Dear Mayor and Council,
City Hall, Toronto
The Seriously Free Speech Committee is a Vancouver based group, committed to free expression of views on Israel/Palestine. Members are concerned about growing intimidation, censorship and legal threats against individuals and organizations who criticize Israel’s actions. You can look at our activities at www.seriouslyfreespeech.ca From a distance we in the Seriously Free Speech Committee have followed the sad business of the threats aimed at the organizers of Toronto’s Pride Parade should they have the temerity to allow a contingent of activists called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march in it.
Having some sense of Toronto’s history it seems both a tragedy and an irony to see the administration of Toronto reverting to the days of such objectionable figures as Chief Constable Denis Draper and mayors of the stripe of Sam McBride and William Stewart. You, no doubt have access to archives and researchers and it might be useful to look up these gentlemen. Draper was the founder of the Red Squad and notorious for banning street corner speeches, speeches in any language other than English and the use of threats to prevent radical political meetings in the late twenties and early thirties. In those days there was a real problem with anti-Semitism in Toronto, an anti Semitism that was more than tolerated by the municipal government. This was when signs forbidding “Jews and dogs” from entering establishments were not uncommon, the days when the Balmy Beach Swastika Club tried to prevent Jews, among others, from using public beaches.
Of course, this might seem like ancient history, relegated to the archivists and not part of any living experience. Perhaps, but closer to our times and remembered well by many, is the repressive attitude of Toronto’s police force and its politicians to the Gay community in the fifties, sixties, seventies and most notably in 1981. It could not escape our notice that the attempt to ban Queers Against Israeli Apartheid was in the context of the thirtieth anniversary Gay Pride. The first one began as a protest against the infamous bath house raids of February 1981. In these raids almost 300 men were arrested at three establishments. It was the largest arrest since the repressive raids in Quebec during the War Measures Act in 1970. A March protest against these raids was called Gay Freedom Rally and led to Gay Pride Week. By the way, it would be nice to say that this was the last time such a violation of human rights occurred in Toronto but in September of 2000 an all male contingent of Toronto police raided a women’s bathhouse. Names were taken, no charges were laid and no officers disciplined.
Now Pride Week is a welcome event in Toronto, a big tourist draw and showpiece of Toronto the tolerant, as opposed to the old “Toronto the Good”. Yet some of Toronto’s old repressive tradition lingers on at City Hall. The shenanigans of Rob Ford- first as councilor and now as mayor- and others remind us that the impulse to condemn and restrict “the other” is still with us. The facts that these attacks have, in the past, been unleashed on ‘Communists, Jews and homosexuals’ is almost too tempting to resist analogies. Our point, however, is that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are in a tradition of those who have advocated for something that was not mainstream and that the attempt to silence them is in the worst tradition of Toronto. We suggest that the members of council familiarize themselves with the history of the fight to think, speak, believe, and love ‘differently’ before they attempt to ban those views from public events. Their predecessors who tried failed, and the very event they seek to ban QAIA from is proof of the futility of this kind of activity. Now that the dust of this year’s Pride Week has cleared, it is a good time to reflect on how council should act in the future.
On behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee,