “align itself with hate groups” and to “withhold funding from future parades should Pride deem support for hate trumps acceptance and inclusiveness.”

 It said the city let the situation with Pride and QuAIA “fester” for too long.

“Both Pride Toronto and City of Toronto bureaucrats are providing a cover through policy and procedure for hate and intolerant groups to participate in the parade,” FSWC said.

More controversy arose earlier this year when it was revealed that one of the authors of the anti-discrimination policy had previously written for, a left-wing website that routinely characterizes Israel as an apartheid state.

Uzma Shakir, the city’s director of equity, diversity and human rights and who helps draft Toronto’s anti-discrimination policy, posted numerous entries on the website prior to 2010.

In one, she wrote that “Israelis invade, occupy and wage wars in the name of defending a Jewish homeland, and Americans continue to defend their policies of aggression in the name of a state that is firmly grounded in Christianity.”

In another, she wrote that the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah “allegedly question Israel’s right to statehood.”

Interviewed by The CJN last June, Shakir said her personal views did not extend to her professional role with the city, and she downplayed her input into drafting city policy, saying that she was one of many employees involved.

“Senior human rights, access and equity and policy staff, including myself, were involved in writing and editing [the anti-discrimination policy] in consultation with the economic development and culture division, the city solicitor’s office, executive management division and purchasing and materials management division,” Shakir said. “It was further vetted by deputy city managers and the city manager, who signed the report.”

Asked whether CIJA had brought concerns about Shakir up with the executive committee last week, English said his group prefers not to dwell on the issue and wants instead to “move forward productively.”