Gaza Protests in Toronto: Marching Orders for the Police?

Since when did the Toronto Police take their marching orders from a single ethno-religious group while ignoring others?

Since about a week ago, it turns out.

How did we go from the police making efforts to control – and even befriend – the pro-Palestine demonstrators on Toronto’s Avenue Road bridge by bringing them Tim Hortons coffee, to Police Chief Demkiw threatening demonstrators with arrest for merely showing up to picket on the same bridge. “People can expect to be arrested, if necessary,” Demkiw said during a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Thursday,

“Activities that take place on the Avenue Road overpass in the surrounding areas will be investigated with a criminal lens.”

Three Questions…

How does it happen that dropping a couple of ceasefire banners from the bridge railing is considered next thing to a hate crime?

How is it that the mere presence of Jewish people living in the vicinity (and they are 2.4% of Toronto’s population) means they can dictate who can be on their streets in an anti-war protest?

How are Palestinian flags and pro-peace banners verging on hate crimes?

All are good questions and ones that deserve straight answers. But what we find is far murkier.

On 6 January, some Toronto police brought coffee to a few demonstrators on the bridge that crosses Highway 401. The demonstrators, members of Action For Palestine, propped up about a dozen Palestinian flags on the bridge – which waved in the wind, well above the cars speeding on the highway below.

Banners have been dropped from that and other bridges around the city and the country. Nearly a month ago on 23 December, pro-Palestinian activists dropped a 30-metre vertical banner which read “Free Palestine”, with the Palestinian flag on it, from a bridge across the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto.

In May, 2023, union activists dropped banners from overpasses in Barrie, Port Severn, Orillia, and Muskoka as part of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) day of action on the affordability crisis.

As far back as 23 May, 2021, activists tied banners to several bridges across Highway 401. They were protesting Israel’s eleven straight days of bombing Gaza which destroyed four high-rise towers, 40 schools, four hospitals, and the Al Shati refugee camp. At least 246 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children.

In October 2021, demonstrators hung banners over the handrails at the Jameson Avenue bridge overlooking the eastbound Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. One sign read, “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions: Weapons Ban on Israel” and a second one, “Honk Your Horns for Palestine.” There was also a Palestinian flag draped over the railing.

Across the country there have been scores of banner drops for Palestine as well as for causes as disparate as Indigenous rights, abortion access, protection of animals, and opposing the military air show (at the CNE). None of these banner drops have been prevented, nor have there been arrests. The police didn’t seem to have a problem with banner drops and flags as long as the actions were over in a day. So why did the flags on the Wilson overpass elicit the sudden tough police response, which included the threats of arrests? Especially after a more tolerant one the week before?

Offer of free coffee made the establishment Jewish community angry

Simple: the establishment Jewish community hates the fact that the police decided to treat pro-Palestine demonstrators to coffee. While it’s been long held that it is better for police to try to engage protesters and gain their cooperation rather than battle them, the establishment Jewish community will have none of it.

The establishment Jewish community wants the world to hear their side of the Gaza story: the Hamas “terrorists” provoked the deadly Israeli response on October 7 and took 200+ hostages. But the establishment Jewish community will not allow free speech for the other side – those who call for a ceasefire, who want Israel held accountable for killing nearly 25,000 Palestinians – including more than 10,000 children. What the supporters of Israel want to do is to stifle pro-Palestinian voices. To that end, dozens of Canadians have been fired, threatened with being fired, or had their careers cut short because they dared to speak out for Gaza or even sign a petition for peace. My article “Censorship and Civil Terror in Canada,” and The Maple’s earlier article “A List Of Some People In Canada Fired For Pro-Palestine Views” backs up these points. As well, Larry Haiven explored attempts to ban pro-Palestine rallies entirely in an article in October in Canadian Dimension.

What’s truly enervating is this: after Toronto Police Chief grovelled his apology for his officers’ behaviour (giving coffee to the demonstrators), he repeated the tropes that it was dangerous for demonstrators to hang banners from the bridge. When that didn’t “wash” for the establishment Jewish community leaders, he amended his views. Now his reason for stopping picketing, banner dropping, waving flags is all about his “unwavering support for” and the “safety of the Jewish Community.” He, and his superiors on the Police Commission, got their marching orders: any demonstration near that Wilson bridge is antisemitic because Jews get offended and they live in the neighbourhood.

Yet somehow, with all the banner drops and flag waving in support of Palestine over the last three years – no one accused activists of antisemitism before. Now any talk against Israel and in favour of stopping its war on Gaza is antisemitic. •

Judy Haiven is a retired management professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. She is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. You can reach her at She blogs at