YUFA Exec rejects government attack on academic freedom, democratic debate

The YUFA Executive Committee voted to endorse the following statement in an emergency vote that took place from October 25 to 26, 2020. The statement, which has been endorsed by a number of Ontario faculty associations, encourages individuals and faculty associations to contact the provincial government with their views on how establishing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism as law might affect academic freedom in the province.

Nearly 2,500 people have already sent emails to Members of Provincial Parliament about the matter, calling on them to reject the IHRA definition or, at least, to drop its harmful "illustrative examples."

Despite the widespread public interest in this issue, the IHRA definition was quietly approved by an Order In Council on Monday, October 26, 2020--abruptly ending any further discussion or debate. Astonishingly, the move came just as Bill 168--a Private Member’s Bill to adopt the working definition--was about to be reviewed by the Standing Committee on Justice Policy. The deadline to submit a request to participate in public hearings before this Standing Committee was Monday, October 26, 2020 and the deadline to submit written material was Friday, October 30, 2020.

The government has over-ridden its own judicial process.

On October 28, 2020, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) issued this statement: "OCUFA opposes Ontario government circumventing democracy and public debate on Bill 168."

The statement that the YUFA Executive Committee endorsed following its emergency vote is below: 

Appeal to Ontario faculty associations regarding threat to academic freedom

Dear Executive Committee members,

We are writing to you as concerned academics who fear the prospect of an Ontario Provincial Bill 168 “Combating Antisemitism Act.” It passed second reading in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on February 27, 2020 and the Standing Committee on Justice is accepting public hearings this week, in anticipation of what we believe is a move to pass the bill to the third reading quickly and quietly.

Bill 168 seeks to re-define the province’s definition of antisemitism, guided by the working definition of antisemitism and the list of illustrative examples of it, adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This new definition is the product of a growing movement that seeks to redefine antisemitism to include any criticism of the Israeli state.

Coinciding with this apparently small piece of legislation, President Trump has threatened to withhold funding from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the grounds that they are antisemitic organizations, and two Ontario universities have been the site of false and destructive charges of antisemitism against respected international human rights scholars.

These attacks are deeply troubling for us as scholars and teachers. The potential adoption of IHRA in Ontario is a direct attack on academic freedom, raising issues of our freedom to conduct critical scholarship and teaching that contains facts and perspectives critical of a foreign state. If passed, it will place even more Ontario academics at risk of being falsely accused of being antisemitic, resulting in intimidation, censorship, job precarity, and costly litigation.

Where it comes to higher education, the Ford government is dramatically out of touch with the views of most Canadians. No Ontario University has adopted the IHRA. According to a poll released earlier this month, 80% of Canadians do not believe that criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic. The government has shown themselves willing to back down on reactionary legislation when it meets with robust public opposition. With robust intervention in defense of academic freedom and the necessary autonomy of university governance, we can prevent this neo-McCarthyist legislation from being enacted.

When a provincial government aims to set the terms for what is legal and admissible in university research and teaching, we are confronted with governmental over-reach. Modern universities have been defined and governed as autonomous institutions of learning for a reason. Expectations of institutional autonomy and collegial governance, like that of academic freedom, protect universities from governments or private interests wishing to set the limits of what can be researched and what can be taught. Human rights research is as vulnerable to such intrusion as research in pharmaceuticals, energy, white collar crime, foreign relations, or any other potentially contentious research subjects.

Our faculty associations are mandated and entitled to protect their members’ rights to pursue their research and research dissemination free of such intrusion.

We strongly urge your Executive Committee to pass a motion this week condemning Bill 168 on the grounds of academic freedom.

The Ad Hoc Group of Ontario Scholars Concerned About Academic Freedom