Tag Archives: Janet Solberg

Stephen Lewis and the NDP’s liberal imperialism

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Brian Mulroney and Stephen Lewis at UN

If the New Democratic Party wants to be part of the solution and not a barrier to creating a better foreign policy it needs to start telling the truth.

Stephen Lewis is a liberal imperialist who largely ignores Canada’s contribution to African subjugation.

Just before the election Svend Robinson for Burnaby North-Seymour published an endorsement from Lewis. The Facebook page for the left-wing NDP candidate noted, “Thanks to the legendary Stephen Lewis for this stellar endorsement!”

The mainstream left’s deification of Lewis reflects its alignment with Canadian imperialism. Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian. He demanded the federal government cancel a major UN conference scheduled for Toronto in 1975 because the Palestine Liberation Organization was granted observer status at the UN the previous year and their representatives might attend. In a 1977 speech to pro-Israel fundraiser United Jewish Appeal, which the Canadian Jewish News titled “Lewis praises [Conservative premier Bill] Davis for Stand on Israel”, Lewis denounced the UN’s “wantonly anti-social attitude to Israel.”

At the NDP’s 2018 convention Lewis’ sister, Janet Solberg, was maybe the loudest anti-Palestinian. Former president of the Ontario NDP and federal council member, Solberg was a long time backroom organizer for her brother and works at the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

Lewis’ wife Michele Landsberg was a staunch anti-Palestinian herself. In one of her latter Toronto Star columns the prominent feminist wrote, “to keep their people primed for endless war, Palestinians have inculcated racist hatred of Jews and of Israel in school texts, official newspaper articles and leaders’ pronouncements, in language so hideous it would have made Goebbels grin.”

I can’t find any evidence of Lewis distancing himself from his or family’s previous anti-Palestinian positions.

Lewis backed the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya. “To forestall debate on Libya, Gaza and NATO in 2011,” wrote Barry Weisleder about the NDP convention that year, “Lewis gave a rhapsodic introduction to the foreign policy selections, during which he bestowed his blessing on the murderous NATO bombing of Libya, purportedly as an antidote to alleged mass rapes attributed to forces of the Ghadaffi regime.” Amnesty and Human Rights Watch couldn’t find evidence of the alleged mass rape. Amnesty senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera, who was in Libya for three months after the start of the uprising, said: “We have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped.” Vehemently opposed by the African Union, the war on Libya destabilizing that country and surrounding states. Tens of thousands were killed and Libya remains at war.

Lewis promoted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine used to justify the 2011 NATO war in Libya and the 2004 overthrow of Haiti’s elected government. R2P is a Canadian promoted high-minded cover for Western imperialism.

During the 2015 tour for my Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation I came across an iPolitics interview with Lewis on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policies in Africa. In it the former UN Special Envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa said Stephen Harper’s government was not doing enough to fight the disease in Africa and decried Canada’s withdrawal from the continent. “It’s heartbreaking. You know what Canada could do. You know the difference we could make,” said Canada’s former Permanent Representative to the UN. But criticizing Harper’s failure to ‘do more’ in Africa was an affront to the victims of Canadian policy on the continent, because asking the Conservative leader for more was like the hen house rooster calling for more foxes. The Conservatives waged war on Libya and worked aggressively to increase the $30 billion Canadian mining sector’s profits at the expense of local African communities. Most troubling of all, Harper’s promotion of heavy carbon emitting tar sands and sabotage of international climate change negotiations was tantamount to a death sentence to ever-growing numbers of Africans.

Yet, on Africa no Canadian is more revered than Lewis. Though he’s widely viewed as a champion of the continent, the standing of the former Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reflects the dearth of critical discussion about Canada’s role in Africa. In fact, rather than advancing African liberation, the long-time member of Canadian and UN policy-making circles represents the critical end of an establishment debate oscillating between neo-conservatives who advocate aggressive, nakedly self-interested policies and those who promote the “Responsibility to Protect”, “do more” worldview.

As I describe in Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada I failed to find any serious criticism Lewis directed at Canadian foreign policies except to deplore Ottawa’s insufficient aid. Lewis has long bemoaned the lack of “support” for Africa all the while ignoring Ottawa and corporate Canada’s contribution to the continent’s impoverishment.

But the staunch advocate of “aid” appears remarkably uninterested in the often self-interested and harmful character of “aid”. He ignores how Ottawa initially began dispersing aid to African countries as a way to dissuade newly independent countries from following wholly independent paths or falling under the influence of the Communist bloc. A big part of Canada’s early assistance went to train militaries, including the Ghanaian military that overthrew (with Ottawa’s backing) pan-Africanist independence leader Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Since the 1980s hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian aid money has gone to support pro-corporate structural adjustment policies and other initiatives benefiting Canada’s rapacious mining industry in Africa.

