When it comes to Canadian policy, some lives, it seems, are simply worth more than others.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza since October 7 has killed more than 8300 Palestinian civilians — among them 3400 children. Thousands more are injured, and 1.4 million are homeless. That’s a staggering 2.2 million Palestinian civilians— with no water, fuel, food, or medical supplies, held captive in what some academics and journalists have referred to as a concentration camp.
Scrolling through social media, the images are horrifying. Lifeless babies shrouded in white, surrounded by grieving parents and desperate doctors, who say they have no more supplies to treat the many badly burned child survivors of Israeli airstrikes. I’m in tears, feeling as powerless as the little boy covered in dust and debris, shaking, and finally breaks down as a doctor holds him tight.
The dead and decaying bodies of more than 1000 Palestinians are trapped beneath the rubble of bombed homes. Not only are families unable to perform last rites and bury their loved ones in accordance with tradition, this also contributes to unsanitary conditions for the living. The shortage of body bags, crowding of emergency shelters, combined with scarce clean water and inadequate sanitation, create a dire environment with a high risk of disease outbreak.
For most Canadian policy-makers, this sea of human suffering seems to merit little empathy or political action. Our government does not appear to want to stop the bombing of Gaza or find a just and lasting peace in the face of 70-plus years of systemic violence and colonial oppression.
Last week, Canada’s UN envoy, Bob Rae and Minister of Defence Bill Blair rejected calls for a ceasefire, while our prime minister and minister of foreign affairs have called for “humanitarian pauses.” But such a policy will do little to ease suffering among Palestinians who are unable, or unwilling, to leave their ancestral land.
I mourn the loss of any innocent life, whether Palestinian or Israeli. Militants absolutely should not have targeted and killed 1094 Israeli civilians, many in a brutal manner, while injuring thousands more and taking hundreds hostage.
Yet there is a difference in how Canadian policy-makers have treated the brutal killings of Palestinian and Israeli civilians, which highlights how Palestinian lives are particularly devalued in this country. We need to do some soul-searching about why.
On Monday, Hamilton-Centre MPP Sarah Jama, a 29-year-old disabled, Black and Muslim woman, was ejected from the Ontario NDP caucus by leader Marit Stiles and barred by the Doug Ford Ontario government from speaking in legislature. Her crime? Calling for a ceasefire, naming Israel’s policy of apartheid, and occupation of Palestinian lands, while stating unequivocally that Palestinian lives matter, too. (According to Stiles, Jama was removed for “unilateral actions,” including that her public statements on the issue were not approved by the leader’s office)
It’s important to remember not all groups are treated this way in Canadian politics and policy. The federal government recently reaffirmed its enthusiastic financial and military support for Ukraine as it faces off against a disproportionately more powerful occupier — Russia. Canadians are also free to join Ukrainian militias, reports say, with no monitoring by the RCMP or CSIS. We must ask ourselves, what might factor into these policy decisions?
We also saw how protestors opposing the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians — many of whom are Palestinian or racialized — were equated with terrorism by municipal leaders, including newly elected “progressive” Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow. Meanwhile, demonstrations by white nationalists have received support from police and parliamentarians alike.
Now, we are also seeing reports of world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden doubting the “neutrality” of the disturbingly high numbers of Palestinian casualties. Such concerns dismiss Palestinian suffering, and delegitimize Palestinian human rights organizations and journalists — doubts that are rarely raised about information sources that are considered white, such as European or American sources.
To be sure, these policy positions — treating racialized groups differentially — are not unusual for Canada, given its foundations as a settler colonial state.
We know that certain racial groups are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system and national security policy. This country also has a disgraceful and ongoing history of forced resettlement, health, education and child welfare policies, grounded in the “logics of elimination,” aimed at removing Indigenous peoples from their lands.
Resulting from this is an epidemic of disappeared Indigenous women, to which governments often ignore the cries for justice by refusing to take policy action. These decisions are built upon false tropes about Indigenous peoples as primitive, dangerous, and in need of “civilizing,” which normalize the harms they experience, devaluing their lives.
There are many parallels to be drawn in the treatment of Palestinians.
And this logic is at the core of racism. The humanity of peoples who are constructed as white and European is deemed inherently more valuable and worthy of intervention, solidarity, and condemnation, than that of non-white Others.
We’ve collectively said, “never again” many times in recent history. But we are allowing it to happen again, this time to the Palestinian people.
If there was ever a moment to reconsider how certain lives are assigned less value within Canadian policy, it is now.
Sanaa Ali-Mohammed is a human rights advocate and policy researcher pursuing a PhD in Policy Studies.