Some unions, politicians and universities in Ontario are facing backlash over statements they made in response to Hamas’s deadly attacks in Israel over the weekend, with the province’s Premier condemning a leader at a major public-sector union.
That leader, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, drew the ire of Premier Doug Ford and Jewish groups for making social-media statements in which he celebrated “resistance” and criticized Israel. Some universities, meanwhile, endured criticism when they issued vague comments that did not mention the brutal violence perpetrated by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow deleted some of her own social-media posts about the violence. The first, posted Saturday on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, condemned Hamas’s attacks on civilians. About two hours later, in a second post, Ms. Chow lamented Palestinian suffering and loss of life. Late that night, a third post combined the sentiments of the previous two. Ms. Chow later said she had deleted the initial two posts “because of the harm and confusion they caused.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Chow defended her decision to weigh in on the fraught situation, saying many Toronto residents were left reeling by the weekend’s events. She acknowledged that neither of the initial posts from her mayoral account fully addressed the situation. She said the problem with the first two posts was that they could be read in isolation, leaving people with an incomplete understanding of her message.
“There’s so much pain, anguish, hurt, emotional trauma felt by a lot of people,” Ms. Chow said.
Sarah Jama, a New Democrat member of Ontario’s provincial legislature, issued a statement Tuesday in which she called for the end “of all occupation of Palestinian land” and an end to “apartheid.” Three Jewish groups – the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center – are now calling for her removal from caucus.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles later said the party did not approve Ms. Jama’s statement. Ms. Stiles called on Ms. Jama to issue a retraction, but did not remove her from caucus.
Mr. Hahn, whose CUPE Ontario represents almost 300,000 workers and calls itself the “political wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees,” said in one social-media post on Sunday, the day after the initial attacks, that he was thankful for “the power of resistance around the globe.”
He added that “resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress.” He also shared an image on Instagram that contained the text, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a phrase associated with calls for the destruction of Israel.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ford condemned Mr. Hahn’s posts. Mr. Ford said in a statement that he does not believe Mr. Hahn’s views reflect those of the tens of thousands of workers represented by the union.
“The comments by the president of CUPE Ontario glorifying and celebrating the rape, abduction and murder of innocent Israeli people are disturbing, and I denounce them wholeheartedly,” the statement said.
Richard Marceau, the vice-president of external affairs and general counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, called on CUPE, at both the provincial and national levels, to distance itself from Mr. Hahn’s comments and replace him as president.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Hahn defended the posts.
“We are proud of our longstanding support for the rights of Palestinians, including their right to resist oppression and occupation, and we are proud of the leading role that many of CUPE’s locals have played in this work,” Mr. Hahn said.
CUPE Ontario released a statement in which it said it had been targeted by “trolls,” including the “highly organized pro-Israel lobby that seeks to control the anti-Palestinian narrative fed to Canadians.” The statement condemned both the Hamas attack and the subsequent retaliatory strikes by Israel.
CUPE Local 3906, which represents teaching assistants, postdoctoral fellows and sessional faculty at McMaster University, also drew criticism over the weekend for a social-media post. The union local posted a message, since deleted, that said, “Palestine is rising, long live the resistance,” and included a quote from Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani.
In a statement on Tuesday, the local’s executive committee defended the post, saying they “refute the conflation” between support for Palestine and “condoning violence against civilians.”
McMaster said in a statement that the union local is independent and has the right to express its views, but that the university disagrees with any message that condones violence.
Both McMaster and the University of Toronto also faced criticism related to their public statements about the attacks.
A statement from McMaster began with the phrase, “Violence is never the answer and we hope that everyone would focus on the human costs when such attacks on civilians occur.” It added: “Our thoughts are with our students, faculty and staff, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have family and loved ones in the area.” An initial statement from the University of Toronto expressed concern for the safety of students and faculty in the Middle East, and those who have friends or family there.
Several social-media users reacted with outrage to the statements, which they characterized as inappropriately ambivalent. Andrew Morris, a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, was among them.
In an interview, Dr. Morris criticized both his own school and McMaster, where he taught for several years, for not describing the violence as a terrorist attack, and for not specifying that it had occurred in Israel and targeted Jews.
He added that the vagueness of the statements reflects a widespread cowardice among institutions when it comes to speaking plainly about attacks on Jews.
“I am absolutely gobsmacked by all of this and disgusted,” he said. “If it were any other group massacred by terrorists, it would be different.”
Joseph Wong, who serves as vice-president, international at the University of Toronto, said in an e-mailed statement that the aim of the initial message, published on Sunday, was to share resources with those affected by the outbreak of war. He pointed to a statement the university made on Monday, in which it described the events as an attack on Israel’s civilian population and condemned acts of terrorism and kidnapping.
With a report from Oliver Moore