Now sitting as an independent after being removed from the Ontario NDP caucus, MPP Sarah Jama — the voice of Hamilton Centre — is effectively silenced at Queen’s Park over statements she made on the Israel-Hamas war.
But where does that leave residents of her riding?
In an email to her constituents Tuesday evening, Jama reaffirmed her commitment to residents saying the censure “doesn’t mean I cannot advocate around issues important to Hamilton Centre.”
On Monday, the majority Progressive Conservatives voted in favour of a censure motion that acts as both a formal disapproval of Jama’s statements and calls on the speaker to not recognize her until a formal apology is made and her original statement is deleted on social media.
For the residents of Hamilton-Centre, the censure means Jama won’t be able to participate in public debate in the assembly where she can advocate for her riding.
On top of that, as an independent MPP, Jama will no longer have the backing of a major political party or the resources that come with being a part of the official opposition including staff and researchers.
Jama can still vote on legislation and participate in committees, though as an independent her chances of being appointed to any committees are far less likely.
The Hamilton Centre ONDP Riding Association issued a statement Thursday condemning Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles for Jama’s removal, saying “This shameful assault from the leader of our own party is nothing less than a capitulation to the grossly anti-democratic censure by the corrupt Doug Ford Conservative government.”
The association is calling for a leadership review for Stiles and that Jama’s removal be rescinded.
While the MPP has not publicly commented on the censure or her exile, she did state in the email to Hamilton Centre constituents that the removal came as a surprise.
Jama said office members “were immediately locked out of our emails, calendars, and databases that were used to communicate and help community members with issues that require immediate attention.”
A potentially ‘dangerous’ precedent
Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said Jama’s censure is a distinct case because the motion is usually reserved for people who don’t respect the rules of the legislature.
“The idea that the legislature should be an open space of debate where all kinds of views from the socially favourable to the ones that would be shocking to many people get a chance to be aired,” said Graefe.
“And so to take away someone’s voice for making comments that are within the realm of normal political debate in Canada — even if people find them despicable — is a very odd precedent to be setting and presumably a pretty dangerous one.”
The last censure motion was passed in 2022 against former MPP Randy Hillier over his racist and discriminatory remarks towards a federal minister and for publishing social media posts that insinuated a call to violence.
In Jama’s case, in a now pinned post on X, formerly known as Twitter, she called for an immediate ceasefire and to “end all occupation of Palestinian land and end apartheid,” as defined by UN special rapporteur Michael Lynk whose report is cited in the statement.
Jama’s comments did not mention Hamas or the deadly Oct. 7th attack on Israel which killed at least 1,400 people.
Stiles initially distanced the party from Jama’s comments and requested Jama take down the post. While Jama did not remove the post, she did issue an apology about 24 hours later that condemned Hamas.
In response to the initial post, Premier Doug Ford issued a statement claiming “Sarah Jama has a long and well-documented history of antisemitism,” adding that the Hamilton Centre MPP supports “the rape and murder of innocent Jewish people” even though her statement did not say that.
Jama has since then threatened to serve Ford with a libel lawsuit, arguing the premier’s comments have harmed her reputation.
Questioning the censure’s legality
Duff Conacher, co-founder of non-profit Democracy Watch which advocates for democratic reform, believes there may be room to fight the censure motion.
“There’s limits on what parliamentarians can do to each other,” he said.
“Yes, you can sanction them for lying in parliament if they’re convicted of a crime or other legal violation, but to penalize them for saying something that you don’t like outside the legislature, I don’t think the courts would uphold that.
With the riding of Hamilton Centre now left with no one to speak on their behalf at Queen’s Park, Conacher said one possibility may be to request the speaker to examine the censure motion to determine if the motion itself violated the Charter.
“Even if the Ontario legislature had clear rules that limit what an MPP can say outside of the legislature … those rules can’t violate the Charter right to freedom of expression,” Conacher said.
“Those rules … must be, really should be, enforced in an independent, impartial way. If not, it violates the right of employees to a fair process for deciding whether they have violated any of the rules of the legislature.”
‘An outsider within government’
Despite the censure and removal, McMaster University political science professor Clifton van der Linden said Jama may have more freedom now to advocate for causes outside the legislative assembly.
He says what she loses through the power of party affiliation, she does gain the ability to have more of “an unfiltered voice outside of Queen’s Park.”
“One would argue, perhaps, that Sarah Jama has a history of advocacy and activism outside of government anyway — of influencing government from the outside — so she will be more of an outsider despite being a sitting MPP,” van der Linden explained.
“To that end, she has exerted influence on Ontario politics as an activist outside the political apparatus of government so perhaps that history and experience will serve her well as an outsider within government.”
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