On November 20, the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) released a statement regarding the “ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine.” In it, they condemned “all forms of discrimination and harassment, including but not limited to antisemitism, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Arab racism, and Islamophobia.”
UASU President Christian Fotang said the UASU released the statement in response to the university’s statement on a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) vigil. The UASU’s executive and communications team were involved in making the statement. Fotang said they did not receive input from other councils and that this was an executive decision.
The university’s message “made it feel like groups wanting to organize a vigil would be a threat to campus security,” Fotang said. Fotang added that many students who were concerned about their safety after the statement’s release reached out to the UASU.
“The university’s framing in their statement put those students in a situation where it looked like they were a threat to the community, which absolutely should not be what the university ever does to students. It should be there to support all students,” Fotang said.
“We felt that within our scope as a SU, we had to ensure and reaffirm our position [that] students have the right to gather in a peaceful manner.”
Students’ safety concerns influenced statement, president says
Primarily, students’ safety concerns guided the position the UASU took for its statement, Fotang said. These concerns included rising Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, and antisemitism, both on campus and in Canada.
“There were a lot of Muslim students who were worried about counter-protestors, or feeling unfairly targeted by the university. So, we want to ensure that irrespective of your identity, you have the ability to peacefully gather on campus.”
The UASU is voicing students’ concerns to university administration through different avenues, Fotang said. He mentioned that the UASU has been actively engaging with Deputy Provost (students and enrolment) Melissa Padfield’s office, as well as the Dean of Students and Vice-provost (equity, diversity, and inclusion) Carrie Smith.
“I’ve had conversations and calls with them in our meetings with the registrar’s office. That’s where we express our desires and students’ concerns about equitable treatment, in terms of financial and tuition support,” Fotang said.
”People … should be free from racism, discrimination, or hatred,” Fotang says
The UASU’s statement has recently been criticized by students for its alleged neutrality and lack of additional supports for those affected by the Israel-Palestine violence.
On November 21, students attended the UASU Students’ Council meeting to voice these concerns. As well, SJP has organized a petition with four requests for the UASU. As of November 30, the petition has garnered 1,416 signatures. The petition’s first request urges the UASU to “publish a public statement in support of an immediate ceasefire, and an end to the Palestinian genocide carried out by the Israeli government; unequivocally supporting Palestinian liberation and self-determination.”
The Gateway reached out to Fotang for comment on the petition. In a written statement, he said that the UASU “acknowledge[s] the concerns raised.” As well, they commit to “fostering an inclusive and respectful campus environment where all students feel heard and supported.”
“Once received, petitions go to the Students’ Council for review. In this process, we see our role as facilitating an environment where students feel comfortable expressing their views and engaging in due process,” Fotang said. “Within the framework of our bylaws, council and its committees engage in deliberation and consultations following standard procedures.”
In response to students’ claim that the UASU took a neutral stance in their statement, Fotang said that their position represents “a lot of students, if not all, [who] would come to an agreement that people should have the right and the ability to peacefully gather and should be free from racism, discrimination, or hatred.”
UASU undertakes additional supports for affected students
According to Fotang, the UASU has been pushing for the university to look at its student group events approval policies. The current policy requires student groups to submit events for approval “15 full business days prior to the event.” Fotang has received input from student groups who say this is a barrier to organize awareness and fundraising events.
“We wanted to make sure that students have that ability to mobilize. We’ve been hitting the university hard on that.”
In addition, Fotang addressed academic supports that the UASU is “actively trying to create for students.” He said that they are communicating with the university to create a bereavement policy for students, which currently doesn’t exist.
The Gateway reached out to Vice-president (academic) Pedro Almeida for comment on academic supports. In a written statement, Almeida said that the UASU’s “focus has been on assisting affected students in accessing leaves of absence, and trying to make sure the university is providing greater flexibility for exam deferrals.”
“The ultimate goal in the short term is to ensure that the U of A is addressing the needs of students at this time, acknowledging that it is a unique situation that may require direct support beyond the resources that are regularly available,” Almeida said.
UASU is “finding consistent ways to support students,” Fotang says
Additionally, the UASU is “making sure that financial support exist and [are] consistent, in terms of the actions past refugee students have received.”
“We’ve been ensuring that the university communicates and lets Palestinian or refugee students [know] that they’re consistent with waiving tuition for study permit holders,” Fotang said.
Critics of the UASU’s stance have compared the recent statement to the UASU’s previous support of Ukraine. In response, Fotang said that the UASU “want[s] to make sure that [they’re] going to learn how to be consistent.”
“What I’ve heard throughout this past week and over this month, is that students want us to be consistent,” Fotang said. “My team and I are going to be focused on finding consistent ways to support all students from countries and backgrounds that are experiencing cris[es] and [are] in difficult, challenging times.“
Lastly, Fotang encouraged students to reach out to the UASU and let them know how they can continue to improve communication of supports.