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Cultural leaders respond to Xtra censorship warning


Cultural leaders respond to Xtra censorship warning

The city's executive committee recently voted to ban the words Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. IMAGE 1 OF 2
Wong-Tam says move to ban 'Israeli apartheid' is attack on free expression
The leaders of Toronto’s major cultural organizations are drafting a letter to declare support for Pride Toronto (PT) following a move by the city’s executive committee to ban the phrase “Israeli apartheid.”

The show of solidarity is a direct response to a Sept 20 open letter written by Xtra assignment editor Danny Glenwright alerting them to the ban and its possible implications on funding for the arts.

PT co-chair Francisco Alvarez says the issue was discussed at a meeting of the city’s “majors,” those 10 arts festivals and organizations that receive funding from the city.

“[The letter] is basically going to say that freedom of expression is extremely important, and we support allowing artists to speak about what they need to speak about,” he says. “It’s going to respond to the editorial, saying the majors support Pride and not this effort to limit free speech.”

Alvarez says the letter will be released “imminently.”

The group, which includes key people from the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Opera Company, also posted a response under the editorial on Xtra's website. "We have read the open letter you sent to Toronto’s major cultural organizations. As public institutions dedicated to artistic expression, we consider freedom of expression to be an essential element of our mandate," the comment states. 

Council's executive-committee motion asked the city manager to redraft the city’s anti-discrimination policy to include a ban on the words “Isreali apartheid.”

But Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says the motion goes even further and if passed would allow the city to police speech and expression.

“There’s another layer to the amendment. It’s saying there are certain expressions that will not be acceptable. They really cross this line to become the morality police.”

The new language could open the door for people to complain about anything they find offensive, she says. “The [phrase] 'Israeli apartheid' is one piece, but there’s also language in the motion that sets a framework that allows people to complain if there’s anything that offends them, so it’s about judgment and morality. To me it goes way beyond the words ‘Israeli apartheid.’ That’s what’s scary.”

Wong-Tam says the city’s major cultural festivals understand the importance of free speech and free expression. “There are so many things in arts and culture that could be offensive to many people, but it’s still art and culture . . . Where does one draw the line? Who decides?”

The city manager is expected to report back to the executive committee in February.

“I want to start community dialogue to ask what this means. What is this language supposed to do to our arts and grant qualifications at the city?” Wong-Tam says. 

In the meantime, she is seeking an outside legal opinion.

“I want to know if this will contravene any laws in Canada. I don’t know,” she says. “What is this new grey area we are going into, and who is giving us the right to put limitations on cultural expression?

“In this case, it’s not an extension of rights, but rather a repeal of certain rights for some people.”

For those reasons, Wong-Tam says, the city’s major cultural festivals are right to be concerned about how limitations on speech will affect the festivals. Just this year, for example, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) screened When I Saw You, a film by Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian director who has openly used the word "apartheid" to describe the situation in her homeland.

“It’s a legitimate and valid concern, and they deserve answers,” Wong-Tam says. “They are coming together with a unified response. Also, the other cultural community, who may not be under the banner of a major, should also take note. It’s not just the majors that are at risk.”

For now, Alvarez says PT is arranging meetings with councillors to gauge how they plan to vote.

“We’re hoping to get a meeting with the city manager when they begin working on that report,” he says. “So hopefully, we can put our input into it, and they will understand what the ramifications for us will be.”

Wong-Tam is also warning people about another motion passed this week at council that could end up being a “loophole for another attack on Pride.”

Councillor Cesar Palacio requested an evaluation of a number of city events, including Pride, she says. Palacio wants a detailed analysis of how city funding and in-kind services are used for various parades.

“We know how the mayor feels about funding parades, so I’m actually wondering if this is a Trojan horse,” she says. “I spoke to [Palacio] and he assures me that it’s not, but I could see it being an open door again for this administration [to attack Pride]. Before the election the mayor was challenging the funding for any type of parade.”
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Jeff - thanks for including the link to the Xtra article, which was precisely the piece I had in mind when I posted my comment above. And thanks for that second link; I hadn't realized that Xtra's sycophancy toward QuAIA was based on anything other than earnest naivete, but apparently so.

