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February 27, 2012

Hitman Jason Kenney strikes again

Haroon Siddiqui

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Before we get on with this column, here is its context: We are familiar with the Stephen Harper government's penchant for blackballing its critics - for example, calling Jack Layton "Taliban Jack" for suggesting talks with the Taliban, precisely what NATO is doing.

The government fired or muzzled civil servants, even independent monitors who did not follow orders. It cut off funding to groups that deviated from government orthodoxy on Israel — for example, Kairos, the ecumenical group, and the Canadian Arab Federation, two organizations sympathetic to Palestinians, something that’s heresy to the Harperites.

The government’s appointees to the board of Montreal-based Rights and Democracy (established by Brian Mulroney to advance human rights abroad) ruined the organization because it had given three small grants to two Palestinian and one Israeli human rights group critical of Israeli policies.

Now, here’s the government’s latest scandal.

It is cutting nearly $1 million in funding to the Mississauga-based Palestine House, an educational and cultural centre established in 1994. The federal money is not for the centre per se. Rather it is for English language training and immigrant settlement services, including skills development and daycare, for about 1,100 newcomers a year.

In December, the centre received a letter from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. He accused it of having “a history of taking positions that could be interpreted as extreme or supportive of terrorists and terrorism” (emphasis mine).

He cited three instances “that could arguably be seen as extreme”:

• “the presence on your website of a map showing a Palestinian state encompassing all of Israel.”

• An Oct. 8 event marking the release by Israel of about 1,000 prisoners in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit. The freed included “convicted terrorists and at least one individual who murdered two Canadian citizens.”

• In March 2010, the centre hosted the London-based journalist Abdul Bari Atwan, a frequent commentator on the BBC and speaker at conferences. Kenney said that Atwan had made a statement in 2007 that he would celebrate if Iranians missiles hit Israel.

The centre responded in a Dec. 28 letter:

The “map” is not exactly a map. It’s a logo that shows the outline of the ancestral land of the Palestinians. It does not even mention Palestine. Still, if the minister has strong feelings, the logo can be dropped.

The October event was not in support of any specific prisoner but rather for all those released. Many had been political prisoners. “Over 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel since 1967, the vast majority for political reasons . . . tried and convicted in military rather than civilian courts.”

The letter said that the centre was not aware of Atwan’s 2007 statement and, in any case, “does not support it.”

The answers had no impact on Kenney, whose mind was obviously already made up. He wrote on Jan. 31 to say that the government will not renew its funding that ends March 31.

Barbara Jackman is the Toronto lawyer who has taken Kenney to court for his 2010 axing of funding to the Canadian Arab Federation. That case is in the Federal Court.

She told me yesterday: “Palestine House, as also the Canadian Arab Federation, have long provided ESL and other immigrant settlement services — a completely apolitical activity — and both were doing a good job. Their funding was cut not because they were not doing the job or not delivering the services but because this government and this minister, in particular, do not like their political views.”

Firas Saleh, the executive director, said the centre had been “audited regularly and that Ottawa had found no irregularity, either financially or with the services provided.”

“The centre’s policy has been to never let politics colour the service we provide. Political positions or views are never part of the interaction with our clients,” he said.

“The government also knows that all the public funding goes to those services. Not a penny has gone to the centre’s cultural activities.

“We are just the latest victim” of the government’s vendetta against anyone who dares question Israeli policies.

The biggest victims are the immigrants and those who provide services to them.

Twenty-one employees are losing their jobs. A majority are not of Arab origin.

And the 100 ESL students and the 1,000 immigrants served hail from different religious, racial, ethnic and linguistic groups. “A majority are Canadians of Chinese origin.”

The Star, Published on February 15, 2012

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.

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