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New West council votes 4-0 in support of call for cease fire in Gaza

New Westminster city council calls on the Canadian government stop all arms shipments, sales and training to Israel

The City of New Westminster is calling on the federal government to take action to end the suffering in Gaza.

At Monday’s meeting, council considered a motion from Coun. Nadine Nakagawa to have the city write to the prime minister urging the Canadian government to call for a ceasefire, to support restricted access to humanitarian aid and to secure the release of all hostages. The motion’s preamble stated that humanitarian groups such as Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations have cited growing atrocities in Israel and Gaza, including the deaths of many civilians – many of them children.

“On Oct. 13, Israeli authorities ordered more than a million people in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes. Two months later, almost 1.9 million – which is 85 per cent of Gaza’s population – are displaced,” Nakagawa said. “To put that in local context, that is the population of Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Maple Ridge, the City of Langley, the Township of Langley, New Westminster, the City of North Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Richmond, Surrey, White Rock and Tsawwassen, collectively displaced.”

Nakagawa said statistics from the Al Jazeera news agency report that at least 22,185 Palestinians have been killed. She said the World Health organization has cancelled several missions to hospitals in Gaza because it was unable to ensure the security of its staff.

At the beginning of December, human rights organizations were reporting that close to 10,000 Palestinian children had been killed in Gaza, Nakagawa said.

“South Africa is bringing a case of genocide against Israel, and this will be happening later on this week,” she said Monday night. “They are quoting Israeli officials who declared the intent of genocide, including President Herzog who said there are no innocents in Gaza. I guess that includes that 10,000 children.”

Nakagawa provided council with her notice of motion in December, at which time emotions flared among the crowd gathered in council chambers; police were summoned to city hall.

Council chambers was again packed at the Jan. 8 meeting, which was attended by supporters and opponents of the motion.

The crowd sat quietly in council chambers for much of the meeting, but there were periodic verbal exchanges clashes during breaks, including concerns related to the touching of a camera and the videotaping of people in the audience. City staff quickly intervened, and police were not called to city hall.

New West resident Deborah Folka spoke against the motion, saying it is “completely outside the scope of council’s mandate” and is “utterly moot” because the federal government signed Canada onto a United Nations cease fire resolution on Dec. 12.

“Though all right-thinking people deplore the loss of innocent lives in any war, the proposed cease fire motion is a waste of our finite resources and can set an inappropriate precedent,” she said.

Folka questioned if council had approved motions like this when Russia invaded Ukraine or when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed in Syria, Yemen or Myanmar.

“Speaking out for a ceasefire only when Israel defends itself against the appalling barbaric and unprovoked attacks by Hamas fans the flames of Jew hatred everywhere,” she said. “A tsunami of anti-Semitic activities since Oct. 7 has been shocking and frightening to many who live in our community. Do not add to it by passing this resolution.”

Sid Shniad, a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, congratulated city council for taking a stance.

“It is essential for all segments of Canadian society to become involved in bringing this horrific situation to an end as soon as possible, as well as to address the root of the crisis,” he told council via Zoom.

Shniad said humanitarian observers who have witnessed crises around the world have indicated that the scale and the pace of the disaster in Gaza is “unprecedented” in their experience.

“It is clear that an unconditional cease fire must be our first priority,” he said. “Israel’s assault on Gaza has resulted in the deaths of more than 22,000 civilians, including nearly 10,000 children. Take a moment to let that figure sink in.”

In addition to the deaths that have already taken place, Shniad said medical observers are warning of the onset of epidemics and famine. Without an unconditional cease fire, he said there will be no possibility of providing the people of Gaza with the unrestricted humanitarian aid they so desperately end.

“We implore the members of the New West council to strengthen its existing resolution by demanding that our leaders stress for an immediate ceasefire, and having that resolved, call for a ban on Canadian weapon sales to Israel as well as the endorsement of the South African case against Israel at the International Court of Justice,” he said.

Council votes

At Monday’s meeting Nakagawa put forward an amendment to her motion for council’s consideration. Expanding on her original motion, it called on the Canadian government stop all arms shipments, sales and training to Israel in compliance with Canadian law.