In the meantime, while QuAIA has managed to successfully turn Toronto Pride (and everything else) into a forum for Mid-East politics, I'm willing to bet hard cash that not a single Palestinian - queer or otherwise - living in Gaza or the West Bank has actually seen their situation improve as a result of this drama. But at least a bunch of white, western activists with no ties to the region can feel better about themselves, and isn't that the most important thing?
Not as simple as it seems...
Jim, Jeff, Brent and Ken,

If you actually look at the practice of Israeli laws and the distinction between Arabs and Jews when it comes to land ownership and weapons licensing (Israel is a militarized state, let's not forget), there is clearly a two-tiered legal system based on "race" / religion. I know you would rather think of Israel as an oasis for queers surrounded by bearded fanatics, so I'll just leave my comment at that because I don't want to challenge the precious ontological certitude of intellectual slobs who can't be bothered to color their analysis beyond "anyone who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic".
Free speech not hate speech
The real issue is that we're all supposed to hate Israel, even if it means upsetting Jews. This would be unthinkable for any other group. Ultimately it's just a revival of ancient anti-semitism and feeds directly into the virulent anti-semitism that is awash in the Muslim world
Bren, I doubt very much that Xtra will oppose QuAIA's latest efforts to exclude gay Israeli films from gay film festivals in Canada. In fact, Xtra covered QuAIA's efforts against Israeli films at the Vancouver LGBT film festival in August, but did not write an editorial against them. See: http://www.xtra.ca/public/Vancouver/Activists_protest_inclusion_of_Israelibacked_films_in_Queer_Film_Festival-12456.aspx Xtra's bias in favour of QuAIA is rooted in the past. Tim McCaskill (one of the leaders of QuAIA) and Ken Popert (the head of Pink Triangle Press, Xtra's owner) go back a long time. In the 1970s, they both worked on The Body Politic, a gay newspaper that was the predecessor to Xtra. Source: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/bodypolitic/bphistory/collectivefigures.htm So, it's not surprising that Xtra has been a constant supporter of the antics of QuAIA and Tim McCaskill.
On geese and ganders
This year, QuAIA pressured the Vancouver Queer Film Festival not to show the Israeli film _The Invisible Men_, urging VQFF to join the cultural boycott of Israel. As Xtra West reported, VQFF's director hasn't dismissed the call to exclude queer Israeli voices from VQFF next year. I'm keeping an eye on this story, and I hope Xtra takes as strong a position against censorship when it's QuAIA calling for it.
Easier way to reach the politicians
If you want to support freedom of speech and the Pride Committee you should be sending your letters to the City Clerk - Executive Committee at
and make the subject:
Re: Executive Committee, item EX22.4, City Anti-Discrimination Policy

That is a lot easier than cc'ing your email to all 45 politicians.
Tiresome QuAIA
To Ms. Wong-Tam - There's a fine line between Freedom of Speech and Hate Mongering...and QuAIA has cast a pall over the last few Prides. I live in the district you represent. Please do not knock on my door soliciting my vote when you run for re-election. You got my vote last time; you ain't getting it ever again.
Free Speech? Now that's rich
coming from Wong-Tam considering her support for the campaign to "clean up" the "dirty" mostly Gay Male expression (jockstraps, hands on dicks etc.) of POSTERING in the Village. As Wong-Tam says...".. . Where does one draw the line? Who decides?” Who decides, indeed. Next!
Free speech vs taxpayer-funded speech
Groups like QuAIA that demonize Jews living in Israel, have freedom of speech. They just shouldn't expect the City of Toronto to use taxpayer money to fund it at Pride. Freedom of speech doesn't mean that there are no consequences to what you say. For example, you have the freedom to insult your employer, but you shouldn't be surprised if he, she or ze fires you. After all, why would they give money to someone who insults them? Similarly, you have freedom to make racist statements in public, but you shouldn't be surprised if you are shunned by those around you. If QuAIA wants to demonize Jews living in Israel and Pride board of directors allows it during Pride parades, they shouldn't be surprised if the City stops funding Pride. I also think Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam is being hypocritical on this issue: I doubt she'd support City funding of a parade where people marched with signs, banners, T-shirts and chants designed to demonize Asians or lesbians living in Canada or any other country.
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