Lewis all but overlooks his own country’s role in subjugating the continent. I failed to find any comment on the many thousands of Canadian soldiers and missionaries who helped conquer the continent or undermine African cultural ways at the turn of the 19th century. Nor does Lewis seem to have mentioned official Ottawa’s multifaceted support for European colonial rule or Canada’s role in overthrowing progressive post-independence leaders Patrice Lumumba, Milton Obote and Kwame Nkrumah.

On the other hand, Lewis has repeatedly celebrated Canadian foreign policy. When Nelson Mandela died in 2013 Lewis engaged in aggressive mythmaking, boasting about “the intensity of our opposition to apartheid” and “the extraordinary role that Canada had played in fighting apartheid.” But, as I detail here, this is total hogwash.

Lewis’ 2005 book Race Against Time is peppered with praise for Canadian diplomats, lauding Canada’s role in fighting for gender equality at the UN, dubbing businessman-turned diplomat Maurice Strong “the ultimate ubiquitous internationalist” and exalting in “our own Lester Pearson … who negotiated with other Western governments the benchmark of 0.7% of GNP as the legitimate level of foreign aid for all industrial countries.” Despite Lewis citing Pearson’s name glowingly, the longtime diplomat, external minister and prime minister’s foreign-policy record dripped with blood, as I detail in Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: the Truth May Hurt.

Contrasting the ‘left’ reputation of Lewis in international affairs with his contentious history inside the domestic left reveals a great deal about the state of foreign policy discussion.

As head of the Ontario NDP, Lewis purged the Waffle (or Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada) from the provincial party in 1972. At the time many leftists criticized his role in expelling the Waffle from the party and some activists remain critical of Lewis for doing so to this day. In an article titled “On the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the Waffle” Michael Laxer eviscerates Lewis for driving activists from the NDP. While his move to expel the Waffle continues to be debated, criticism of Lewis largely dried up as he shifted towards the international scene (as Brian Mulroney’s ambassador to the UN, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director and UN Special Envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa). Yet, I believe most progressives, if they understood the implication of his positions on Africa, would find more common ground with Lewis’ domestic positions. On domestic policy Lewis has at times forthrightly criticized Canada’s power structures, broadly supports labour against capital and would largely reject charity as a model of social service delivery/poverty alleviation.

But, there’s at least some culture of holding politicians/public commentators accountable for their concessions to the dominant order on domestic issues so Lewis has faced some criticism. On Africa the situation is quite different. When it comes to the “dark continent” any prominent person’s charitable endeavor, call for increased “aid” or criticism of a geopolitical competitor is sufficient to win accolades. In an article titled “Africa in the Canadian media: The Globe and Mail’s coverage of Africa from 2003 to 2012” Tokunbo Ojo provides an informative assessment of the paper’s coverage of Lewis. Ojo writes, “built into this moralizing media gaze is the ‘white man’s burden’ imagery, and the voice of Canadian Stephen Lewis, a campaigner against HIV/AIDS, effectively symbolised this imagery in the coverage. Metaphorically, Lewis was framed as the iconic [19th century liberal missionary] ‘David Livingstone’ in campaigns against HIV/AIDS in Africa.”

It is long past time the NDP confront its pro-imperialist, missionaries-as-good-guys past and present.

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NDP Suppresses Palestinian Solidarity Again

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Rana Zaman

One side is playing for keeps. They oust elected representatives and block members from voting on efforts to challenge a brutal occupation. On the other side, members defending a morally righteous cause twist themselves in knots to avoid directly criticizing nakedly authoritarian party leaders.

Recently, the NDP national office overturned the vote of party members in Dartmouth-Cole Harbour after they elected Rana Zaman to represent the ridding in the upcoming federal election. Party ‘leaders’ excluded the Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage from running because she defended thousands of Palestinians mowed down by Israeli snipers during last year’s “Great March of Return” in the open-air Gaza prison. A prominent local activist, Zaman represented the party provincially in 2017.

In May the leadership of the Ontario NDP blocked a resolution on Palestinian rights from being debated at their biannual convention. According to party member Moe Alqasem, the resolution “was pushed to the very bottom of its list of resolutions on block 4” despite having “as many endorsements as the top resolution on that same list … The appeals committee refused to re-prioritize it on the list, a speech was given in favor of the re-prioritization and the room erupted into cheers and chants for a few minutes. The committee’s decision was next to be challenged on the main floor of the convention, but the chair ‘conveniently’ decided that we were behind on time. There were several attempts to amend the agenda or the order-of-the-day to allow for the membership to challenge the committee’s decision again, conveniently however the chair decided that it was not possible. The chair spent 20 minutes refusing us the opportunity to speak for 1 minute on the resolution. Knowing full well that the membership was supportive of Palestine. Later on during that convention, somehow the order-of-the-day was amended in favour of another resolution and the committee’s decision was challenged in front of the general membership. Several other rules were amended, the same privileges were not afforded to the Palestinians and the Palestine-Solidarity members within the party.”

