By Jordan Heath-Rawlings
MONTREAL — Judy Rebick had a harsh message for Concordia University’s Board of Governors last Friday, when they tried to stop her from speaking to students about the Middle East conflict.
“We will not be silenced.”
Rebick altered her original plans and instead spoke mostly about the importance of freedom of speech on Canadian campuses.
The event, originally titled Peace and Justice in the Middle East, was supposed to be held inside Concordia’s Hall Building, but on Friday morning, Concordia University’s Board of Governors were granted a last-minute injunction by the Quebec Supreme Court that prohibited the demonstration from being held inside the building at the corner of Boulevard de Maisoneuve and Rue Mackay.
In requesting the injunction, Concordia University cited a violent Sept. 9 protest that forced the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The crowd of nearly 4000 gathered on the sidewalk and spilled over onto Boulevard de Maisoneuve to hear Rebick speak alongside NDP MPs Svend Robinson and Libby Davies at what turned into an impromptu rally about freedom of speech at post-secondary institutions in Canada.
“We are here today, not just [in] solidarity with those who are speaking out against this assault on freedom of speech, but we are also here today in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” said Robinson.
Chants of “free, free Palestine” broke out among the crowd — which was made up mostly students, some waving small Palestinian flags and some dressing in solidarity with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by wearing the white and black checkered headscarf — while Robinson and Davies spoke. Rebick worked the crowd into a frenzy, attacking the corporate interests of Concordia’s Board of Governors by angrily lamenting the loss of freedom of speech on the Montreal campus.
“I was here in the 1970s,” said Rebick, describing how she fought for the pro-choice movement while she was a student at nearby McGill University.
“I had death threats. I had attempts to get me shot. I was attacked. Dr. [Henry] Morgentaler was attacked,” Rebick screamed. “If there had been injunctions when there was violence in the pro-choice movement, we would not have legal abortion in Canada today.”
As Ryerson’s chair of social justice, Rebick said it was her duty to fight for freedom of speech on campus and defend an institution of learning from being marred by corporate interests.
“The student union, faculty and administrative body all think the ban should be lifted,” Rebick said. “If the Board of Governors are going to ban protest on campus, it’s part of my job to fight against that.”
Prior to speaking at the event, Rebick drew parallels between the corporate interests controlling the boards of both Concordia and Ryerson. But Ryerson President Claude Lajeunesse said that while Rebick was not speaking on behalf of Ryerson, he supported her right to free speech.
“Individual faculty members speak on their own behalf,” he said. “They are protected by academic freedom to be able to say what they feel they have to say.”
Many students were unhappy to be forced out into the cold for Friday’s event.
“It’s fucking cold and this is ridiculous,” said David Wiseman, a 21-year-old Concordia student. “There’d be less chance of violence inside.”
The three speakers were powerful enough to eventually gather a crowd large enough to nearly halt traffic across the three-lane boulevard, with Rebick providing an impassioned speech.
“She’s a real ass-kicker,” Wiseman said. “If [Concordia] had more profs like her, maybe people in those offices up here [university administration] wouldn’t be deciding our agenda.”