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'Climate of fear' at U of O as physicians, students face backlash for pro-Palestinian views

University of Ottawa staff and students say their support for Palestinians in Gaza is being equated to antisemitism. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
University of Ottawa staff and students say their support for Palestinians in Gaza is being equated to antisemitism. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and physicians at the University of Ottawa are demanding action from the school's senior administration about what they call a "campaign of persecution" against students, staff and doctors who have publicly expressed pro-Palestinian views.

In a letter sent to the school Jan. 31, the NCCM said it has learned of several recent instances of "harassment, intimidation, targeting and threatening behaviour" toward those advocating for "the basic human rights of civilian Palestinians."

Uthman Quick, the NCCM's director of communications, said several students have contacted the organization to say they were threatened with suspension or even expulsion for social media posts calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the targeted bombing of medical centres there.

While this has been an issue across Canada since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7, the situation at U of O "seems very acute," said Quick.

He said the council has received several complaints from staff and students about what's being described as "a climate of fear" on campus.

"There is a very tense situation on campus there, and it needs to be addressed," said Quick.

The NCCM's letter goes on to say the university has "sullied its own reputation," and "failed" in upholding its ethical standards and protecting staff and students who publicly side with Palestinians during the conflict.

In an email to CBC, the university did not respond to the NCCM's letter, nor did it address allegations that students were threatened with suspension or expulsion.

Uthman Quick is with the National Council of Canadian Muslims. He says his group has received several complaints from students and staff at the University of Ottawa.
Uthman Quick is with the National Council of Canadian Muslims. He says his group has received several complaints from students and staff at the University of Ottawa.

Uthman Quick is with the National Council of Canadian Muslims. He says his group has received several complaints from students and staff at the University of Ottawa. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

"People are being called to the office and told that their social media posts, things that they're sharing, are antisemitic or make other people feel unsafe," said Dr. Yipeng Ge, a public health and preventive medicine resident at U of O.

The equation to antisemitism is "extremely harmful and manifests itself as anti-Palestinian racism," he said.

Ge himself was suddenly suspended in November after other faculty members complained about a series of pro-Palestinian posts he'd made that included references to "apartheid" and "settler colonialism" in Gaza.

He was reinstated by the faculty of medicine in January, but has since chosen not to continue with the program.

No 'clear path forward'

In its letter to the university, the NCCM calls on the administration to "take concrete, proactive and transparent steps ... to address the injustices it has permitted to flourish."

Quick said the call to action is made in good faith, but the council has yet to receive any response from the university.

Reached by CBC, the university declined requests for interviews, but according to an emailed statement from spokesperson Jesse Robichaud "all complaints received by the Faculty of Medicine that relate to alleged breaches of the professionalism policies of the Faculty of Medicine ... are considered by the Faculty according to its procedures."

Deliberations of subcommittees and the outcomes of the process are confidential, he wrote.

Robichaud also attached a statement originally emailed to CBC regarding the suspension of a student back in November.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered on Parliament Hill on Nov. 25, 2023.
Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered on Parliament Hill on Nov. 25, 2023.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered on Parliament Hill on Nov. 25, 2023. (Anne-Charlotte Carignan/Radio-Canada)

"Antisemitism and Islamophobia, or any other prejudice, have no place in our community. The University of Ottawa is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its entire community," reads the statement from Nov. 20.

But some staff and students including Ge have questioned that sentiment.

"How [can] people ever feel safe in such an institution when the actions of this institution have been what it has been over the past couple of weeks and months, and still without any clear path forward?" Ge asked.

Trend extends beyond U of O

Employees and students across the country have been fired, suspended or disciplined in some way for public statements on the Israel-Hamas war — a trend echoed in the U.S. and Europe.

However, workplaces are not necessarily out of bounds for taking measures against employees who are public about their political views, according to Ottawa-based employment and human rights lawyer Madison Chilvers.

Madison Chilvers is a human rights and employment lawyer based in Ottawa.
Madison Chilvers is a human rights and employment lawyer based in Ottawa.

Madison Chilvers is a human rights and employment lawyer based in Ottawa. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

In Ontario, there's no law that necessarily protects employees in this way, but Chilvers said that doesn't mean it's a free-for-all for employers.

"Each situation is different and there's always a balance or competing opinions and needs of the company and the work environment as a whole," she said.

In most cases, employers need to prove that opinions expressed by their employees harms the company's reputation, according to Chilvers. Complaints need to be properly investigated through an established process.

When it comes to the conflict in Gaza, which has pitted pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups against one another, companies need to be aware of any possible "discriminatory conduct in siding with one group over the other."

"I would hope that the University of Ottawa wouldn't be choosing a side and would be sitting there more as an impartial adjudicator over these employment issues," she said.