York prof blindsided by online attacks

A half-listening student, a hypersensitive campus and the speed at which gossip travels on the Internet have conspired to create a damaging game of broken telephone for a York University professor, reported the Toronto Star Sept. 14.  

Cameron Johnston, [a social science professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies] who has taught at York for more than 30 years, has been forced to respond to allegations he made anti-Semitic remarks in a Monday lecture after a student misunderstood his comments and began sending e-mails to Jewish groups and the media.  

Johnston was giving his introductory lecture to Social Sciences 1140: "Self, Culture and Society", when he explained to the nearly 500 students that the course was going to focus on texts, not opinions, and despite what they may have heard elsewhere, everyone is not entitled to their opinion.  

"All Jews should be sterilized" would be an example of an unacceptable and dangerous opinion, Johnston told the students.  

He didn’t notice Sarah Grunfeld storm out. The 22-year-old in her final year at York understood Johnston’s example to be his opinion.  

She contacted Oriyah Barzilay, the president of Hasbara at York – an Israel advocacy group on campus – who sent a press release to media and other Jewish community groups calling for Johnston to be fired.  

Blogs and Facebook groups picked it up, and in a few hours the allegations spread within the city’s Jewish community, albeit mostly online.  

Sensitivities around anti-Semitism are heightened at York, which has a large Jewish population and a history of toxic relations between supporters and critics of Israel on campus.  

"I’m terribly upset," Johnston said Tuesday. "I’m very proud of the fact that in the history of my teaching career I’ve stood for the best values of what constitutes a meaningful human community."  

Johnston, who is Jewish, said his religion likely influenced his choice of words, why he used "this example of a completely reprehensible opinion" with historical precedent.  

During the Second World War, Nazi scientists experimented with mass sterilization on Jewish prisoners.  

"I think it’s a very good thing that people are sensitive to this kind of remark, and I think it’s a very good thing that someone would respond immediately and deal with it if they thought that they heard an anti-Semitic comment," Johnston said. "But in this case, it’s a misreading."  

The irony for Johnston is that he was trying to teach his students that ideas have consequences.  

"So I’m pretty shocked to find the consequences – what I was talking about in the lecture – is that I get seen as an example of prejudice."  

Grunfeld said Tuesday she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that’s insignificant. "The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious."  

Grunfeld also expressed skepticism that Johnston was in fact Jewish. Asked whether she believes he’s lying, she was unclear. "Whether he is or is not, no one will know. Maybe he thought because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews."  

Sheldon Goodman, of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which speaks for the city’s organized Jewish community, called the incident "a very unfortunate misunderstanding," saying "great caution must be exercised before concluding a statement or action is anti-Semitic."  

Federal politicians wade into provincial campaign

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is among a growing list of federal cabinet ministers who are wading into the Ontario campaign on behalf of Conservative leader Tim Hudak, reported the National Post Sept. 14. Last week Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Conservative Senator Mike Duffy all joined Kenney at an Ottawa rally for Hudak.  

While it’s not unusual for provincial candidates to get an endorsement from their local sitting MP, it’s rare to see federal ministers making such visible forays into an Ontario election, said York University political scientist Robert Drummond [Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies].  

"Federal cabinet ministers have tried to stay out of provincial campaigns in some cases for fear that they might turn off more voters than they would attract. In other cases, they feel it’s not really their role," he said.  

"In this case, there’s a sense that the Conservatives are in a good position to challenge for government and the federal party maybe feels they would find it easier to deal with Conservative governments at a provincial level and may be willing to encourage that."  

Parents sue schools for ineffective anti-bullying policies

In 2009, Daniela Cervini, a Toronto-based lawyer, was approached by a group of parents whose children were bullied at an elementary school in Owen Sound, Ont. For years, the parents claim they had been trying the prescribed channels-meetings with vice-principals, principals, police, board superintendents – with what they perceived as no results. They turned to litigation, "just because they weren’t being heard," says Cervini.  

This year, four claims were filed in Ontario Superior Court against the Bluewater District School Board involving three schools, five teachers, three principals and one vice-principal. All are for gross negligence – the failure to protect students from bullies.  

Bullying lawsuits have appeared in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Waterloo, Ont., as parents turn to the civil courts for justice. And while policies may be consistent in some school districts or provinces, how effective those policies are remains open to debate.  

"I’ve been involved with a few families over the last year, and the inability of principals and teachers to do something constructive is depressing to me," says Debra Pepler, a psychology professor at York University [Faculty of Health] and co-director of PREVNet, a Canadian bullying prevention think-tank. "We haven’t trained them adequately in understanding children’s development. You hear principals saying to get thicker skin, just ignore it, walk away."  

Education with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’

[John] Godfrey [headmaster for the Toronto French School] says there are even more interesting studies that look at how bilingualism hard-wires brains differently, reported The Globe and Mail Sept. 14. The school’s own students in Grades 2 and 5 are part of one such study, conducted by Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University [Department of Pyschology, Faculty of Health] . She has found that those who speak more than one language are able to complete linguistic and non-linguistic tasks more quickly.  

"That’s a hugely important skill in the 21st century for understanding different cultures. You’re dealing with ambiguity," says Godfrey.  

Friends rally to Keep George Here

A group of Queen’s University law students is raising money to help a former classmate who has had to drop out of school because of a "perfect storm" of financial hardships, reported The Kingston Whig-Standard Sept. 14.  

George Evans [BA ‘10], 23, is an international student from the Bahamas who was unable to enrol for the fall semester following a series of circumstances that prevented him from paying off his first-year tuition and making a payment towards his second year at law school.  

Classmates Dana Carson and Katherine Chau started the Keep George Here campaign – it is not affiliated with Queen’s Law School – and in less than a week it has raised almost half of its $19,000 target.  

Evans…hails from Nassau and has a degree in philosophy from York University.

On air 

  • James Morton, adjunct professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, discussed the decision of Ontario’s highest court to uphold convictions against theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky and his former business partner, but reduce the sentences by two years each, on CBC Television news programs Sept. 13.