Over the past three weeks, the York Federation of Students (YFS) has been navigating hot waters. The YFS, Glendon College Student Union (GCSU), and York University’s Graduate Association (YUGSA) released a statement of solidarity with Palestine on Oct. 12.
Their statement came with a slew of media coverage, alongside mixed reactions from York community members and Canadians. The university came out against the statement in several official responses, calling it “harmful.”
On Oct. 20, York said the student unions are suspected of breaching the Regulation Regarding Student Organizations due to their failure to follow the regulatory principles of diversity and equity and to “operate in an open, accessible, and non-discriminatory manner.”
The regulation had come into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. If a student organization is suspected of having breached it, an 11-step process is carried out to address the possible breach.
York called on the YFS and the other student unions to rescind their statement and issue a new statement clarifying that they wish to rectify any wrongdoings. The university also called for the immediate resignation of all union executives or prove that no breach had occurred.
The three student unions, including YFS, did not comply with this request. On campus last week, the YFS participated in two protests against York’s recent decisions.
In a Zoom interview, YFS President Ashley D’Souza discussed the union’s current stance, his intentions behind their statement, and more. Parts of the interview have been edited for spelling and grammar.
How did you feel about the university’s first statement regarding the situation in Israel?
D’Souza: “The statement really lacked any sort of contextualization about the ongoing genocide that’s happening. It was quite hollow in the types of supports that are available to the York community. That, on my end, was super disappointing to see … That’s what prompted our statement to come out.”
Why have you decided to stand by your statement and not comply with the university’s request?
D’Souza: “We are definitely not going to be complying with the university’s initial threats. And honestly, the reason being is that we stand firm in our solidarity for Palestine, we always have, and we will always continue to do that. This is just the latest example of the university’s attempts to stifle student voices … especially with the use of the regulation [Regulation Regarding Student Organizations]. And although it was just implemented on January 1 of this year, we’re seeing that the university is not hesitating to put that into effect. Since its inception, the university has made multiple attempts to silence students.
We’re demanding that the university repeals that regulation. It goes against our democratic rights as an organization, our governing documents, and it totally disregards our autonomy.”
Do you think the university’s demands are justified?
D’Souza: “I don’t think that they’re justified at all. We were very clear with the university about where we were in the process. In fact, the statement that the university put out came following an email that I sent out to the Vice Provost of students, informing them that we are doing our due process as an organization: meeting with our board and making sure that we are in line with all of our processes.
However, the university did not give us the time to go through all those processes, and instead hit us with their emails and us being in breach of the regulation.”
What do you think the future of the YFS is going to look like, especially with everything that is happening right now?
D’Souza: “I don’t think much is going to change — This is not new at all. This university has a long and storied history of coming for student activists and students who use their voice on this campus … We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not going to be threatened by the university; as the Undergraduate Students Union, we are serving our members, and we’re going to continue to be serving our members and filling those gaps at the university.
I want to bring it to the different services that we provide, whether that’s running the largest on campus food support center in the country, the YFS wellness center, the YFS health plan, and funding clubs in the way we do — we’re providing actual tangible support to this campus. And ultimately, that’s not going to change. We’re going to continue doing these things and supporting our members, while standing our ground in the face of these threats that the university is making against us.”
In light of the class action lawsuit made against the YFS and the university, the plaintiffs allege “they have been made to feel unsafe on campus, silenced, forced to hide their Jewish identity, been harassed, and even threatened with physical violence.” How valid do you think these claims are? And how do you feel about them?
D’Souza: “The YFS stands against all forms of discrimination — whether that’s Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism. We are firm in that stance and our stance against Zionism, which justifies the atrocities of the genocide in Palestine, is not antisemitic. We definitely don’t think those claims are valid.
This support (for Palestine) has been mandated by our members. We have been mandated to take these stances and support indigenous sovereignty all over the world. This is no different.
We’re seeing though with these claims, the administration is targeting students. We’re seeing provincial leaders calling us out in Parliament and using their power to intimidate and silence students. It’s often the racialized and international students that are being targeted the most for speaking up for some of these injustices.”
The Minister of Colleges and Universities, Jill Dunlop, said the “three student unions supporting a recognized terrorist organization and promoting and glorifying violence against innocent Israeli civilians is unacceptable, must not be tolerated.” Many people have read your statement and think the YFS is supporting Hamas. What do you have to say about that and what clarifications can you provide?
D’Souza: “This is the conflation that we were talking about, right? For somebody in a position of power to use it in this way and attack students in such a public way is disgusting on so many levels. It’s racist on so many levels, and the misrepresentation of our statements has been very intentional. Our statement was a statement of solidarity with Palestine. Our mandate has always been to support indigenous sovereignty; that’s a mandate that we have by our membership.
We do not condone the killing of innocent people. The fact that the university and the provincial leaders are equating Palestinian self-determination to condoning violence is racist. We have to call it out as such. The administration and the provincial leaders are stifling our ability to do so as we are mandated by our students. We’re seeing this in the threats of sanctions, threats of desertification, and the threats to the executives having to resign. These are all ways that the university is continuing to silence our voices. We won’t stop speaking out. We won’t stop speaking out until there is justice.”