Mark Vandermaas had an outing planned with his wife on Aug. 4, and he had already cancelled once.
But when the founder of Israel Truth Week heard that London Ribfest organizers had invited an anti-Israel group to erect a booth at the five-day family food and music event, which draws up to 200,000 people annually, he said he just had to organize a peaceful protest.
“I didn’t want to have to do it. But when I saw that at a park in my community, a family festival was being used to promote a one-sided message, I just couldn’t leave it unopposed,” he said.
“I went by to take a photo of the booth to make sure it was for real.”
Vandermaas, who is not Jewish, founded Israel Truth Week in 2012 in response to the vilification of Israel and the intimidation of Jewish students at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ont., where he lives. Vandermaas is a former member of the Canadian Forces who has served with a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Middle East.
When he learned of the anti-Israel’s group’s presence at the festival, Vandermaas emailed and visited the festival office to clarify the situation. He couldn’t reach the organizers, but a volunteer told him the group – led by members of People for Peace London and the Canadian Palestinian Social Association of London – had held a peaceful march through the grounds on Aug. 2, waving flags and speaking to attendees. To appease them, festival staff invited them to set up a booth at the event, which was held at Victoria Park in London.
Cecil Hillier, whose family co-ordinates Ribfest, said organizers asked the group to set up a booth in order to diffuse the situation.
“This has happened before with other groups,” Hillier said. “Like with vegans, [who were] going around talking to people. We told them, ‘If you want to get your message out, you can stay contained within your booth and pass on your message,’ rather than have them disrupt the event.”
In response to the group’s presence, Vandermaas sent out an alert to Israel Truth Week supporters. And on the holiday Monday – Erev Tisha b’Av – as many as a dozen supporters joined him at the park for the peaceful vigil. Dozens more emailed and called festival organizers and local politicians to complain.
“Many people came to talk to us. The other side also came to talk in a friendly manner. We were a small but progressively growing group as the afternoon wore into evening, but we had a huge presence and impact: emails and phone calls to the organizers; postings on Facebook; tweets and emails to Israel Truth Week.”
Hillier said Ribfest organizers also invited Vandermaas’ group to return next year.
"They were not just allowed to stay but very welcome,” Hillier said.
David Heap, a professor at Western in French and linguistics and the son of the late Dan Heap, a former Toronto NDP MP, is an organizer with People for Peace London. He said his group often rallies at Victoria Park, as it is a busy spot.
On Aug. 2, he said, it held a vigil for victims of the Gaza conflict, during which he was told to contact festival organizers about setting up a booth.
“It was entirely positive. We were invited to set up a booth with information for Sunday and Monday (Aug. 3 and 4), which we did,” Heap said.
“The reception was very positive with people wanting information.”
Vandermaas said he now realizes that Ribfest organizers weren’t trying to take a side in the conflict, just trying to put out a fire.
“It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go unopposed. We took a stand for truth,” he said. “We galvanized people – even those who could not be there. I have never seen such a direct mass action than I saw with this little vigil. It was a great victory.”