Published October 16, 2023

Trudeau calls for release of Hamas hostages, says three Canadians may be among them

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Hamas to immediately release the people being held hostage in Gaza, which he saysmay include at least three missing Canadians.

Trudeau spoke in Parliament for the first time Monday since fighters stormed into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, killing hundreds of people and taking a reported 199 people hostage.

"Five Canadians were murdered by Hamas terrorists. Three Canadians are reported missing and may be hostages," he told MPs in the House of Commons.

He continued in French, saying, "Canada asks Hamas to free all the hostages immediately."

Canada has listed Hamas as a terrorist entity since 2002. In his address to Parliament, Trudeau reiterated how militants with the group are not "freedom fighters" as some supporters and protesters have suggested in demonstrations in Canada in the wake of the attacks.

"Terrorism is always indefensible and nothing can justify Hamas's acts of terror and the killing, maiming and abduction of civilians."

As family members in Canada and other countries struggle to find their missing relatives, Canadian officials have declined to provide details about any potential hostages, warning that doing so could affect their safety.

Speaking in Parliament, Melissa Lantsman, one of the Conservatives' deputy leaders, said Canada "could do more and they must do more" when it comes to Canadians possibly taken hostage.

"Demand their release again and again."

Lantsman, as well as the Israeli consulate in Toronto, identified the fifth Canadian killed as 21-year-old Netta Epstein. The consulate said Epstein, who died on Oct. 7 as Hamas fighters stormed into Israel, was shot as he and his girlfriend sheltered in a safe room, and he then jumped on a grenade thrown by the attackers to shield his girlfriend, who survived the attack.

Trudeau said around 1,300 passengers have left Israel aboard flights arranged by the Canadian Armed Forces. Earlier in the day, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly confirmed a group of Canadians have also crossed safely from the West Bank into neighbouring Jordan as the violence continues.

The federal government says 21 Canadians, plus 10 people from Australia and New Zealand, took a bus out of the Palestinian territory, which Israel has occupied since 1967 and where it has established numerous Jewish settlements.

But the situation in Gaza is much more dire. Israel has further blockaded the territory and has cut access to electricity, food, water and humanitarian aide. More than a million people have been displaced from their homes as bombs continue to fall and the UN has warned that hospitals are about to run out of fuel and supplies.

Trudeau acknowledged the worsening humanitarian crisis and called for "unimpeded humanitarian access and a humanitarian corridor so that essential aide like food, fuel and water can be delivered to civilians in Gaza."

"It is imperative that this happen."

However, he did not call for a ceasefire, as NDP MP Heather McPherson did earlier during Question Period, and stopped short of calling for Israel to end its bombardment of the 2.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza.

Canada was still working to get up to 300 citizens and their relatives out of Gaza, which is braced for an expected ground invasion by Israeli forces.

A plan to allow foreign nationals to leave the 365-square-kilometre coastal stretch via the border crossing with Egypt fell through on Saturday.

Officials say more than 6,800 Canadians are registered with Global Affairs in Israel, and more than 450 in both the West Bank and Gaza.

David Wallach, a Calgary businessman who moved to Canada from Israel 25 years ago, was in Tel Aviv for a family holiday when the conflict began.

He and his family planned to get on one of the Canadian airlifts, but ended up taking a charter paid for by a donor from Toronto.

He also said evacuations from Israel should have happened sooner.

"When you wait, and the war escalates, it's tougher to take those people out," he said.

"If the Canadian government would have had that plan in advance and started evacuating people Sunday and Monday, by now most Canadians would already be out of harm."

Wallach said it was tough leaving family members behind and he worries about Canadians in the West Bank and Gaza who are still trying to find a way home.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather,who hails from Montreal, said Monday the Jewish community in Canada is devastated and families are living in fear as police in major cities monitor for antisemitic threats.

He said Israel has a right to respond and to defend its borders.

"At this point you have a western democracy that was attacked by a terrorist group that had the worst killing of Jews in any day since the Holocaust," he said.

Last week, Trudeau pledged Canada would provide $10 million in humanitarian aid, which would flow to the Red Cross as well as other UN agencies.

The prime minister on Monday pledged that none of that money would go to Hamas.

Meanwhile, Trudeau's government continues to avoid saying whether it agrees with the United Nations that Israel's total siege on Gaza violates international humanitarian law, since it blocks access to the essentials of life.

Israel's President Isaac Herzog has rejected that characterization, saying last Friday that Palestinians are collectively responsible for Hamas's crimes.

"It is an entire nation out there that is responsible," he said. "It is not true, this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza."

House Leader Karina Gould would not say whether Canada agrees with Herzog when pressed, instead repeating previous statements that Canada supports both Israel and international law.

Mental Health Minister Ya'ara Saks, who is a dual national, spoke at a Monday press conference on antisemitism but left ahead of when the event turned to questions from reporters.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press and Bill Graveland in Calgary, Dylan Robertson in Ottawa and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal

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