Since the outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine early last month, thousands have taken to the streets in support of the Palestinian people, calling for an end to the bombing and protesting Israel’s system of apartheid and its illegal occupation. Meanwhile, those who side with Israel have mounted demonstrations of their own, with many quick to equate Palestine solidarity with antisemitism and support for Hamas.
For workers who stand in solidarity with Palestine (and those who support Israel), this tense political moment has created some uncertainty as to their rights in the workplace.
The first days of the conflict saw an Air Canada pilot fired for his anti-Israel social media posts. More recently, Ontario MPP Sarah Jama was censured and thrown out of the New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus after publicly calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and criticizing Israeli apartheid and aggression. Meanwhile, labor and student unions at universities, including York and McMaster, have publicly clashed with administrators over statements on the conflict.
In a recent Financial Post piece, Ontario employment lawyer and columnist Howard Levitt called for the summary dismissal of anyone in public-facing or managerial positions who participates in what he calls “Hamas-supporting ‘hate fests.’” However, Levitt fails to make any distinction between “hate fest” and legitimate demonstration.
So, can workers in Canada really be fired for marching in support of Palestine? In some cases, maybe. But, contrary to Levitt’s contention, merely attending a Palestine demonstration isn’t cause for immediate dismissal without severance. Importantly, too, statutory human rights may give employees key protections against angry employers.
To begin with, it makes a big difference whether the worker is unionized or not. Nonunionized employees should be aware that, in their case, employers have the authority to terminate their employment at any time and for almost any reason. This is permitted as long as the employer can establish just cause for dismissal or give reasonable notice or compensation in lieu of notice. Unionized employees, meanwhile, usually can’t be fired unless there is just cause.
Either way, much depends on the question of just cause for dismissal. Making out just cause isn’t easy, typically requiring things like serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, and incompetence. Committing a serious crime can be just cause, but not always.
Another form of just cause for dismissal, relevant to the discourse around Israel-Palestine, is “brand-damaging behavior.” This could include incitements or endorsements of violence or hate, discriminatory speech, or explicit criticisms of one’s employer. Harassing, discriminatory, or threatening speech or actions concerning others in the workplace can also give cause for dismissal.
However, simply participating in a political demonstration not approved of by one’s boss clearly is not cause for dismissal. Remember, though, if the employe isn’t in a union, this only means that if their employer fires them, they’ll be entitled to some amount of pay. How much depends on how long they’ve been there, among other considerations.
Crucially, too, guilt by association is not a concept that the law recognizes. In other words, going to a march where someone else spouts hate or crosses the line shouldn’t be cause for your dismissal.
Then there’s the question of human rights legislation, which prohibits various kinds of discrimination. Discriminatory firings are unlawful, whether or not the employee is unionized. In some cases, human rights tribunals will order employees to be reinstated to their jobs after a discriminatory termination.
All Canadian human rights legislation includes race, ethnicity, place of origin, and religion as protected grounds. Almost certainly, firing an employee of Palestinian descent for participating peacefully in a pro-Palestine demonstration would constitute discrimination on one or more of these grounds. Similarly, someone of Arab descent not from Palestine would have a strong case. So might a Muslim on grounds of religious discrimination. Of course, a Jewish person fired for attending a pro-Israel demonstration could make the same claim.
For allies of the cause not protected based on their background (for example, a non-Arab, non-Muslim marcher at a Palestine protest), things get a bit more complicated.
Human rights statutes in most Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia, list political belief as a protected ground. In any of these jurisdictions, firing an employee for going to a legitimate political demonstration would seem a clear violation. However, no such protection for political belief exists in the human rights codes of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the federal jurisdiction.
What Ontario’s Human Rights Code does have, though, is a prohibition on discrimination “because of relationship, association or dealings with a person or persons identified by a prohibited ground.” Nunavut’s Human Rights Act has a similar provision.
Protections against discrimination for associating with protected groups could have powerful implications for activists and allies of all kinds. Someone fired in Ontario for participating in a Palestine march could argue that they are being discriminated against for associating with the Palestinians’ cause.
To date, the full reach of human rights protection for association has not been put to the test. However, an Ontario court accepted, in a 2002 decision, that “the political act of promoting the causes” of a Code-protected group is a form of protected association. Along similar lines, two decisions of the Ontario Board of Inquiry from the 1990s recognized that representatives of LGBTQ organizations who were refused services were indeed discriminated against on grounds of association.
These precedents seem to indicate that dismissing an employee just for marching in support of a Code-protected community, which undoubtedly includes Palestinians, is unlawful in Ontario. The same goes for publicly expressing support for the cause in one’s time off.
Political speech on the job is more fraught, as employers can argue it is disruptive and, where it persists after warnings have been given, constitutes willful disobedience. Workers who face pushback from their bosses and want to stay out of trouble would be wise keep divisive politics out of the workplace.
Moments like the present starkly reveal the power that bosses have — or might think they have — over the political lives of their employees. Thankfully, Canadian law does not leave workers completely at the mercy of their employers. However, the effectiveness of these rights often hinges on the challenging task of enforcement.
Any Canadian employees who have been fired simply for attending a Palestine march or posting non-hateful pro-Palestine sentiments online have almost certainly had their rights violated. They have legal recourse to fight back. For those who have been standing up for the Palestinian people or want to but fear for their jobs: know your rights, keep it peaceful, and keep up the fight.