Linda Sarsour

By MYRON LOVE (with update by BERNIE BELLAN)
The Seven Oaks School Division has decided to cancel a booking of the Garden City Performance Arts Centre, which was scheduled to take place April 26. The booking had been made by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, which was planning on hosting a panel discussion titled  “Sorry, NOT Sorry! Unapologetically Working for Social Justice”.


The panel discussion (which is now scheduled to be held at the Ukrainina Labour Temple) is to be hosted in partnership with the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute in celebration of the SPCW’s 100th anniversary. The panel discussion plans to feature among its three panelists well-known American Muslim spokesperson Linda Sarsour, a woman who has defended the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Sarsour has also defended newly-elected American Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who  is also accused of  making antisemitic remarks. Sarsour herself has been accused of having made antisemitic remarks.
The panel discussion is also scheduled  to  include two Canadian women activists – educator and poet Tasha Spillet – who is of mixed Cree and Trinidadian background – and Nora Loreto, who has been described on a website called as a left-wing writer, activist and organizer who got herself into hot water by commenting on Twitter last April that “the staggering amount of money (over $10M at time of writing) donated in good faith to the community of Humboldt (in the aftermath of the tragic bus accident that resulted in the deaths of several members of the town’s hockey team) is a lovely gesture, but wouldn’t it be nice to spread that generosity around to those who don’t have the privilege of being born white”.

“When we booked the panel discussion, we only knew that the Social Planning Council is funded by the United Way,” says Seven Oaks School Division Superintendent Brian O’Leary. “This panel discussion was neither sponsored nor embraced by the Seven Oaks School Division.”
O’Leary adds that the division has let the SPCW know that the division was cancelling the booking because of the presence of Sarsour.

In its press release, the SPCW describes Sarsour as “an award winning racial justice and civil rights activist, community organizer and every Islamophobe’s worst nightmare.”
The Palestinian-Muslim-American, born and raised in Brooklyn, is the former Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and the co-founder of the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPower Change. She is a member of the Justice League NYC, a leading force of activists, artists, youth and formerly incarcerated individuals committed to criminal justice reform through direct action and policy advocacy.

Most recently, she was one of the national co-chairs of the largest single day protest in US history, the Women’s March on Washington. She has been named amongst 500 of the most influential Muslims in the world. She has won numerous awards including Champion of Change from the Obama Administration.
She was recognized as one of Fortune’s 50 Greatest Leaders and featured as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. She is a frequent media commentator on issues impacting Muslim communities, Middle East affairs and criminal justice reform and most recognized for her transformative intersectional organizing work and movement building.

The B’nai Brith League for Human Rights however, responded to Sarsour’s scheduled appearance in Winnipeg:
 Marty York, B’nai Brith’s chief media relations and communications officer, points out that Sarsour “has a history of associating with known antisemites and terrorists, belittling instances of anti-Jewish hatred, and promoting several antisemitic tropes herself”.

He cites her sharing a stage with Rasmea Odeh, a convicted terrorist who bombed a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), resulting in the murder of two young college students; rejecting the legitimacy of Zionism and stating that Zionist women should be excluded by feminist movements; promoting age-old antisemitic tropes such as accusing U.S. Jews of dual loyalty to Israel and U.S. politicians of being more loyal to Israel than to their own country; and, of course, consorting with Farakhan.

She has also been quoted as saying that “Jews condone violence against Arabs and are cool with mosques being attacked”; “there was something peculiar going on when leaders of US Jewish organizations had a meeting with Trump” and “that nothing is creepier than Zionism”.

Despite Sarsour’s very controversial reputation, Seven Oaks’ cancellation of the booking, a letter from the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg to the Social Planning Council (which the Federation has kept confidential), and an online petition with more than 1,000 names calling for Sarsour to be disinvited, the Social Planning Council has not disinvited Sarsour.

“We think Ms. Sarsour will contribute to the conversation which is about how to make the necessary societal and systemic changes needed to create a truly just society,” notes Kate Kehler, the SPCW’s executive director, in a press release. “She has been involved and led organizing efforts on a multitude of issues and has been recognized by the Obama White House as a “Champion of Change”.

On its website, the Social Planning Council defended its decision to invite Sarsour:

Our original venue cancelled our booking due to reaction to one of our panel speakers, Linda Sarsour. We have delayed our further response to ensure we took the time to listen to concerns raised. We’d like to thank those who have approached us in the spirit of civil discourse. We understand that the situation in the Middle East is an emotional issue for many, however, it was never to be the focus of our event.  

Please Note Guiding questions/themes for the panel:

  • Organizing across communities/cultures 
  • The role of education in movement building
  • Intergenerational communication
  • How to survive and grow through controversy 

Unfortunately, much of the negative reaction we received was hateful, violent, misogynistic and/or Islamophobic. We are expecting that the announcement of our new venue will engender much the same. We have added new links below to add to the discussion. For anyone who simply wants to know more, as always, please consider the source of any links (including ours!) for explicit, complicit, conscious or unconscious bias and, most importantly, please read past the headlines. There is a great deal of media coverage both critical and supportive of Ms. Sarsour.  We will not engage further by listing more and more links. The ones we have chosen to share offer perspective and/or context on the most prevalent criticisms of Ms. Sarsour. While we will maintain a space for constructive dialogue, offensive, violent content will be blocked, deleted and reported.   

We also heard the concerns around polarizing or dividing Winnipeg. The best way to avoid division is to commit to the relationship in which we all share as Winnipeggers. The best way to remain in relationship is through respectful and caring dialogue. 

In the spirit of achieving better mutual understanding, we would like to clarify three points:

  1. Our initial statement referenced colonialism playing a role in the establishment of Israel. This refers to how the world powers at the time, all with colonial histories, eager to absolve themselves of not doing all they could to prevent the Holocaust, forced a settlement of one people and the displacement of another.  In 1948, people living in the region, who also claim rights to the region, were dispossessed of their property and  possessions. Much harm to all has been the lasting legacy.
  2. Sorry Not Sorry was never a fundraiser. We wanted to mark our 100 years by looking forward, not back. We kept our ticket prices comparatively low as we wanted it to be as accessible as possible. The $60 ticket with partial tax receipt is to offset the low-income ticket of $15.
  3. Our date was chosen as it relates to the founding of our organization in 1919 and other General Strike commemoration events that we knew were in the planning stages. That there was a synagogue across the street did not resonate with us given that our intended discussion was not to be about the conflict in the Middle East. In hindsight, it should have. Our oversight has given the impression to some that we were intending to be offensive. This was not the case. However, we wholeheartedly apologize for that impression.

We invite you once again to this discussion about working together to create a truly just society. This amazing panel of activists will share their successes and perspectives on making the changes that challenge the status quo and addresses bias. A moderated question and answer session is scheduled to allow the conversation to be community based.