Palestinian Mother Issues Challenge to Canadian Government

Canada's New Trudeau Government Faces Old Policy Challenges


Jihan Qunoo (r), a Palestinian refugee from Gaza, living in Ottawa, Canada, her husband (l), three daughters and Matthew Behrens (center). (PHOTO COURTESY MATTHEW BEHRENS)1111111111

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2022, pp. 34-35

Canada Calling

By Candice Bodnaruk

LAST MAY, when Israel attacked Gaza, killing 260 people, 129 of them civilians, including 66 children, Jihan Qunoo saw video footage of her own three children running to escape the bombing and screaming for her. The Ottawa-based mother immediately took to YouTube, posting a message to both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, begging them to issue temporary residency permits for her children to come to Canada, or she would return to Gaza herself to retrieve them. It was a desperate attempt to rescue her daughters. 

Veteran activist Matthew Behrens heard Qunoo’s pleas and decided to try to contact her, knowing that his experience working with the Ottawa-based Rural Refugee Rights Network could be a benefit to the family.

Behrens, the founder of Homes Not Bombs, has been at the forefront of social justice advocacy and nonviolent direct action in both Canada and the U.S. for more than 40 years. During the Israeli attacks, Behrens was live-casting direct action podcasts focusing on the history of Canada’s complicity in Israeli apartheid and anti-Palestinian violence. 

“In the midst of this, I heard the story of Jihan Qunoo, an Ottawa refugee who applied for her kids to visit her over the summer because it had been two years since they had seen one another,” he said.

Behrens connected with Qunoo through social media and they began working on a Temporary Resident Application so her family could live in Canada while their permanent residence application was processed (a procedure that Behrens said, on average, can take 39 months).

Rural Refugee Rights Network also presented a petition with 25,000 signatures addressed to Prime Minister Trudeau’s office and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Qunoo’s bold challenge to the Canadian government and media campaign paid off. She had the permits 36 hours after she had broadcast her message. In June, Qunoo was reunited with her husband and daughters.

“This inspired a dozen other families long separated from one another to reach out and seek our assistance,” Behrens said. The Rural Refugee Rights Network spent the summer helping families put applications together; a lengthy, intense and traumatizing process, requiring affidavits detailing the background of each family’s separation.

The Canadian government could have issued special immigration measures to waive these requirements, but in Behrens’ opinion, officials don’t think Palestinian lives are important enough for them to do that.

“We have won 13 permits for reunification so far, and continue to work on others, who have come forward asking for assistance in their reunification,” he explained.

Behrens said the large amount of attention the Rural Refugee Rights Network received last spring was really the first time Canadian media had presented extended, sympathetic coverage of Palestinians. 

“Despite the warnings of some experts that we would never be able to get them here once the bombing stopped in May, our advocacy proved very effective,” and his organization was able to reunite many families. 

Behrens says the way Canada awards permits for immigrants and refugees needs to change. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the IRCC need to make the system fair and equitable for those seeking asylum in Canada.

“We advocate for a complete overhaul of the system,” he said, adding that what is needed in Canada is a “Department of Welcoming.” Instead the CBSA and IRCC act like police and try to prevent people from accessing asylum in Canada and employs twice as many people on the enforcement end of immigration, working to deport the most vulnerable back to the countries they fled. 

He estimates 14,000 people work at the CBSA, who are meeting arbitrary quotas, throwing refugees into prison on the flimsiest grounds and preventing migrants from getting to Canada in the first place. Meanwhile, Behrens said, the IRCC has just over 7,000 staff, who are regularly finding excuses to delay or reject applications.

Behrens added that the issue of family separation is particularly relevant for Canada. “It’s an important issue because Canada was founded on family separation via genocide against Indigenous peoples,” he explained.

When asked if he has faced criticism for his work, Behrens emphasized Canadians’ changing views on Israel, especially since last attack on Gaza. “I think there was a definite shift in perceptions about Israel apartheid over the past year, especially after the May slaughter. I lost a few friends on Facebook but gained some remarkable friendships with folks from Gaza, who have taught me so much,” he said.

He explained that his organization seeks specific institutional changes, such as an end to all deportations and immediate status for all who do not currently have it. Behrens said the Canadian government has not directly responded to the Rural Refugee Rights Network’s demands but added that their success in pressuring the government for permits, stands as a reminder that people have more power than they realize to effect change.

Last spring, the Rural Refugee Rights Network received countless unsolicited offers from people who saw the group’s posts and volunteered to collect furniture for reunified families with new apartments, teach ESL classes or engage in political advocacy on the families’ behalf. Lawyers also came forward to offer assistance in uploading applications, commissioning affidavits and offering to read submissions.

“There has been a beautiful outpouring of support from so many different community members,” Behrens said.

The Rural Refugee Rights Network is now holding monthly vigils to demand immediate reunification of long-separated refugee families.


Canada continued a time-honored holiday tradition at the U.N. General Assembly in December 2021 by voting against all resolutions supporting Palestine except for one—the right to Palestinian self-determination. Michael Bueckert, vice-president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), called it a “token vote for Palestine.” According to CJPME, in 2019 Canada ranked 14th in the world in terms of its donor support to UNRWA.

Although Canada renewed its UNRWA funding in 2020, committing to $90 million dollars over three years, Canada voted “no” on the two UNRWA resolutions at the General Assembly in December 2021.

Specifically, Canada voted against the resolution that the effective functioning of UNRWA remains essential in all fields of operation. As well, Canada voted against the resolution that affirms the necessity for the continuation UNRWA’s work. 

In the mid-2000s, under both Liberal and then Conservative leadership, Canada was voting “yes” to these resolutions.

“We are opposed to any initiative within the United Nations and other multilateral forums, that is specifically aimed at criticizing Israel,” Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said, in a Dec. 7 debate in the House of Commons. 

Bueckert noted that this policy indicates Canada has repeatedly chosen to vote against resolutions which are consistent with international law. “Protecting Israel from criticism should not be a goal of Canadian foreign policy,” he said. Bueckert added that Canadians expect their government to stand up for what is right.

Meanwhile, the federal Conservative Party of Canada is once again signaling that Canada should end funding for UNRWA altogether. Conservative Party Member of Parliament Marty Morantz recently proposed that Canada end its funding for UNRWA because he believes it promotes anti-Semitism through its school curriculum. He referenced a recent European Union decision to make funding for UNRWA conditional on immediate changes to Palestinian school curriculum to promote coexistence with Israel and asked if Canada will follow their example.

FM Joly responded that Canada expects neutrality from UNRWA when it comes to education and schooling material for Palestinian children. 

Morantz went on to criticize Global Affairs Canada (GAC) funding of the Union of Agricultural Work Committee (UAWC), which Israel has accused of being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). 

The UAWC had been receiving tax dollars from GAC as an implementing partner, under an existing U.N. food and agricultural project that is set to end in 2022. Israel recently designated the UAWC as a terrorist organization, along with several human rights organizations, calling it the “agricultural arm” of the PFLP. Canada has listed the PLFP as a terrorist organization under Canadian law. Morantz said he hoped the government would do the same with the UAWC.

FM Joly’s response was that Canada remains a steadfast ally of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people. 

Morantz and Joly declined to speak with the Washington Report when asked for their comments.

Candice Bodnaruk has been involved in Palestinian issues for the past 14 years through organizations such as the Canadian BDS Coalition and Peace Alliance Winnipeg. Her political action started with feminism and continued with the peace movement, first with the No War on Iraq Coalition in 2003 in Winnipeg.


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