Reading about the circumstances of the Palestinians in Gaza, I was reminded of a piece of our own history: the infamous pass system.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Indians of Western Canada signed treaties with the Canadian government yielding control over their territories. They believed they were to share their land with the newcomers with reserves set aside for their specific use.

They got quite a shock. They were not to share the land at all, but were to be confined to their reserves. Their sanctuaries turned out to be open air prisons. In 1885 the Department of Indian affairs instituted a pass system. An Indian was not allowed to leave his/her reserve unless granted a pass by the local Indian agent. The pass stated when they could leave, where they could go and when they had to return. If a person left without permission and was caught by police, they could be arrested, taken back to their reserve, and even punished.

The segregation and restrictions on mobility contributed to loss of culture, strained family relations, reduced economic prospects and distrust of the government and police.

The country eventually came to its moral senses, phasing out the system in the 1930s. In 1960, the Indian people were finally allowed to vote in federal elections, and today we attempt to bring them into full citizenry with Reconciliation.

The people of Gaza know all about a pass system. Like the Indians, they cannot leave Gaza, their “reserve,” without getting a pass from their captors. Nothing gets in or out of Gaza without approval of the Israelis, unless of course it’s smuggled.

Most Gazans are refugees or descendants of refugees from other parts of Palestine. Like the Indians, they are captives in their own country.

And as with the Indians, it affects all aspects of their lives from visiting relatives on the West Bank to building an economy. The constraints on movement and access of goods both within the West Bank and Gaza severely limit business enterprise.

We were very lucky. Our oppression of the Indians didn’t lead, as might be expected, to a violent explosion of anger. Gaza’s oppressors have not been so lucky. Until they recognize the iniquity of caging people, they can expect more bad luck.

International human rights law guarantees refugees the right to return to the territory they are from and reside in areas where they or their families once lived. Furthermore, the Palestinian right of return has been confirmed repeatedly by the UN General Assembly, including through Resolution 3236 which “Reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted.”

As we eventually freed the Indian people to once again move unhindered about their homeland, so should the Gazans be freed to move about theirs. Let them go home. If their houses have been razed and their land given to settlers, compensate them and let them live and work where they choose be it Gaza City, Hebron or Tel Aviv.

And as we gave the Indians the rights of citizens so should the Gazans have theirs. The Canadian model—one country, a plurality of peoples, equal rights—could be a solution to the unending hostility. It takes work but we have made a success of it, and I’m confident the Arabs and Jews are as capable as we are.

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