After a public backlash and calls for his resignation, the vice-president of the largest trade union in Canada has apologized for posting a social media message celebrating “the power of resistance” the day after Hamas militants slaughtered Israeli civilians.
CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn expressed his regrets as politicians and university student unions are facing pressure to walk back comments that have been interpreted as justifying the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.
Mr. Hahn’s apology, released by the national organization on Saturday, said the timing of his post was wrong.
“That was an error, and I apologize. My social media posts became a giant lightning rod for both legitimate anger, and also for bad faith actors with a divisive agenda,” Mr. Hahn said. “Causing any form of pain to our members was never my intent, but I understand that it has been the impact. I am deeply sorry for this unintended consequence.”
On Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Hahn, whose CUPE Ontario represents almost 300,000 workers, said in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that he was thankful for “the power of resistance around the globe.”
“Resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress,” he wrote, sharing an image on Instagram that contained the text, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a rallying cry for Palestinians that many Jewish groups associate with calls for the destruction of Israel.
Political leaders including federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and Ontario Premier Doug Ford denounced the comments, saying they glorified violence against innocent civilian Israelis.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Hahn doubled down a week later, saying the union is “proud of our long-standing 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.”
In his apology on Saturday, Mr. Hahn said, “Hamas committed a horrific terrorist attack on civilians in Israel,” and that he has never endorsed violence.
However, his statement has not placated all of his critics. Carrie Silverberg, a CUPE member who formerly held an executive position in local 1734, said she believes the apology is disingenuous.
She noted that the statement was released just ahead of CUPE’s national convention in Quebec City beginning on Monday – an event that is supposed to bring the members together in solidarity.
“I don’t believe this came from his heart,” said Ms. Silverberg. “If he truly realized that what he said was wrong I think it would have taken a lot less than two weeks.”
The pressure to rescind public statements about the Hamas-Israeli war has also extended to university campuses.
Last week, Toronto’s York University gave three student unions an ultimatum after they released a joint statement on the attacks, calling them an “act of Palestinian resistance against so-called Israel.” The student unions have until Wednesday to take remedial action, or alternatively prove they didn’t breach university rules against discrimination, or York could withdraw their recognition.
Last week, York University president and vice-chancellor Rhonda Lenton said the student unions’ joint statement, posted after the attack of Israeli civilians, “has been widely interpreted as a justification for attacking civilians and a call to violence,” and caused “serious concerns, outrage and fear” to be expressed by many.
“Freedom of speech is not absolute,” wrote Dr. Lenton in a statement. “Despite multiple efforts to engage the student unions’ leaders to address the serious and ongoing harms created by their statement, the groups have yet to take any of the steps set out by the university, and the situation remains urgent.”
The union leaders are accused of breaching their responsibilities, which include failing to operate in an open, accessible, democratic and non-discriminatory manner, and acting against the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the university.
The remedial choices include resigning, retracting the statement, or issuing a public statement denouncing antisemitism and violence that also acknowledges harm done to members and the community.
York Federation of Students president Ashley D’Souza said he is holding a board meeting Monday to discuss how to go forward. York University Graduate Student Association and the Glendon College Student Union did not respond to a request for comment.