“It's true that the Canadian government finally, after immense pressure, took action to no longer abstain from the calls for ceasefire,” she said. “But at this time, the situation is so significant, so egregious, so horrifying, that I think we need to really name what is happening there, which is, as South Africa is taking Israel to Human Rights Court, basically alleging that this is a genocide.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he is “profoundly disappointed” that his colleague brought forward a motion to council regarding the  conflict in the Middle East, as he believes it’s outside the scope of council’s jurisdiction. He said council should be focusing on the core issues over which it has 100 per cent control, such as roads and recreation programs.

“It should not be about things like nuclear disarmament, global space treaties, or international conflicts,” he said. “If my colleagues wanted to champion these types of national and international issues, I would highly encourage them to step aside from their posts on council and to campaign to become a member of parliament or to seek a post at the United Nations for similar agencies.”

Shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel, Fontaine said he contacted Mayor Patrick Johnstone, after receiving requests that the city light up city hall in blue and yellow lights in support of Israel. Reading an email from Johnstone, he said he agreed with the mayor’s view that lighting up city hall in support of Israel or Palestine would only serve to elicit division in the community.

“I agree 100 per cent with our mayor, and did not pursue the issue any further in order to ensure that we did not foster any further division in our community,” he said Monday night. “In conclusion, I also agree with the mayor that bringing forward this type of motion, a motion that if passed will have no impact on the conflict in the Middle East.”

After speaking about the motion, Fontaine said he wouldn’t be participating in the debate or voting on the motion. He left council chambers.

Coun. Paul Minhas soon followed suit.

Like Fontaine, Minhas said council should be focusing on the city’s core responsibilities, not debating a conflict in the Middle East. He said he’s “horrified” with what he sees happening in Israel and Gaza.

“Senior orders of government have had a direct mandate to address this and speak out on this issue,” he said. “Speaking of that, I should note that the discussion about Canada calling for a cease fire is now moot as Canada has already done that.”

After the two New West Progressives councillors had left council chambers, McEvoy, who was serving as acting mayor and chairing the meeting, said the Local Government Act does not allow council members to abstain on a motion.

“The only way a person cannot vote in favour or opposed would be to actually leave the room because there is no provision for an abstention in the Local Government Act,” he told the crowd. “Just as a note as an explanation.”

Nakagawa’s original motion and her amendment both carried unanimously in a 4-0 vote, with councillors Ruby Campbell, Tasha Henderson, McEvoy and Nakagawa supporting. The mayor did not attend the Jan. 8 meeting.

Henderson said she is appalled, angry and deeply saddened by the images, videos news and statistics coming from organizations like the Red Cross, UNICEF and the United Nations.

“UNICEF reports that one in 120 children in Gaza have been killed,” she said, her voice choking up with emotion. “And Save the Children reports that on average more than 10 children a day living in Gaza have lost one or both of their legs since October.”

Henderson said she has a clear understanding of the Local Government Act and the city’s role, but feels there is a “moral call” to do something.

“This is a position of power that I hold, and I take that seriously,” she said. “In the face of what is happening, it doesn’t feel right to not say anything or to abstain.”

Campbell said she believes it’s everyone’s responsibility to speak out on “appalling human suffering.”

“I also know, unfortunately, many individuals do not have freedom or privilege to speak out,” she said. “The destruction and collective traumas the world is witnessing across Israel and Gaza is not something I can ignore.”

McEvoy said the Local Government Act and the Community Charter do not prevent local governments having discussions on global issues.

“There are too many examples in history where people have said: not my business,” he said. “And then it was too late for somebody to make it their business.”

McEvoy said the issue is relevant in New Westminster, given the international context of the city’s residents.

“I do not agree to the idea that caring about one issue means that you don’t care about another,” he said.

Keeping order

At the outset of the meeting, staff explained the City of New Westminster allows 10 speakers during delegation period. If the city receives fewer than 10 requests to speak, all are accepted, but if there are more than 10, the city limits the speakers on individual topics to allow the greatest number of topics to be covered.

At Monday’s meeting, council received delegations from a resident who had registered to speak in opposition to council’s motion and a speaker who wanted to speak in support of the motion.

Several other speakers had signed up to address various topics, including children’s access to education, unsafe housing in New West, and displacement of people living in homeless encampments in Vancouver. During their presentations, delegates slipped in references to Gaza – at which time McEvoy politely asked them to stay on topic.

“I am afraid your delegation is over at this time,” he told one delegate who had continued referring to Gaza after being warned they were off topic.