Calin Rovinescu served as president and CEO of Air Canada from 2009 to 2021 and as chancellor of the University of Ottawa from 2015 to 2022.
As a law graduate and long-time member of both the University of Ottawa and Université de Montréal communities, I am deeply committed to higher education in Canada. Like many, I am distressed by the extremely difficult and dangerous situation currently present on U.S. and Canadian university campuses since the barbaric Hamas terrorist attacks of Oct. 7. We can debate the complex geopolitical dynamics around Israel and the Palestinians and pray for an end to the loss of innocent civilian lives, but there can be no debate regarding the respect and protections that a minority group such as Jewish students should receive at academic institutions.
Universities need to convey more broadly and courageously that such a group is worthy of protection – and that it will indeed be protected. Like others who have expressed deep concern in recent days, I abhor the blatant antisemitism and mistreatment of Jews at leading American and Canadian colleges and universities. No university is exempt from antisemitic incidents, nor can they remain silent as the situation worsens.
On many campuses, Jewish students are being bullied, physically intimidated and threatened at rallies and demonstrations. Campus spaces, digital platforms, social media and message boards are full of antisemitic statements and images, often with a call for violent insurrection seeking the destruction of the state of Israel and glorifying violence or death of Jewish people. Many Jewish students have been forced out of student organizations, haven’t been given equal opportunity to voice concerns over hate speech, and have been attacked for their Jewish identity. They are often afraid to wear their religious symbols on campus, such as yarmulkes or Stars of David.
Class actions have now been filed against several of these schools accusing them of fostering an environment where antisemitic behaviour has been tolerated, without consequences. Many university administrations hide behind arguments regarding freedom of speech for students and academic freedom for professors as a means to justify this unacceptable behaviour.
Open debate should never be a pretext for the dissemination of hate. In Canada, freedom of expression, contained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, expressly has its limits and restrictions – including those referred to as anti-hate laws, whose purpose is to restrict public expression of messages intended to incite hatred toward members of particular groups. In other words, they prohibit hate propaganda – and the two main protective provisions are contained in the Criminal Code, with criminal sanctions against anyone who wilfully promotes genocide or incites hatred in public.
When it comes to enforcing this, given what we are seeing elsewhere, Canadian universities need to immediately adopt, broadly and transparently communicate, and vigilantly enforce a zero-tolerance policy. This means universities must monitor on-campus rallies and university communications platforms and provide physical security as well as mental-health supports on campus. Administrators must call the police in when the university is witness to public expressions inciting hatred, and impose consequences and disciplinary action, such as the immediate suspension of students or faculty who breach this policy, up to and including expulsion. I have conveyed this to the Board of Governors at the University of Ottawa, but it is important that all postsecondary institutions act now and act boldly.
Jewish students must be safe and feel safe on campus. Administrators must also stay alert and respond to incidents of Islamophobia that occur on campus.
I am deeply committed to diversity and inclusion at both of my alma maters. It is why in 2019, my wife and I established our Admission Scholarships for New Canadians at the University of Ottawa and the Université de Montréal, which are awarded regardless of where students are from or their religion or faith.
I believe we are at a critical juncture. Silence and lack of action are contributing to an alarming increase in physical and verbal displays of hatred.
There is no doubt that these are difficult, emotional and confusing times for many. However, history has shown that we will be judged not only by our words, but also by the boldness of our actions.