The president of York University’s undergraduate students’ union says the university is trying to silence the student group by threatening to withdraw its certification in response to a statement that provoked widespread outrage after the Hamas attack on Israel.
Ashley D’Souza, president of the York Federation of Students, said he won’t retract the statement and won’t step down, despite the university’s demand that he and the entire student union executive resign. He said the YFS, which represents the university’s more than 50,000 undergraduate students, is consulting with lawyers as it weighs how to respond to the administration’s demands, which have triggered a process that could lead to the loss of certification for the union.
“The university doesn’t really have any grounds to call on executives that have been voted in by their membership to resign,” Mr. D’Souza said. “This is a direct attack on student autonomy.”
York University spokesperson Yanni Dagonas said the student statement, co-signed by the YFS, the York University Graduate Student Association and the Glendon College Student Union, was widely interpreted as a “justification for attacking civilians and a call to violence.”
The statement called the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas a “strong act of resistance” and a response to what it described as a violent occupation. It also referred to “so-called Israel” as a “settler-colonial apartheid state.” It did not make specific mention of Israeli casualties and said it was issued in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
York University condemned the statement. The university subsequently gave written notice of a suspected breach of the Regulation Regarding Student Organizations. The university cited the policy requiring campus groups operate in an open, accessible, non-discriminatory manner, and in accordance with principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Under that regulation, which was adopted earlier this year, a process has been initiated that could lead to the decertification of the unions and the loss of the student funding that the university collects on the unions’ behalf.
Mr. D’Souza said the YFS is trying to mobilize student resistance. He called the university’s reading of the initial student statement a “misrepresentation.”
Student groups at Toronto Metropolitan University, McGill University and the University of Toronto Mississauga have also been condemned for statements that sided with the Palestinian cause. In the United States, there have been calls on employers to blacklist students who signed such statements at Harvard and other schools.
Mr. D’Souza was one of more than a dozen student union executives whose names were read into the record at Queen’s Park by Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop on Oct. 17. Speaking in the legislature, Ms. Dunlop said, “I think it’s important that their names are in Hansard, because these students put their names on letters in public, supporting Hamas.” She also called on the universities to investigate and “if necessary bring non-academic misconduct reviews” against the student union executives.
Mr. D’Souza said that was another attempt to intimidate students.
“We’re not going to get bullied. We’re not going to be intimidated,” Mr. D’Souza said. “The blowback was expected but we’re not surprised and we’re not fazed.”
He said he has received plenty of angry e-mails and phone calls from people who disagreed with the statement’s point of view. But he has also received support from those who sided with the statement.
Mr. D’Souza said the union’s political stand is consistent with membership votes at its annual general meetings. It has also taken political stands on other conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But many York students have spoken out on social media to voice their opposition to the union’s stand in this case.
The student union has said the current dispute sets a dangerous precedent for any student, staff or faculty member who wants to take a point of view opposed by the York administration.
The university has said that it affirms the right to voice opposing political views, but it added that freedom of speech is not absolute.