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What Sarah Jama tells us about timing and tone in politics

Left-leaning political figures provided fascinating and appalling case studies this week
Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama takes her place at Queen's Park for the first time on March 27, 2023.

In politics, tone and timing are everything.

There are some things you can say one month after disaster strikes that are just really ill-advised to say on the day disaster strikes. And never have we seen better examples of this political truism than over the past week in relation to the war in the Middle East.

The most fascinating example comes from Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow. Chow’s first instinct after Hamas’ attack was to express outrage on behalf of Toronto’s Jewish community and she did so on “X”. But two hours later, she also expressed sympathy for the cause of the Palestinian people, who have suffered injustices for decades at the hands of both the governments of Israel and all their neighbouring Arab allies as well. Perhaps as a lifelong New Democrat, a party which has always championed the Palestinian cause, she heard from sympathizers who didn’t like her first reaction.

But Chow quickly realized that perhaps expressing solidarity with the Palestinian side wasn’t the most important message to disseminate to Torontonians at that moment, as Israeli women, children, senior citizens, and Holocaust survivors were being massacred or taken hostage by a group that the Canadian government, and most of the Western world, deems a terrorist organization.

So, Chow did what smart politicians do. She took advice from others who pointed out the tone deafness and bad timing of her second statement. She retracted that statement and then replaced it with something that better reflected what the vast majority of Canadians seem to feel — that an attack that doesn’t target military installations, defensible in a state of war, but rather was designed to maximize as much terror on innocent civilians as possible is something that needed to be unequivocally condemned.

Chow then showed up to a rally at Mel Lastman Square and took to the stage before a very skeptical audience of Israel supporters. At first, there were some catcalls. But Chow’s personal sense of empathy and integrity came to the fore and, within minutes, she managed to turn the crowd. By the time her brief address was over, she was rewarded with significant applause.

Chow figured out that tone and timing are key. So, she switched her tone and presumably decided that any solidarity to be expressed for the Palestinian people could await another time.

Contrast that with two other Ontario leaders who made very different decisions. Fred Hahn heads the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. And Sarah Jama is the New Democrat MPP from Hamilton Centre. Both have spent considerable parts of their lives championing the Palestinian cause and excoriating Israel for its role in that tragedy. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Many Jews agree with them, that the plight of the Palestinian people is a stain on Israel’s record.

But again, tone and timing. As Israelis were being massacred and taken hostage, CUPE Local 3906, which represents 3,000 academic workers at McMaster University, put out a tweet saying: “Palestine is rising, long live the resistance.” Then Hahn, the local’s provincial president, added his own Thanksgiving message: “I’m thankful for the power of workers, the power of resistance around the globe. Resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress and for that I’m thankful.”

The outpouring this tweet prompted was immediate and furious. Numerous people also made the observation that Hahn, an openly gay man, would likely be tortured or killed if he tried to lead an open and honest life in Gaza.

But rather than reconsidering their tone and timing after the backlash, CUPE doubled down. The organization sent out a followup press release in which it said: “CUPE Ontario will always choose justice over injustice, side with the powerless over the powerful, and support the colonized over the colonizer.” Apparently, the mass murder of Jews by a terrorist organization doesn’t rise to CUPE’s level of injustice.

Then, Sarah Jama joined in. The MPP had already caused controversy when some of her past comments about Middle Eastern politics surfaced during her election campaign less than a year ago. Jama tweeted: “I’m reflecting on my role as a politician who is participating in this settler colonial system, and I ask that all politicians do the same.” She concluded with the hashtag: “#FreePalastine.” (Yes, she misspelled "Palestine").

Again, that might be a perfectly reasonable thing to tweet some weeks down the road when things have settled down and the immediate danger has passed. But is that a smart thing to tweet right now, as the corpses of 1,000 dead Israelis are still being collected and taken to graveyards, and when her leader, Marit Stiles, has asked her to take the message down? There are two synagogues within ten minutes’ drive of Jama’s constituency office. I wonder how their members feel about that statement?

Let me restate it: in politics, timing and tone are crucial. Those who believe, as Hamas does, that Jews should be driven into the sea and that Israel has no right to exist are entitled to express that view in a free and democratic society. Every responsible political leader in this province and country finds that view abhorrent, but it’s still legal to express.

But perhaps the best time to state that view isn’t while Israelis are being massacred in numbers not seen since the Holocaust more than seven decades ago.

Editor's note: Steve Paikin is a member of the TVO bargaining unit of the Canadian Media Guild that is on strike. The Trillium is pleased to announce that Paikin, a journalist with unparalleled knowledge of Ontario politics, will write a weekly column for The Trillium during the labour dispute. 

A previous version of this column mischaracterized a statement by Olivia Chow. It has been corrected here. 

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