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A statement issued by the University of Toronto Mississauga student union executive after Oct. 7 attacks in Israel said it was made in solidarity with 'all Palestinians and innocent civilians' who were affected by what it framed as a conflict in Gaza and around its borders.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Student leaders at the University of Toronto Mississauga say Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities “defamed” them in the provincial legislature and has betrayed the government’s commitment to free speech.

The UTM student union, which represents 15,000 undergraduate students, said Jill Dunlop made false statements about them while protected by parliamentary privilege, which shields members from civil liability for remarks made in the legislature.

Speaking at Queen’s Park last week, Ms. Dunlop described a UTM student statement, along with a statement by three student unions at York University, as appalling. She said they defended the actions of Hamas and defended “rape, torture and mass murder.”

Ms. Dunlop made a point of naming the six members of the UTM student union executive on the public record and called on the university to investigate whether to bring non-academic sanctions against the students. She also named several professors and other student groups to draw attention to their public statements.

The UTM student union responded Monday by saying that Ms. Dunlop had “defamed” them and made “untrue remarks about UTMSU while she was protected by parliamentary privilege.”

“Our student union continues to call for peace and for the protection of civilians. We will not be silenced by bullying, doxing, or threats, not by Minister Jill Dunlop or anybody else,” the UTMSU said in a statement.

“The Ontario government said it wanted freedom of speech on campus, but now that students are speaking up, they are asking universities to embrace censorship.”

Conflict in Gaza brings strife to Canadian campuses

The statement issued by the UTM student union executive after Oct. 7 attacks in Israel said it was made in solidarity with “all Palestinians and innocent civilians” who were affected by what it framed as a conflict in Gaza and around its borders.

The statement made no mention of the more than 1,400 Israelis killed in the attacks by Hamas. It described the Israeli occupation of Gaza as having produced ethnic cleansing and mass genocide, adding that it was not the student union’s intention to justify “the killing of innocent people.”

It was one of several student statements that have become a flashpoint for conflict on Canadian university campuses in the weeks since the attacks.

Last week, York University in Toronto called on the leaders of its student unions to resign and retract a joint statement issued in reaction to the attack. The university also initiated a process that could lead to the decertification of the union. York’s undergraduate student union president has not responded to requests for an interview.

Another letter from students at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University prompted B’nai Brith on Monday to call for the students who signed to be expelled. The letter, issued late last week, was criticized for saying that it held Israel responsible for all loss of life stemming from the Oct. 7 attacks.

“Our law schools, who are training the next generation of officers of the court, must not tolerate students who publicly justify the most heinous acts of terrorism,” said Michael Mostyn, B’nai Brith Canada’s chief executive officer.

Unions, universities face backlash over statements following Hamas attack on Israel

TMU said in response that it acknowledged the pain the statement had caused but added it was a student group and not the law school itself that issued the statement, which did not reflect the views of the institution.

“The Lincoln Alexander School of Law did not issue, endorse, or condone this letter and unequivocally condemns all statements that promote terrorism, discrimination, racism, violence, and hate,” TMU said in a statement.

When it was elected in 2018, Ontario’s Doug Ford government required all postsecondary schools to adopt statements on campus free speech in line with the University of Chicago’s 2014 statement, which calls for the “broadest possible latitude” to speak and write.

Nigmendra Narain, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, said the Ontario government is now treading on ground that threatens academic freedom.

“The minister specifically chose to target certain groups for their viewpoints. That the government would interfere in this way is a concern for us,” Prof. Narain said.

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