The UTM administration and Jill Dunlop — Ontario minister of colleges and universities — have both publicly criticized the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s (UTMSU) October 10 statement in solidarity with Palestine and innocent civilians affected by the ongoing violence.
In the wake of the controversy, the UTMSU has accused both the UTM administration and Dunlop of silencing student voices and pressuring the union to take pro-Israel views.
The UTMSU’s statement, released three days after Hamas attacked Israel and the Israeli military began bombing Gaza, expressed solidarity with “all Palestinians and innocent civilians affected by the ongoing conflict in Gaza and around its borders.”
The statement discusses the 16-year blockade that the Israeli government has placed on Gaza and focuses on the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli government against Palestinians.
“This statement in no means justifies or accepts the killing of innocent people,” the statement reads. “The conflict between Israel and Palestine is about the self-determination and freedom of the Palestinian people and their right to resist an apartheid regime and the forced dispossession of their territory.”
In an interview with The Varsity, UTMSU President Gulfy Bekbolatova explained that as a student union — and as humans — she believes “it is [the UTMSU’s] job to stand [with] people who are being oppressed, people who are being impacted by military occupations, by genocide.”
UTM administration’s response
In response to the UTMSU’s statement, UTM Principal and Vice-President Alexandra Gillespie released a statement on October 13, which U of T emailed to UTM students. “It is entirely inappropriate for [the UTMSU] to express a position that does not represent the views of its full membership,” Gillespie wrote.
Bekbolatova described Gillespie’s response as “an attempt to censor students and student voices.”
The university’s Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations affirms the value of student unions “operating independently and without interference from the University in their day-to-day operations” but specifies that groups must exercise this autonomy while complying with laws and U of T policies.
Following the administration’s response, the UTMSU and UTM administration, including Gillespie, met on October 23.
Bekbolatova alleged that during the meeting, UTMSU executives asked administration officials, including Gillespie, if UTM would have not condemned the UTMSU’s statement had the statement taken a stance supporting Israel. “They nodded their heads, which is really shocking because, to me and to the executives in the union, it shows that there is a stance that… the university is taking,” she said.
U of T’s Statement on Freedom of Speech commits the university to “not limit [the fullest range of] debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.”
On November 9, UTM students participated in a walkout calling for a ceasefire and an end to the dehumanization of Palestinians. Bekbolatova claimed that Gillespie agreed to address the students participating in the walkout but backed out at the last minute.
“Many, many students afterwards came to me, came to the union, [and] just amongst each other, they were very, very disappointed because they really wanted the administration to be there, to see them, to acknowledge and address them,” Bekbolatova said.
According to Bekbolatova, during the protest, UTMSU executives posted papers with the names and ages of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military in the William G. Davis Building.
Bekbolatova alleges that after putting the papers up, Campus Safety officials came to them and told students they would be taking the posters down once the students left. She noted that this felt like another attempt to censor students and prevent them from organizing in a peaceful way.
In a statement to The Varsity, a UTM spokesperson wrote that UTMSU members removed the posters at the end of the protest, “in accordance with postering guidelines.”
On November 14, UTM students, with the support of the UTMSU, organized a sit-in during a Campus Council meeting. Approximately 20 students participated in the sit-in, where they held signs with three demands for Campus Council members: stop censorship of student voices, provide academic accommodations to students who are impacted by the ongoing conflict, and demand the university call for a ceasefire.
Bekbolatova said that a council member tried to raise a motion to allow the participants to speak. The meeting chair rejected the request, claiming that the protesters needed to submit a request to speak 24 hours before the meeting to get onto the agenda.
The UTM spokesperson highlighted the Procedures for Non-Members to Address Governing Council, its Boards and Committees. The procedures state that for individuals to speak about topics not related to a specific agenda item, a member of the respective committee must present a motion to grant them speaking time, which must receive at least a two-thirds majority to pass.
The procedures don’t specify a time at which individuals must submit a request to speak. However, the request to speak form states that individuals should submit requests to address most governing bodies by 5:00 pm the day before the meeting and that request submitted after this deadline “will not normally be granted.”
“Moving forward, we will continue to escalate until our voices are heard and our demands and concerns are addressed [by] the university because they have not been addressed at all,” she said.
Minister Jill Dunlop’s response
On October 17, Dunlop publicly condemned the UTMSU’s statement in provincial Parliament. She claimed that the UTMSU’s statement “praises Hamas terrorist actions as necessary” and called on UTM to investigate the student union for non-academic misconduct. Dunlop proceeded to read the names of the UTMSU executives in Parliament, because “these students put their names on letters in public supporting Hamas.”
Bekbolatova noted that after Dunlop’s comments, many students came to the executives, expressing concerns about being “condemned [and] called out” for publicly speaking on the ongoing violence.
The UTMSU released a statement addressing Dunlop’s remarks on October 25, claiming that her comments were “defamatory and unjust.”
“These alarming claims are incorrect and they were perceived by students as an attempt by the Minister to dox and incite hateful, dangerous harassment targeted at the UTMSU and students who advocate against anti-Palestinian racism,” the statement reads.
The statement calls on Dunlop to “recommit to the Ontario government’s 2018 requirement for post-secondary institutions to ensure freedom of speech on campus’ is upheld.”
Dunlop has yet to provide any response to the UTMSU’s statement or The Varsity’s request for comment.
Editor’s note (January 14): This article originally incorrectly stated that a council member’s motion to grant the protesters speaking time failed. In fact, the chair did not allow the motion to go forward for a vote.