Canadian aboriginal activist stands up to Israel

Canadian First Nations chief boards Gaza flotilla to protest against worldwide scourge of colonialism.

Rally in Gaza in support of the third Gaza Freedom Flotilla
Palestinians carry Palestinian flags on their boats as they gather at the Gaza coast in support of the third Gaza Freedom Flotilla [Getty]

Robert Lovelace is still haunted by the Palestinian refugees in the grainy newsreels he saw as a boy.

Not surprising. For this former Ardoch Algonquin First Nations chief, the footage conjured up images from Canadian history’s darkest chapters – indigenous people being driven from their land and onto reserves.

“Those newsreels left a mark on me,” he tells Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “These people who were homeless, carrying everything that they had. So I have always been interested in what has been going on in the Middle East.”

Lovelace, 67, is an aboriginal activist and semi-retired Global Development Studies professor at Queen’s University just south of his ancestral land in Ontario.

Video from activists on board Canadian flotilla ship

A father of eight, he has stood up against governments and corporations which have attempted to mine his people’s land, contaminate their water and plunder their sacred wild rice beds.

Standing up to Israel

Now he is standing up to Israel as he makes his way to Gaza on the third Freedom Flotilla. It’s a peaceful civil armada with some 50 crew and passengers from about 20 countries, sailing to focus world attention on the 1.8 million Palestinians illegally trapped by Israel in the Gaza Strip.

Lovelace is aboard the lead vessel, the Marianne of Gothenberg that left the Sicilian port of Messina late last Friday.

As he posted on his Facebook log: “We had divers that were paid for by the municipality of Messina to go under the boat and check it out to make sure that there was no sabotage that had taken place while we were in the harbour.”

Smart move. That’s because this is his second attempt to sail to Gaza, having previously tried in 2011 on the Canadian boat, the Tahrir which was not only sabotaged but was seized in international waters by the Israeli navy. Its cargo of medical supplies was taken while the activists on board were arrested.

Lovelace sees the parallels between Palestine and Canada’s First Nations. Land theft, occupation, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, containment, and restriction of movement…


But nothing will stop him from going again.

“It’s a really important cause; it’s a non-violent way of demonstrating that there’s an illegal blockade,” Lovelace maintains.

Joining him and the international cast of activists, academics, and politicians are retired Quebec labour organiser Christian Martel, who is representing the province’s biggest trade unions as well as a number of NGOs, Montreal-based Ehab Lotayef, an engineer and writer who also sailed on the Tahrir, and Kevin Neish, who was on board the Mavi Marmara when nine Turkish activists were killed during a violent attack by Israel.

‘Unnecessary provocation’

Most controversially, at least in Israel, is the participation of Knesset member Dr Basel Ghattas. That’s because the foreign ministry asserts that the flotilla is an “unnecessary provocation” and that Ghattas “is serving the enemy”.

Asked why it’s important to set sail again, David Heap, the Canadian linguistics professor who mobilised the Tahrir and is one of this flotilla’s organisers, recalls that noted African-American author Alice Walker has called the flotilla the “Freedom Riders of this era”.

“The 1960s civil rights movement responded to a call from oppressed people, just as our movement responds to a call from Palestinians,” Heap says. “The Freedom Riders did not stop after each setback, even when they were attacked violently. Instead, they kept on coming in solidarity, just as we keep on sailing against the blockade.”

Not surprisingly, Lovelace sees the parallels between Palestine and Canada’s First Nations. Land theft, occupation, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, containment, and restriction of movement … all the elements are there.

Spanish Parliament members stage a demonstration in support of Freedom Flotilla III sailing from Sweden to break the Gaza siege [Getty]
Spanish Parliament members stage a demonstration in support of Freedom Flotilla III sailing from Sweden to break the Gaza siege [Getty]

“I recognise that the kind of colonialism that took place here in Canada, in the United States and much of the Americas is much like what’s going on in the Middle East today with the creation of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinian people,” he says. “Basically we’re wards of the state. I think Palestinians find themselves in the same position. They can’t say no [to the coloniser].”

As desperate as Gazans may be for materials denied to them by Israel, this flotilla is less about delivering aid and more about politics and economics. The aim is to take on Gazan goods and take them to waiting buyers to demonstrate that Palestinians want to participate in the global economy.

“It would be wonderful if the flotilla could build awareness as a non-violent peaceful resistance to an illegal situation,” Lovelace explains. “It really is an international effort of civil society.”

Political and personal

But not so much in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Canada. His enthusiastic embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is both political and personal. That’s why his government has threatened to make criticism of Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement illegal.

“The fear of being smeared with labels can’t stop us,” Heap insists, adding that many Canadians fear speaking out. “If we were afraid of the label, we would just stay home and be quiet which is of course what the Harper government would like.”

As for Harper’s attitude towards Canada’s indigenous population, it can best be described as disdain. To him, it is an obstacle in his plan to turn the country into a petro-state, as more and more First Nations people rise up against pipelines. Harper refuses to examine the estimated 1,100 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. And, this month, his government all but ignored the recommendations of the extraordinary six-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission that delved into the horrors of the government-sanctioned church-run schools into which generations of aboriginal children were forced.

“Colonialism is a worldwide scourge,” concludes Lovelace. “It has been going on for hundreds of years. And the outcomes are now hitting really full force: the poverty, the displaced people, the migrants. It’s time for all aboriginal people to stand up and to recognise that our liberation, our freedom and our justice are tied together with all the peoples in the world who are oppressed, whether they live in Mexico, or Latin America, the United States, or in Africa or in the Middle East or in the Far East.”

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.