As the war between Israel and Hamas intensified, demonstrators in cities across Canada chanted, marched and called for justice in rallies on Sunday.
Pro-Palestinian protesters in multiple cities, including Victoria and Nanaimo, demanded a halt to hostilities, while a rally in Toronto drew thousands calling for the release of Israeli hostages seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war.
At a rally at the B.C. legislature, Kevin Neish read out a dispatch sent to him from Madleen Kullab, a fishing captain in Gaza, about the deteriorating situation in Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip.
“There are hundreds of displaced families, sleeping in schools and under bombed buildings and in the schoolyard with just tarps between each other,” he read. “The boats that we used to work on to satisfy the hunger of our children are gone. Now we have been displaced for a month.”
Chants of “ceasefire now” and “free Palestine” echoed through downtown Victoria as about 800 protesters marched along Douglas and Government streets after the rally at the legislature. As the procession wound its way through the city core, demonstrators chanted “boycott, boycott” at businesses seen as supportive of Israel in the conflict, including Starbucks, Burger King and the Royal Bank of Canada.
Bystanders on sidewalks and in shops stopped to watch protesters go past, many pulling out their phones to record the moment.
Before the march, an organizer led attendees in a chant — one of many heard from demonstrators as they marched through the streets: “From Turtle Island to Palestine, resistance is justified once people are occupied.”
At one point, a man hurled expletives at the protestors, calling them liars, as they walked past on Douglas Street. Other march attendees and police quickly stepped in to de-escalate the situation, allowing people to continue on.
Officers with the Greater Victoria Public Safety Unit kept close watch on another man who repeatedly harassed marchers and refused to leave the area when requested to do so by police.
In Nanaimo, about 350 people marched from Maffeo Sutton Park to Nanaimo City Hall, where drivers honked in solidarity with the demonstration, according to an organizer Sara Kishawi.
“We’re definitely noticing lots of new faces every time, so it’s not lots of repeat people,” said Kishawi, who has organized other Palestine-related rallies and events in Nanaimo since the war broke out. “Word is getting around.”
Similar demonstrations unfolded in other Canadian cities.
In Montreal’s Dorchester Square, a protest organized by the group Ceasefire Now expressed solidarity with residents of the Gaza Strip. “I don’t feel like Western countries see the value of kids in Gaza the same as any other country in the world,” said Salma Ghersi, a 34-year-old Montrealer who said her husband is Palestinian.
“I feel like there’s injustice.”
Green and red smoke canisters issued plumes of red and green — Pan-Arab colours included in Palestine’s flag — and police on bikes and horseback watched under a cloudy sky.
In Toronto, meanwhile, thousands of people supporting Israel gathered at Christie Pits Park in a rally organized by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
Maayan Shavit said her aunt was killed and her cousin kidnapped by Hamas militants in the attack on Israeli residents on Oct. 7, putting them among the roughly 1,200 people killed and the 240 abducted that day.
The 45-year-old said she found the demonstration “electrifying” and “empowering.”
“Now we know it’s no longer my story, or the people that have a straight, immediate connection to the kubutzim,” said Shavit, who has extended family in Kibbutz Be’eri, where at least 120 residents were killed. “They are all our families, and we miss them.
“It’s very clear that there is no ceasefire without our kidnapped people,” she said.
Christie Pits holds historical significance for Jewish Canadians. It was the spot where violence erupted between Jews and Anglo-Canadians in the 1933 Christie Pits Riot, set off by a swastika flag unfurled by Nazi-inspired youth.
Daniel Held, chief program officer at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said the feeling of antisemitism fostered by that era is mounting once again.
“The sense of insecurity amongst the Jewish people as antisemitism is on the rise and we’re seeing hate against our people is really scary,” he said.
But elsewhere downtown, at a pro-Palestine rally at Nathan Phillips Square, Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss denounced Israel’s ongoing invasion of Gaza City.
“It’s a violent assault against the solidarity between Muslims, Christians and Jews,” Weiss told the crowd. “Palestinian freedom is our freedom too.”
Yassmin Hafez, 17, said crowds at rallies have grown in the last two weeks “as things have gotten more dire.”
“I feel it’s the least that I can do when you know that people are suffering and are dying.”
The rallies come after a slew of hateful acts targeting Jews and Muslims since the outbreak of the war. On Sunday, a Jewish school building in Montreal was hit by gunshots after also being shot at three days earlier.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims has said the organization has been inundated with reports of racism, hate and violence against community members since Oct. 7.
Thousands of Canadians have immediate ties to the unfolding conflict, with friends and loved ones in the Middle East directly affected.
— With files from Nairah Ahmed in Toronto