An update to the community on the Nov. 20 event

Vari Hall at night

The following is a message to the community from York University Vice-President Equity, People and Culture Sheila Cote-Meek and Vice-Provost Students Lucy Fromowitz. This message was issued on Nov. 29:

York University is a community that believes in freedom of expression, both to share views and to oppose them. However, our Statement of Policy on Free Speech also recognizes that free speech is not absolute or without limits. The events that occurred on the evening of Nov. 20 on the Keele Campus were and remain of great concern not only to the University but also to the larger community around us.

This communication is intended to provide the York community with an update on the steps we took leading up to the event, what happened at the event itself, and the immediate actions and other steps the University is taking in response to this specific incident and to identify the steps to help ensure a safe and respectful environment where community members are able to gather and express diverse ideas.

There have been various accounts describing the unfolding of events last week and we believe it is important to provide you with a sense of the detailed planning that took place in advance of the event and how the evening was managed as events unfolded.

Advance planning

On Nov. 20, an organized protest erupted in Vari Hall in an attempt to disrupt a panel discussion with Israeli reservists who had been invited to campus by a student group to discuss new forms of anti-Semitism. Significant safety planning took place prior to the event, involving staff from multiple departments including the Division of Students, Community Safety and the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion. Both the student group organizing the event and the group protesting were engaged in this process. All parties agreed to uphold York’s policies and student code of conduct.

Part of the planning involved working closely with the Toronto Police Service (TPS) to ensure that appropriate police resources were deployed in advance. Contrary to misinformation online, the police were on campus on standby and ready to deploy if needed.

Safety planning involves working through potential scenarios and developing response plans for different potential eventualities. One of the scenarios involved the possibility that uninvited external community members or groups might be present, which is why extra police were available as an additional precaution.

During the event

As a result of the advanced planning, York University security services, together with our partners at the Toronto Police Service (TPS), were able to ensure the November 20 event continued as planned, consistent with our responsibilities under our Statement of Policy on Free Speech. However, tensions outside the event escalated resulting in both verbal and physical confrontations taking place. These professionally trained individuals ensured tense situations were de-escalated quickly. Most of the de-escalation efforts by police and security involved external individuals. We are grateful to our staff and TPS officers for their skill and professionalism.

Our investigation

In response to the situation that unfolded at the event, the President tasked the Offices of Vice-President Equity, People and Culture and Vice-Provost Students to undertake a comprehensive review of the incident and to make recommendations based on a thorough investigation. Action items will include:

  • An investigation of the incident itself using all available resources.
  • A review of our Temporary Use of University Space policy to ensure alignment with best practices.
  • A review of our postering guidelines for alignment with best practices and York University policies.
  • An assessment regarding whether any individual or group violated York’s policies and/or codes of conduct warranting disciplinary action.
  • Any potential recommendations on how we handle external individuals or groups who come to campus with the intent of instigating conflict and mischief.
  • Recommendations on education initiatives to facilitate a respectful climate on campus for the discussion of difficult topics.
  • Assisting Toronto Police Service in their investigation.
  • Developing a website to keep the community informed of our progress.

The results of the investigation and recommendations will be forwarded to the President and made available to the community as appropriate. Given the work to be undertaken, we anticipate a report early in the new year.

In the coming weeks, the Division of Students, Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion and Community Safety will also be meeting with the student groups who have approached us wanting to share their views and debrief on these events. Information about available university processes for complaints and supports will be made available.

Going forward

In closing, we want to be clear that the confrontations and hate-filled language that took place on Nov. 20 are unacceptable at a University that prides itself on valuing diversity and inclusion.  We have had many successful controversial events, which were held peacefully and where everyone felt safe to express opposing views, and we must strive to ensure that we do so in the future.

Our priority is always the safety of our community members within the broader context of ensuring free speech in an open and respectful atmosphere.

We will continue to provide updates as our work progresses.