Recently, the NDP hierarchy undermined former Toronto mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi’s bid to represent the party in Parkdale-High Park possibly because she signed an open letter calling on the NDP to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group. The national office took 141 days to vet her candidacy, giving her only 23 days to sign up new members to vote. Then a good number of the 400 members she registered were disenfranchised beforehand and at the riding association vote. At the centre of the sordid affair was Parkdale-High Park president Janet Solberg who was maybe the loudest anti-Palestinian at the NDP’s 2018 federal convention. According to Myles Hoenig, “Janet Solberg, sister of Stephen Lewis, leader of the Ontario NDP for most of the 70s who kicked out the leftist contingent known as The Waffle, played a leadership role in officiating this election. In a 3 way call to the candidates, she openly expressed her hostility to Saron by stating how she won’t support her.” A former Ontario NDP president, vice president and federal council member, Solberg pushed to suppress debate on the “Palestine Resolution: renewing the NDP’s commitment to peace and justice”, which was endorsed by more than two dozen riding associations before the federal convention. The motion mostly restated official Canadian policy, except that it called for “banning settlement products from Canadian markets, and using other forms of diplomatic and economic pressure to end the occupation.”

Six months after suppressing the Palestine Resolution, NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière and party leader Jagmeet Singh participated in an unprecedented smear against one of Canada’s most effective advocates for Palestinian rights. After Dimitri Lascaris called on two Liberal MPs to denounce death threats made by B’nai B’rith supporters against a number of Liberal MPs and the Prime Minister, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs called on MPs to attack him, prompting Laverdière to call Lascaris “anti-Semitic” while Singh inferred as much.

In the lead up to the 2015 federal election the NDP leadership ousted as many as eight individuals from running or contesting nominations to be candidates because they publicly defended Palestinian rights. The most high-profile individual blocked from seeking an NDP nomination was Paul Manly, a filmmaker and son of a former NDP MP. Manly recently delivered a blow to the NDP by winning the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection as a candidate for the Green Party.

In another Palestine-related development, four NDP MPs (quietly) withdrew from the Canada Israel Interparliamentary Group (CIIG). They did not do so because someone politely convinced them it was immoral to participate in a group promoting “greater friendship” with a belligerent, apartheid, state, but because they were directly challenged through an open letter signed by more than 200 prominent individuals, as well as other campaigning.

NDP MP Randall Garrison remains vice-chair of CIIG and a prominent anti-Palestinian voice within the party. Any NDP activist with an internationalist bone in their body should hope Victoria-area Palestine solidarity campaigners help defeat him in the October election. There must be a price to pay for egregious anti-Palestinianism. In a similar vein, individuals such as Solberg should be confronted on their anti-Palestinianism.

At the end of May I learned Jagmeet Singh was making a major announcement in Montréal. With a hastily drawn placard in my bag, I attended thinking of interrupting the event to decry NDP participation in CIIG and suppression of the 2018 Palestine Resolution. I hesitated for a series of reasons, notably a sense that disrupting a major announcement by the social democratic party was too extreme. I now regret not walking in front of the cameras to denounce NDP anti-Palestinianism at the launch of their climate plan. Unfortunately, this is the type of action required to force party leaders to have second thoughts about blithely ousting pro-Palestinian candidates and suppressing debate on resolutions opposing Palestinian subjugation. NDP leaders fear anti-Palestinian individuals and groups’ no holds barred brand of politics. They need to know the Palestine solidarity side is also prepared to ruffle feathers.

Enough of walking on egg shells. In Alqasem’s devastating report about the Ontario NDP suppressing discussion of a resolution upholding Palestinian rights he begins by letting the perpetrators off the hook. He writes, “the following is not an attack on the membership, the party or administrators within.” But, how can one not politically “attack” the NDP “administrators” who just suppressed internal democracy in order to enable the subjugation of a long-suffering people?

After the federal convention 18 months ago I wrote: “Over the next year NDPers who support Palestinian rights and care about party democracy should hound the leadership over their suppression of the Palestine Resolution. Every single elected representative, staffer, riding association executive and party activist needs to be prodded into deciding whether they side with Palestinian rights and party democracy or suppressing the Palestine Resolution and enabling ongoing Canadian complicity in Palestinian dispossession.” These words still ring true, even if they may trouble many pro-Palestinian elements within the party (recent developments should be added to the discussion, of course).

For those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but reluctant to openly challenge the party leadership, ask yourself these two questions:

Since polling reveals a higher percentage of Canadians support Palestinian rights than vote for the NDP federally, why won’t party officials allow a clear statement of support for Palestinian liberation?

Is there a point when explicitly antidemocratic behavior that contributes to Palestinian subjugation will no longer be tolerated in a party claiming the mantra of social justice?

It is time the NDP leadership listened to its membership.

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Filed under Canada and Israel, Israel, Middle East