Debating the Vari Hall protests

One day after a noisy protest rally ended with five arrests, student activists were back in strength at York University, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 22. The second rally drew approximately 300 students and members of the community to Vari Hall – more than double the number who attended Thursday’s demonstration against the inauguration of US President George W. Bush. Leading the call was Daniel Freeman-Maloy, who last year was suspended, then restored to student status, for using a bullhorn at protests in the same hall.

After Thursday’s highly charged demonstration at York University, the administration and the Grass Roots Anti-Imperialist Network (GRAIN), the student group that staged the event, continue to clash over how political activism fits into campus life, said the Star. “University life needs to be made compatible with the right to political organization and assembly,” said Freeman-Maloy, a 22-year-old York student and spokesperson for GRAIN. About 30 members of GRAIN converged at York’s Vari Hall for a peaceful protest Thursday, where Freeman-Maloy claims York security guards and police “viciously beat” five of the protesters, who were then arrested.

The five, who appeared in court Jan. 21 on assault charges, were released and were due to appear again Tuesday, Jan. 25. Police and York University say three police officers were attacked when they tried to remove the protesters from Vari Hall, where protesting is prohibited by the University.

Though competing claims surround the demonstrations, students, faculty and University administrators agree that York supports – and promotes – freedom of speech, said the Star. Only a small group of students assert otherwise, the paper added. The campus promotes political activism without infringing on the rights of students, said Paul Cooper, the outgoing president of the student council at York, who has attended the University for five years. With 45,000 undergraduate students at York, Cooper said yesterday’s demonstration represents a very small fraction of the total student population. He believes GRAIN presents a false picture of York University to the media. “The university is not shutting down freedom of speech,” said Cooper. “It’s a very liberal university and to say it’s oppressive is not accurate.”

York University provides hundreds of venues to students to stage events, said Richard Fisher, York’s chief communications officer. “Our first task is to further academic life,” he said. “Students must be allowed to have demonstrations, but they cannot be instead of classes. Classes must take precedent.” According to Fisher, the University has no interest in what the students are saying, just where they are saying it.

Keren Katz, a second-year political science and economics major at York, couldn’t get to her class in Vari Hall yesterday afternoon and, if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to hear anything because of the noise. “It was one of the most offensive things I have ever seen at York University,” Katz told the Star. “I have no problem with free speech. I have a problem when free speech impedes on my ability to learn at university.”

  • The North York Mirror Jan. 23 listed the accused as 26-year-old Gregory Bird, a PhD student in sociology; 19-year-old Nicholas Birtig, a second-year political science student; 18-year-old Alissa Watt, a first-year arts student; 22-year-old Erin Gray, a fourth-year arts student; and 26-year-old Konstantine Kilibarda. Bird was also charged with attempting to disarm a police officer when he allegedly tried to seize police constable Eric Reimer’s Glock pistol. Gray was charged with failure to comply with recognizance related to a previous charge.
  • In a letter to the Star Jan. 24, Blake Evans, a political science master’s student at York, wrote: “Get your facts straight. Friday’s protest featured representatives from the York University Faculty Association, Graduate Students Association, Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, Ontario Public Interest Research Group at York and other members of the York community. All came together to dispute the rather dubious claim that York ‘supports – and promotes – freedom of speech’. Maybe, if you’d bothered to ask more than two students, one being the outgoing student union president, you might have heard a different story.”

On air

  • CBC business analyst Michael Hlinka discussed how York’s Schulich School of Business was Number 22 on the Financial Times of London’s annual survey of the world’s top business schools. Apart from the United States, Canada was the only country with more than one school – York and University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management (21st) – making the list.
  • Charles McMillan, professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, discussed the Canadian trade mission to China, in a news item aired on CBC Radio’s “The World at Six” and “World Report” Jan. 21.