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Keffiyeh-waving protesters banned from Ontario legislature

TORONTO — Four protesters who unfurled keffiyehs inside Ontario’s legislature and were subsequently kicked out have been banned from Queen’s Park.

Mariam Bebawy said she and three friends from York Centre 4 Palestine were given trespass notices last week from the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s sergeant-at-arms after they held out their keffiyehs and began chanting “free free Palestine” during question period.

Bebawy’s notice said she is prohibited from entering the premises of the main legislative building and a government building nearby.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” Bebawy told The Canadian Press. “It’s pretty racist, honestly.”

A keffiyeh is a checkered scarf typically worn in Arab cultures that has come to symbolize, in part, solidarity with Palestinians.

Speaker Ted Arnott banned keffiyehs at the legislature earlier this year, saying they are being worn to make a political statement. All four party leaders, including Premier Doug Ford, have asked for the ban to be overturned.

Neither Arnott’s office nor sergeant-at-arms Tim McGough responded to several requests for comment.

Last Tuesday, NDP Leader Marit Stiles filed a motion seeking unanimous consent of the house to overturn the keffiyeh ban. It failed after at least one Progressive Conservative legislator objected. It was Stiles’ second attempt to reverse the ban.

Sarah Jama, who sits as an independent after being kicked out of the NDP caucus last year, took out a keffiyeh and draped it over her shoulders during that time. No one seemed to notice and she wore it until the end of question period.

Around the same time, Bebawy and her friends sitting in the public gallery took out their keffiyehs and began shouting various chants, including “you can’t cancel us.”

Legislative security acted quickly and escorted the four out of the building without incident.

Two days later, Jama donned the keffiyeh again during question period and was ordered out of the chamber by the Speaker. She refused to leave and remained in the chamber. Arnott later said he was not prepared to use physical force to remove Jama.

Jama has said the ban is racist and has vowed to continue wearing the keffiyeh inside the chamber.

Bebawy said she and her friends offered little resistance other than refusing to take off their keffiyehs as security marched them through the building to the door.

“The supervisor was saying that we were resisting, that we weren’t leaving right away and that we wanted to stay inside the gallery, but that wasn’t true,” she said.

The incident in the chamber lasted about a minute before they left in silence.

Bebawy said they were at first cautioned by security to never do that again, but minutes later that was upgraded to a written trespass notice.

There is one exception to the notice: if they have a confirmed appointment with a Member of Provincial Parliament they will be escorted to and from that meeting at Queen’s Park.

“Any contravention of this order may result in you being arrested and charged under the Trespass to Property Act,” the sergeant-at-arms wrote.

Bebawy said security told her she can reach out to the Speaker after a year to try to get the ban rescinded.

Last year, several members of Neskantaga First Nation were kicked out of the legislature for yelling down at Ford during question period over his plans to mine the Ring of Fire region in northern Ontario.

Chief Chris Moonias was kicked out of the chamber, but was not given a trespass notice and he has returned to Queen’s Park several times since. A few others from Neskantaga were given warnings from the sergeant-at-arms that said their disruptions were considered demonstrations and therefore prohibited.

“Should you engage in this behaviour in the future you may be arrested under the Ontario Trespass to Property Act and/or banned from the Ontario Legislature by order of the Speaker,” wrote Jacquelyn Gordon, the previous sergeant-at-arms.

Politicians are not at Queen’s Park this week but the legislature resumes sitting Monday. Stiles has said she and “the community” will defy the keffiyeh ban if it is not reversed by then.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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