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Concordia university's downtown campus on Nov. 14, 2017 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Canadian universities are facing a series of proposed class-action lawsuits that accuse the schools of failing to protect their Jewish students from antisemitism and discrimination.

The latest, launched last week, is aimed at McMaster University. Other class-action claims involve Queen’s University, Toronto Metropolitan University, York University, Concordia University and the University of British Columbia. In several cases, the suits also name the university’s student union.

The actions were all launched in the past three months by Diamond and Diamond, which describes itself as Canada’s largest injury law firm, although it has a Quebec-based partner in the Concordia case.

Sandra Zisckind, managing partner at Diamond and Diamond, said she expects to launch many more lawsuits involving Canada’s largest universities and even some colleges, saying she wouldn’t be surprised if the number climbed to a dozen or more.

“It’s the same with all the universities across the board. They’ve harboured this antisemitism in the universities for years and years. It has gone wholly unchecked,” Ms. Zisckind said. “Our position is that these universities go out of their way to protect the civil rights of every other minority except Jews.”

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, protests and outrage over public statements about the ensuing war have unsettled many Canadian campuses. University administrators have tried to keep the situation from boiling over while maintaining a commitment to free expression and open inquiry, but tensions persist in many places.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said that universities are trying to do three things at once: clamp down on harassment and hate speech; preserve the role of the university as a forum for debate; and support those students who, amid rising tensions, say they feel unsafe.

The Decibel: Tensions over Israel-Hamas war and free speech on campus

“Striking that balance has proved very difficult,” Prof. Turk said. “It has been a very difficult period for universities.”

Ms. Zisckind said her firm has financial support to pursue these cases from The Lawfare Project, an American non-profit that funds legal actions to protect the civil and human rights of Jews.

“I challenge anybody to tell me where you can chant for the genocide of a people and that be allowed on any campus,” Ms. Zisckind said. “They have a code of conduct; they have to adhere to it. And if they’re not going to, I’m going to make sure they adhere to it with a lawsuit.”

She said the firm has not yet received a statement of defence from any of the six universities.

The cases all have individual representative plaintiffs who are not named in the statements of claim. Class actions have to be certified by a court before they can proceed and typically take several years to play out.

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Suzanne Chiodo, a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said a relatively large proportion of the class actions filed in Ontario do eventually get certified. She said it’s difficult to predict whether the actions involving the universities will succeed.

To gain certification, a judge must be satisfied that a class action is the right forum for the case and that the plaintiff is actually representative of a class, among other things.

In the McMaster court filing, the representative plaintiff is described as a Jewish student, referred to as John Doe, who fears retribution and retaliation. The proposed class is defined as all current Jewish students at McMaster as well as those who graduated within the last two years.

The claim states that Jewish students at McMaster face a “pervasive culture of discrimination and antisemitism,” which the university has failed to address, resulting in a campus where students are afraid to discuss their faith or display religious symbols and can’t walk without a “reasonable apprehension of physical or psychological harm.”

It alleges the university did not take appropriate action following incidents of antisemitic online comments by McMaster students and antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas, on campus. It also says the university student union’s adoption in 2015 of a motion endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel left Jewish students feeling targeted.

The claim goes on to state that since the Hamas attacks, Jewish students have been subjected to offensive chants, posters of Israeli kidnap victims have been torn down, and a vigil was moved to a secret location for the safety of participants.

In response, McMaster University said it has not yet been served the statement of claim.

“Fostering an environment that is safe and inclusive for all members of the McMaster community has always been and continues to be a critical priority for the university, which condemns all forms of hatred,” the university said in a statement.

UBC, TMU and Concordia declined to comment on a legal matter. Queen’s said it couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case but reiterated its commitment to a safe environment. York said it has received correspondence from the firm about its intention to pursue an application for a class action and that it condemns all forms of discrimination.

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