A week ago, Burnaby city council was the first local government in Canada to pass a motion urging the federal government to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.
Now more than 50 municipal politicians have signed a statement asking the Canadian government to immediately call for a ceasefire, support unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and secure the release of the more than 200 Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas.
But this week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier David Eby refused to call for a ceasefire, though both said they want peace in the Middle East.
Hamas militants killed some 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages in the Oct. 7 attack, according to the Israeli government.
In response Israel has bombed Gaza and cut off almost all supplies and aid to the home of about 2.3 million Palestinians. More than 11,200 people have been killed, according to health officials in Gaza.
“I think we can all agree we want to see an end to the violence in the Middle East,” Trudeau said, when asked about the open letter at an unrelated announcement with Eby in Maple Ridge Tuesday.
Trudeau said Canada has long supported a two-state solution where secure and prosperous Palestinian and Israeli states would exist side by side.
“We have also had as a long-standing policy that the singling out of Israel at the United Nations is not helpful, either to combating global antisemitism or to getting towards that two-state solution.”
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in October calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” in Gaza and the “continuous, sufficient and unhindered” delivery of life-saving supplies to civilians.
Canada was among 45 nations that abstained on the resolution, which had 120 votes in favour and 14 against.
Eby responded to a question about the letter from local government officials by saying that many in B.C. were deeply concerned by both Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s response to it.
“Obviously the province of B.C. is not in a position to deliver peace in the Middle East,” he said. “This is a long-standing conflict. But we can absolutely stand for peace and call for peace and for an end to this horrific run of death in this part of the world.”
Daniel Tetrault, a Burnaby city councillor, said the open letter comes out of concerns that local politicians are hearing from their constituents. Tetrault said he and his colleagues have heard from constituents who say their voices are being ignored or they fear the consequences of speaking up.
“People were heartbroken and horrified at the violence and suffering that they were seeing in Palestine and Israel, and they are also hearing from their own constituents who were asking them to take a stand and to speak up,” Tetrault said.
“We felt it was important to join as one voice in calling for Canada to advocate for a ceasefire, the release of all hostages and humanitarian aid.”
In recent days the world has been taken by the horrific humanitarian situation at Al-Shifa Hospital, where three premature babies died after their incubators lost power. The hospital grounds have been under fire from snipers and drones.
Israel says the hospital sits on top of a Hamas headquarters and soldiers launched a raid on the hospital Wednesday.
Israel has rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying that would allow Hamas to fortify its military positions, and the Canadian government has said it supports “humanitarian pauses” rather than a ceasefire.
The city councillors and elected representatives who have signed on to the letter say Canada’s stance has made them ashamed.
“So many civilian lives have been needlessly lost and there is no end in sight. The collective punishment of civilians is understood to be a violation of international law,” the letter reads.
The letter expressed shame at Canada's abstention on the United Nations resolution. “Canada should be a leader on the world stage, but instead, sat on the sidelines,” it said.
Tetrault said other B.C. municipalities are now considering introducing motions similar to the one passed by Burnaby’s council, and Burnaby councillors have gotten inquiries from local government politicians across Canada.
On Tuesday, the council in Maple Ridge — where Trudeau and Eby had announced a $1-billion battery factory — passed a motion urging Trudeau to call for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all hostages.
So far, no provincial MLAs have expressed any interest in signing on to the open letter, but Tetrault is hopeful that “elected officials on all levels will join us in the call.”
Eby said Tuesday that as premier his focus is on the people of the province. “What we’re seeing here is an increase in hate, an increase in division,” he said. There have been reports of Islamophobic attacks against Muslims and antisemitic attacks against Jews.
“We are currently working with both communities to deliver increased resources for British Columbians who face hate, who face divisive attacks,” he said. “Our strength here... is our diversity, our openness, our international willingness to welcome everybody and to be a peaceful place where people can celebrate their religions and their cultures free from fear. That will remain a priority for me and our government going forward.”
The open letter from the local government politicians also condemns “acts of antisemitism, anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.”
But Tetrault said it was important to not conflate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism.
“I know there are many Jewish people out there, like myself, who advocate for Palestinian human rights and liberation,” he said. “And I want to make sure that, when someone criticizes Israel, or does support Palestinian rights in liberation, that's not [interpreted as] antisemitic because it really does a disservice to the very real instances of antisemitism that are out there.”
Following the attack, Trudeau had said Israel has the right to defend itself.
But on Tuesday he said, “The price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians.... I urge the government of Israel to exercise maximum restraint."
Trudeau said Canada has been unequivocal about contributing to an end to the violence and finding a peaceful resolution for the short, medium and long terms. “We continue to be committed to the two-state solution, even more so than ever before.”
It is also committed to keeping Canadians safe, he said, noting the rise of both antisemitism and Islamophobia seen in communities. “It starts fundamentally with listening to each other, not looking for easy solutions because there are none, but doing the work every day of reaching out to people who are different from ourselves and building the communities of empathy that we’ve always been able to define ourselves through.”