The topic of Canada’s contributions to the United Nations agency that funds Palestinians in the Middle East made for spirited debate in the House of Commons recently.
Last month, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development, announced that Canada will give up to $50 million in humanitarian aid over two years to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The new funds will bring Canada’s total contributions to UNRWA to $110 million since 2016, the year the Liberal government reinstated funding to the agency.
Canada has repeatedly assured Jewish advocacy organizations that there are safeguards in place to ensure that taxpayer money does not go to fund terrorism.
On Oct. 30, the new funding prompted Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP from Saskatchewan, to wonder about UNRWA, which he said, in his party’s judgment, is “far too tolerant of intolerance.”
He recounted his visit last year to an UNRWA-funded girls school in the West Bank, where he asked students whether they interacted with Israelis.
“The students told us that no, they did not and they had no desire to, as a result of the political situation,” Genuis told the House. “As they explained the fact that they only could perceive the Israeli side through the lens of the political conflict, I noted teachers who were nodding along approvingly as this conversation was happening.”
Genuis said he became “frustrated because we should set a high standard for what Canada funds in terms of education. We should not be seeking less for Palestinian children. We should rather be seeking more, in terms of the quality of that education.”
He said MPs have discussed in the House “that UNRWA teachers have posted virulently anti-Semitic material through social media websites. We know there are significant concerns about the content of curriculum and how it does not advance the ideals of peaceful coexistence.
“At a minimum, when we are funding education programs abroad, Canadian dollars should be clearly avoiding supporting curricular content that is promoting intolerance or supporting the employing of teachers who are promoting intolerant messages through social media. That is the minimum.”
The previous Conservative government stopped funding UNRWA in 2010 over the agency’s widely reported ties to Hamas, which Canada considers to be a terrorist group.
He said the Liberals “can do much better with Canadian tax dollars.”
In response, Kamal Khera, Bibeau’s parliamentary secretary, said Canada’s support of UNRWA “allows us to closely monitor it to ensure accountability and transparency. In fact, neutrality is central to UNRWA’s operations and is a condition for many donors, including Canada, of providing funding.”
She said Canada’s support contributes to UNRWA’s “neutrality activities,” which include regular inspections of the agency’s facilities; training for UNRWA staff on neutrality, including in social media; the promotion of students’ knowledge and skills reflecting human values, including human rights; conflict resolution, gender equality and tolerance; and UNRWA’s development, distribution and use of additional educational materials to enable teachers to promote neutrality.
Khera said UNRWA has a framework in place “to review all textbooks that host governments require them to use and, where needed, provides additional training for teachers to address any problematic issues related to neutrality, bias, gender equality or age appropriateness.”
As with all Canadian assistance for Palestinians, “we exercise enhanced due diligence measures for our funding to UNRWA. This includes ongoing oversight, regular site visits, a systematic screening process and strong anti-terrorism provisions in funding agreements. If and when issues arise, Canada and UNRWA engage quickly to get to the bottom of any issues.”
Khera added that Bibeau personally raised Canada’s concerns about “particularly problematic material in Palestinian textbooks” with the Palestinian Authority representative in Canada last spring and more recently with Palestinian officials during her visit to the West Bank in July.
“Canada will continue to take all allegations of neutrality violations very seriously,” Khera said.
Those comments brought Genuis to his feet again, alleging that Khera’s remarks were “self-refuting” because she said Bibeau raised concerns about neutrality despite there being a framework in place for neutrality.
“One cannot have it both ways. Either the existing framework is adequate and, therefore, the dispensing of funds is appropriate, or the framework is inadequate, in which case, why are we giving it money?”
He suggested delivering aid to Palestinians outside the UN system.
Khera replied that UNRWA “has demonstrated its commitment to increasing strong accountability and neutrality measures among its more than 30,000 employees.”
The agency “has acknowledged that some staff have misused social media, and it has taken direct action to address this issue, including discipline, in line with due process, where allegations were substantiated,” she added.