A walkout at a Ryerson student union meeting last fall that stymied a motion to commemorate Holocaust Education Week was deliberately engineered by the student union president and executive, despite initial denials by those involved.
Leaked screenshots of messages sent by members of the executive during the Nov. 29 semi-annual general meeting, show Ryerson Student Union (RSU) president Obaid Ullah telling members of the executive to “lose quorum,” the Ryerson student newspaper the Eyeopener reported Feb. 13.
Another message from a member of the executive during the November meeting said “the next person in line is Zionist. I have her on Facebook, and she’s really problematic.”
Shortly after the messages were sent, the meeting lost quorum, and debate on the motion was abruptly ended. In the wake of controversy surrounding the walkout, the motion passed unanimously three weeks later at an executive meeting.
At the time, Ullah told The CJN that he did not believe there was a co-ordinated effort to lose quorum at the November meeting. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP Ryerson) and the Ryerson Muslim Students Association also denied that there was a deliberate effort to lose quorum. Ullah and the two student groups could not be reached for comment.
On Feb. 13, when the story was published, Ullah confirmed on Facebook that he prompted the walkout. In his defence, he said he was trying to protect the Jewish community from a motion that would have amended the Holocaust education week to one commemorating all genocides.
He wrote on Facebook he was confident that if the motion was tabled, it would be passed at the executive meeting. “The intent of me messaging people was to keep the room united and not cause heat (tension) by the amendment,” he wrote.
The evidence that in fact, the loss of quorum was deliberately organized has left Jewish students at Ryerson reeling, with Jewish organizations calling for the members of the RSU to be removed from their positions.
“I felt super-used,” said Tamar Lyons, vice-president of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and a StandWithUs Emerson fellow at Ryerson.
“The entire RSU was in on this and literally lied to our faces.”
Even if Ullah was acting in the best interests of the students supporting the Holocaust motion, she said “it was totally inappropriate of him.”
Ullah apologized to her Feb. 13 in a phone call, but she said that was insufficient.
“If they wanted to stand up to anti-Semitism, they could have helped us then,” she said, adding that if students had earlier knowledge of the text messages, they could have launched a human rights complaint.
SSI is still shocked by the news and is formulating its position, she said. In the meantime, the group is asking for a full investigation into the event and all the members of the RSU, not just the president. “We want to see people held accountable for their actions.”
Aedan O’Connor, a Hasbara fellow, who was at the Nov. 29 meeting, also rejected Ullah’s defence. “He’s supposed to be fair and not play favourites. He completely threw us under the bus.”
No matter what the RSU president’s motives were, the result was that he “instigated a the Holocaust education walkout. That’s appalling.”
The inflammatory screenshots are being leaked now, almost three months after the meeting, because of dissension within the RSU, the Jewish students say.
O’Connor believes that the RSU president should be removed from his position, as does B’nai Brith Canada.
Ullah “should resign immediately and the Ryerson administration must denounce his behaviour,” said Amanda Hohmann, national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights. “This motion was about Holocaust education, plain and simple. There was no legitimate reason to oppose it, or to prematurely end the meeting in order to avoid discussing it,” she said in a statement.
“It’s also extremely problematic that Mr. Ullah gave a false account of the walkout for almost three months, suddenly changing his story when evidence of his true actions emerged. These are not the actions of someone who should be in a leadership position within student government.”
Hillel Ontario CEO Marc Newburgh said Hillel had worked with the RSU, as well as Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi and the administration after the November meeting.
“Following these conversations, a university-sponsored Holocaust commemoration took place in late January, featuring a Holocaust survivor. These events will now occur yearly on campus,” Newburgh said in a statement.
“The allegation that the president of the RSU is behind the walkout at the AGM… is indeed very disturbing.”
“Ryerson University is committed to providing a civil and safe environment which is free from discrimination and harassment and respectful of the rights, responsibilities, well-being and dignity of all members of our diverse community,” said Mohamed Lachemi, president of Ryerson University.
He added: “At Ryerson, we do not tolerate anti-Semitic behaviour. We will continue to work together to ensure that the values of respect for equity, diversity and inclusion are part of the way we all study, work and socialize in the Ryerson community.”