Ya’ara Saks, the Toronto parliamentarian and minister of mental health, talks about the toll of the war and Canada’s recent actions on the world stage

York Centre MP Ya'ara Saks poses on the Avenue Road bridge for a social media post.

MP Ya’ara Saks’ suburban Toronto riding has been the subject of international attention lately as frequently pro-Palestinian protests have paralyzed traffic in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, along with a fire at a Jewish-owned food store that is currently being investigated as a hate crime.

“It’s been really hard, I don’t think there’s a single member of the Jewish community here who isn’t less than a degree separated from what’s happening in Israel,” Saks, the minister for mental health and addiction, said in a Jan. 11 interview with The CJN.

“To know that they’re struggling with that trauma that continues and to be facing what has been a horrifying escalation in antisemitism here is heartbreaking, it’s devastating. We need to just keep working and chipping away at this, because there is no place for this.”

It can’t be easy being a federal Liberal in some Toronto ridings these days. The government has been criticized by Jewish advocacy groups for a number of recent decisions, including voting for a motion in the United Nations that supported a ceasefire without mentioning the hostages still in Gaza or Hamas. The ongoing funding for UNRWA–the UN agency which supports Palestinians but has been complicit in some of the terror infrastructure in Gaza—has come under scrutiny, as has a plan to offer visas to Gazans with family here.

Some members of the Liberal caucus, notably Anthony Housefather and Marco Mendicino, have publicly disagreed with the government’s stance on a number of issues, including the UN vote. Saks, as a cabinet minister, has the task of explaining and defending her party’s decisions.

Last week, after weeks of complaints from residents and meetings with politicians from all levels of government, including Justin Trudeau, Toronto police chief Myron Demkiw declared the Avenue Road overpass was off-limits to protesters.

Just two days after the Jan. 11 announcement, amid a heavy police presence, three men were arrested on the bridge.

“In the immediate moment that we’re in, of ongoing protests on that bridge that are causing such fear and anger in the community, to know TPS will be stepping up and playing its part enforcing and sending a clear message that this does not belong in our neighbourhoods, is a really, really important message… I’m glad to see the needle moving,” Saks said as she learned of the policy.

Later that day, Saks—who is the first Israeli-Canadian federal cabinet minister—tried to deliver a similar message at a meeting on antisemitism in her riding. While she was describing her outrage and concern that her teenage daughter was evacuated from the TanenbaumCHAT high school because of a bomb threat, she was heckled and booed.

When an audience member came on stage yelling and waving a small Canadian flag, Saks left the platform in the middle of her remarks.

In a wide-ranging interview with The CJN, Saks discussed some recent controversial government decisions and the rationale behind them.

(The CJN’s interview was conducted before the government announced its position on Israel’s case at the International Court of Justice, where South Africa has charged the Jewish state with genocide. While Canada’s statement at first was understood by many observers, including Saks, as supporting Israel, it now appears to be more ambiguous.)  

Canada has “been unwavering in (support for) Israel’s right to defend itself,” Saks said.  

When it came to the non-binding UN vote on Dec. 12, Canada “got ahead” of the situation by signing a statement with Australia and New Zealand, that gave “clear conditions as to what we would envision as a ceasefire… for Hamas to lay down its arms, for hostages to be returned, for civilians to stop being used as human shields and that Hamas would have no role to play in the recovery of Gaza,” Saks said.

The UN vote, which called for a “humanitarian ceasefire” but did not mention either Hamas or the hostages did not reflect the nuanced position of that joint statement. The United States did not vote in favour of the UN motion, but Canada did.

“Two things can be true at the same time,” Saks said.

“One is that Israel has every right to defend itself from the horrors not just from Oct. 7, but the infrastructure that is Hamas as a terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip and the absolute destruction that it has caused not only for Israel for its safety and security but also for Palestinians. Hamas does nothing to protect its own civilian population that it is responsible for.

“But the other is also true, that there is a humanitarian catastrophe happening in Gaza and that must be addressed.”

“I understand that it (the vote) was hurtful to many. I do. As an Israeli myself, this is very personal for me. I have family members who are serving right now. We have lost loved ones in the conflict on Oct. 7 and since then.  And to hold both of those things is very hard and as a government we weigh it out very carefully.”

Saks has also heard from constituents who are leery of the government’s plan to issue visas to Gazans with extended family in Canada.

While Immigration Minister Marc Miller initially said 1,000 Gazans would be allowed to enter, the exact number is unclear, since leaving Gaza, even for Canadian citizens is difficult, Saks said.

Everyone applying to exit will be screened by a consortium of several countries, including Israel, she said.

Israelis are also eligible to benefit from the three-year work and study visas, Saks pointed out. About 800 Israelis came to the Toronto area after Oct. 7, she said. In Montreal, Federation CJA said it was in contact with 37 Israeli households, a total of 107 people.

“While I do understand the deep concerns many in the community feel, there is a very comprehensive security mechanism that existed prior to this war, for anyone leaving through Rafah (in the Gaza Strip) and continues, of which Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are the parties to that security review and we are subject to it as Canada.”

The Liberals’ ongoing support for UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) has also faced critical scrutiny. Under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s contribution to UNRWA dropped to $19 million in 2009, but only to the emergency appeal for food and jobs, and nothing to the general fund, over concerns about the agency’s ties to Hamas.

The Trudeau Liberals reinstated full funding to UNRWA in 2016.

In July 2023, Canada announced it had made a $100-million multi-year commitment to UNRWA. In November, the federal government announced an additional $60 million contribution of humanitarian aid to Gaza, some of which will flow to the UN agency.

Critics have charged in the past that the UN agency does not uphold the principle of neutrality, and that Canada’s oversight has been insufficient.

Since the war started, Israel Defense Forces have discovered tunnels and weapons caches in Gaza close to UNRWA-funded schools and hospitals. A teacher employed by UNRWA was reportedly involved in hiding a kidnapped Israeli in his home, a released hostage has said.

 “We’re reviewing the evidence that has been presented. There will be many aspects of what we see in Gaza that will have to be investigated after this war, and we’ll also have to look at how we rebuild Gaza after this war,” Saks said.

Prior to Oct. 7, Canada had not funded UNRWA’s work in Gaza, and was primarily involved in funding its activities, which include providing health care and education, in the West Bank, she said.

“We don’t know who is going to be administering Gaza the day after the war, that is up for debate at this time. Obviously, if Canada chooses to play a role in that rebuild, we will have very, very, very deep concerns in ensuring that the funding that we put forward is going to where it needs to and without incitement or participation in terrorism or other activities that are harmful to Israeli civilians.”

While the war grinds on in Israel, and the number of hate crimes continues to climb in Toronto, Saks said she’s concerned about the long-term toll on Jewish-Canadians. As the minister for mental health, she’s started talking about how to help the community heal, which could include neighbourhood meetings with social workers or security specialists, she said.

“Every day is Oct. 7 for so many in the community and I do feel strongly that we do have the ability at the federal level, certainly to work with communities. Community resiliency is a huge part of the work that I believe in as part of mental health, and it’s what I’m exploring to see how can we help going forward.”