Feds appeal ruling on whether West Bank wine labels can say 'Product of Israel'

OTTAWA — The federal government is asking the Federal Court of Appeal to quash an order that said wines from the West Bank couldn't carry a "Product of Israel" label.

A notice filed Friday said the government plans to argue that a Federal Court judge erred by bringing in charter rights, specifically freedom of expression, when she weighed the actions of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency when officials first approved the labels.

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The legal manoeuvre, which pro-Israel groups applauded, adds a new twist in the politically charged dispute, now nearly three years old, over whether bottles from the Psagot Winery and Shiloh Winery in the West Bank can be characterized as coming from Israel.

The agency initially stripped the wines of the label in July 2017 after a formal complaint from Winnipeg resident David Kattenburg, but then reversed course shortly afterward following an outcry from some Jewish groups.

None of the parties and interveners in the case considered the West Bank to be territory of the state of Israel, which means the labels are fundamentally inaccurate, the Federal Court ruling said.

Justice Anne Mactavish wrote in her late July ruling that because the wines weren't labelled as products of the West Bank, Canadians were unable to make informed decisions as consumers, particularly if they wanted to "buy conscientiously."

Within days of the ruling, B'nai Brith Canada urged government lawyers to appeal. Weeks later, the government heard an opposing appeal from Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, which called Mactavish's ruling "fair and reasonable."

Government lawyers in their notice to the Federal Court of Appeal argue Mactavish erred when she failed to apply that standard of "reasonableness" to the agency's decision the wines could be sold as labelled.

The notice also says she erred when she said CFIA officials "did not consider the relevant charter values and weigh them against the statutory and regulatory objectives."

B'nai Brith Canada called the decision to appeal "the only reasonable option available" to the government in this case.

The organization also said that having the matter settled in court would affect other products from the West Bank, pointing to a decision in early August by Ontario's liquor control board to hold up the sale of wines produced by Palestinians in the area that relied on Mactavish's ruling as a justification.

Another group involved in the case, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the agency's decision to accept the "Product of Israel" label was reasonable because the wines came from areas considered Israeli territory under the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

Kattenburg's lawyer called the government's decision to appeal "indefensible" because federal lawyers acknowledged in the case that the West Bank is occupied Palestinian territory, and "it is not part of Israel."

"This has been the official policy of the Canadian government for decades," said Dimitri Lascaris. He added that the Liberal government's decision to appeal "makes a mockery of its claim to be committed to a 'rules-based international order.'"

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