A member of Free Palestine Tri-Cities speaking before Port Moody council on Feb. 27. freepalestinetricitiesbc Instagram photo.Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Following allegations that Free Palestine activists engaged in threatening online behaviour, Port Moody council has rescinded a motion supporting the federal government’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The reversal occurred at an emergency meeting on Thursday, March 28, just two days after council had decided to approve a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly.

Mayor Meghan Lahti said council’s decision to weigh in on a non-jurisdictional issue was a “mistake.”

“We can not sit back and let this happen on our watch. Not for another second,” Lahti said. “This motion has been co-opted by a group that has spread hate.”

The motion in question, which passed 6-1, was a alternative version of what the Free Palestine Tri-Cities delegation had requested on March 26.

It supported the federal government’s official line, calling for an immediate ceasefire and permanent peace solution, unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, the release of all hostages, the return of all Canadian citizens in Gaza, and support for restrictions on new arms exports to Israel.

But Lahti said that shortly after the meeting, council members and residents who had spoken against the motion were targeted by members of the delegation.

She said detractors were labelled Zionists, supporters of genocide, and a veiled threat was made against the child of one councillor.

Additionally, the motion has caused some city committees members to quit, and other Jewish residents have informed council that they don’t feel safe around certain councillors, according to Lahti.

Tuesday’s delegation was a somber affair. Well over a dozen supporters of the delegation provided personal accounts, and detailed specific atrocities and war crimes the Israeli government stands accused of by a raft of international and non-governmental observers. One speaker said over 25 members of his family in Gaza have been killed.

Conversely, three residents spoke against the motion, stating it would only serve to divide the community, noting anti-semitism is on the rise, and council should not take stances on international conflicts.

The delegates had asked council’s letter to acknowledge Israel is practicing apartheid; support the BC Teachers Federation’s initiative to have the Nakba added to school curriculums; advocate for an end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories; and support South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. 

They reminded council of a similar letter sent on behalf of its Ukrainian residents regarding the Russian invasion of 2022.

However, council opted to vote on an alternative motion introduced by Coun. Samantha Agtarap, which simply affirmed the Office of Foreign Affairs’ position.

Although some councillors said they were conflicted about taking any stance, they acquiesced to the motion due on humanitarian grounds after hearing the delegate’s speak.

While its approval was celebrated by the Free-Palestine Tri-Cities group on social media, some members allegedly lashed at those who had opposed sending a letter.

The sole vote against the motion came from Coun. Callan Morrison, who said he was concerned there would fallout from weighing in on a sensitive issue outside the city’s jurisdiction. That was the federal government’s wheelhouse, he said.

Within hours, he claimed his social media accounts were flooded with hateful messages calling him Islamophobic.

Morrison said one Instagram comment by a Free Palestine BC member  – which he took as a veiled threat – stated: “Imagine if the white baby in your hands was killed. Your opinion would change quickly because she’s white.”

“My wife was absolutely mortified, she didn’t feel safe,” Morrison said. “How are we supposed to find common ground if you’re villainized if you happen to disagree?”

An example of some of the comments left on Coun. Callan Morrison’s Instagram page.

Coun. Kyla Knowles, who voted in favour of the motion but voiced some reservations, said she also received a “mountain of hate” online.

She alleged delegates who said they risked their jobs by speaking out, invoked the suffering of children, and preached peace and anti-racism, were now hypocritically threatening councillors’ careers and children with racist attacks.

“I cannot in good conscience agree to send a letter to our federal government on behalf of a group that does not practice what it preaches, and is actively stoking fear, hatred and division in our community,” Knowles said. “I regret not listening to my gut on this one.”

Coun. Diana Dilworth said council had been “painted into a corner” by the delegation, but thought they had taken a balanced approach.

She said has no tolerance for any further division.

“I was naive. I actually thought when we were in council chambers, we were having an open conversation about humanity about peace,” Dilworth said. “Those same speakers went on social media and threw hate.”

Backlash was also experienced from Jewish community members; the reason some committee members had quit was due to perceived anti-Semitism on council, according to Knowles.

Several Jewish and Palestinian residents had reached out to Lahti following Tuesday’s meeting, which she said better informed her position.

Lahti said while it cannot be understated that Palestinians have suffered disproportionately in the conflict, the letter would align them with a movement, and there are two sides in pain.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what our good intentions were. It doesn’t matter what the words were in that motion, what matters is how it has impacted our community,” Lahti said.

The vote to rescind the motion was not universal, however.

Couns. Agtarap, Amy Lubik and Haven Lurbiecki condemned any online harassment taking place, but all stuck by their original position.

The format of the emergency meeting was called “unacceptable” by Lurbiecki, because council was forced to reopen discussions without any evidence to review beforehand.

Lurbiecki said the inappropriate actions of some individuals are irrelevant to the substance of the motion, noting it was introduced by council itself.

“If we want to bring people together in our community, this is not how we do it,” she said. “If we’re going to have an emergency debate over something, I think that (evidence) would be a basic need … because there are very serious claims that are being made.”

The Free Palestine Tri-Cities group is different from the Free Palestine BC group, Lubik noted. adding she reached out to the local delegates to get clarity.

She said she reached out to the local delegates for clarity, stating they were unaware of the harassing comments, expressed “dismay” upon hearing of what was occurring, and offered to contact the larger Free Palestine BC group.

Lubik added Free Palestine BC issued a statement apologizing, which claimed the comments perceived as threats were actually cries for empathy.

A “knee jerk” reaction from council would not solve anything, Lubik said.

“We can’t assume that everyone was part of the same group,” she said. “I really think it’s important we don’t conflate the people who asked us to advocate stopping violence with people who are lashing out.”

Morrison and Knowles both disagreed with Lubik’s framing. Free Palestine Tri-Cities had liked the comments on his social media page, according to Morrison, while Knowles said Free Palestine BC’s statement did not contain an apology.

Agtarap reiterated that her motion is completely in line with the official position of Canada, the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly. 

She quoted a statement from Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, which said the status quo in Gaza is completely unsustainable from a humanitarian perspective. 

“I will not be bullied into changing my mind,” Agtarap said. “My vote for peace will never change.”

A separate motion was introduced by Lahti, who said council needs to bridge the divide in the community. It calls for facilitating a safe space for dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian residents. The vote was deferred until the next meeting on April 9.

By Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 29, 2024 at 19:02

This item reprinted with permission from   Tri-Cities Dispatch   Coquitlam, British Columbia

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