Manitoba·First Person

Hope, disappointment, self-censorship: What it's like to be a Palestinian Canadian

"Palestine is my homeland and Canada is my adopted country. I love both," says Idris Elbakri. But while living in Canada has helped "process my Palestinian experience and understand it more deeply ... not everything Canada taught me was positive," he says.

'I cannot speak frankly and honestly through my pain and the pain of those I love,' says Idris Elbakri

Palestinian and Israeli protesters faced off in front of the Manitoba Legislature on May 15, 2021. 'Oppressed and dispossessed people cannot be raw and unfiltered,' says Idris Elbakri. 'Our raw and real experiences can get too uncomfortable for our audiences.' (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

This First Person article is the experience of Idris Elbakri, a Canadian Palestinian living in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.


I am a proud Canadian Palestinian. Palestine is my homeland and Canada is my adopted country. I love both.

Interestingly, Canada equipped me with tools and concepts to help me process my Palestinian experience and understand it more deeply. Canada's welcome of refugees showed me that there is no shame in being the grandson of Palestinian refugees.

Welcoming and assisting refugees gave me firsthand appreciation to what Jiddo and Tata (Grandpa and Grandma) might have gone through when they fled the onslaught of the Jewish militias on their neighbourhood in Haifa in 1948.  

When I hear of the hopes (unrealistic as they may be) of some new Canadians to return to their countries of origin for even just a visit, I understand why my jiddo refused to buy a house in the diaspora. He always wanted to go home. 

My grandparents did not willingly choose to leave Palestine, they were forced to, and they never got over it.

I also acquired vocabulary. Thanks to the amazing resilience and powerful sharing of Indigenous Canadians, I became more able to explain my own experience and that of my family.

After a ceasefire following 11 days of violence last month, a family stands in front of what was left of the building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza. 'Original experiences of being turned into refugees overnight … losing loved ones to war, feeling threatened in your very existence, all percolate through the decades,' says Elbakri. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

I learned about intergenerational trauma, which aptly explains some of the experiences of our family, from grandparents who witnessed the Nakba (or "catastrophe" — the term Palestinians use for the uprooting that occurred after they fled or were driven out in the 1948 war) onto great-grandchildren growing up dispersed in the diaspora. 

Original experiences of being turned into refugees overnight, raising families in poverty, yearning to return to the homeland, losing loved ones to war, feeling threatened in your very existence, all percolate through the decades and manifest themselves through successive generations of Palestinian families who grow up loving Palestine and living with the burdens of that love.

Another term is colonial settler violence, which truly centres the Palestinian experience in the context of Western colonialism, which created and still enables the state of Israel. 

This also makes me realistically pessimistic about change coming on the heels of successive Israeli elections. A settler-colonial system will perpetuate itself and change will not come because there is a change in who the Israeli prime minister is. A settler-colonial system will only yield ground when it is resisted.

'I have learned to self-censor'

Not everything Canada taught me was positive. I have learned to self-censor and muzzle. I cannot speak frankly and honestly through my pain and the pain of those I love. 

Oppressed and dispossessed people cannot be raw and unfiltered. Our audience holds us to a higher standard than others. Our raw and real experiences can get too uncomfortable for our audiences, and the accusatory label of antisemitism is just a press release or social media post away. 

We are expected to affirm all our oppressor's rights while never getting the recognition of our pain and suffering, let alone our rights.

Victims across the world get names and personalities, but not us.… We 'are shot,' 'injured' or just 'die.' Too often, no one will tell you who shot us, injured us, or made us die. ​​​​​​- Idris Elbakri

Western politicians, for example, will not typically speak about the right of the Palestinians to exist or to defend themselves, as they usually unequivocally affirm for Israel, let alone recognize the 1948 onset of our Nakba, the ongoing catastrophe of ethnic cleansing and dispossession.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé documented the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the 1948 war, as part of what was called Plan D, and ever since there have been systematic and consistent policies, such as confiscation of land to establish settlements and gradually emptying Jerusalem of its Palestinian residents. 

Imperfect, but 'Canada also gives me hope'

In Canada I also learned to be faceless and nameless. When the government expresses "concern" when our suffering gets uncomfortable for people, one cannot tell who it is concerned about.

It is all left very ambiguous. Typically in Western media, we are not identified when we are victims. Even CBC will use polite terms like "police tactics" to refer to militarized police storming a house of worship or "eviction" for forcible expulsion of families from their homes.

Victims across the world get names and personalities, but not us. We are commonly referred to in the passive voice. We "are shot," "injured" or just "die." Too often, no one will tell you who shot us, injured us, or made us die. To my knowledge, not a single Canadian newspaper published the pictures of the 67 children who were killed by the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza. An Israeli newspaper had to do it.

But Canada also gives me hope, imperfect as it is. I speak to my Palestinian friends of the Canadian model, a confederacy inclusive of several nations that celebrates its multiculturism and is grappling with its wrongs of the past. I am inspired by Indigenous Canadians who repeatedly put a mirror in our face and confront us to correct the wrongs of the past.

Maybe at some point in the not-too-distant future, a Jewish child will get up in her school built over the ruins of a Palestinian village destroyed by her predecessor generations and state her own land acknowledgement: 

"We acknowledge that our school stands on the homeland of the Palestinian people. We acknowledge the Palestinian Nakba and the harms of Zionism and commit to nurturing reconciliation with Palestinians based on the principles of justice and truth." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Idris Elbakri is a Canadian Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and has called Winnipeg home for over 15 years.

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