On Oct. 18, NSCAD's president Peggy Shannon emailed all students and faculty a statement against hate: "In the midst of a horrific escalation of violence in the Middle East that has resulted in many civilian deaths, I want to unequivocally condemn all forms of hate and discrimination."
The email went on to describe NSCAD as "a place where diversity thrives," a university with students who must be given "the confidence and latitude to respond to big issues through art and design." But Shannon's stated commitment to "open dialogue" would soon be tested.
On Oct. 26, Hyperallergic published the letter Artists & Academics in Canada: Statement of Solidarity with Palestine with a full list of its 4,000 plus signatories. Most of the people who signed also gave a description of their job—filmmaker, designer, student. Some included an organizational affiliation, like the name of a publication or museum. Two names had NSCAD beside them.
On Oct. 31, president Shannon sent another email, the second of three letters she would send to students about hate on campus since the latest round of violence in the Israel-Hamas conflict began Oct. 7.
“As your president, I will never tell you what to say or what to think. NSCAD–and I–support freedom of speech," Shannon wrote. "However, if you sign a petition or engage on social media advocating for a specific side of a divisive political issue, I implore you to sign it as an individual and not as a member of this institution because you cannot represent NSCAD’s viewpoint. You can only represent your own.”
Some students dubbed this "the Halloween email," and saw it as a wedge between them and their university administration.
"I was so angry," says Brea McAllister, who graduated from NSCAD in December 2023 and is part of the group South Shore Ceasefire Now. "I was just like, 'Are you fucking kidding me?' as soon as I got to the point where [Shannon] only mentioned antisemitism in that email. I don't think any NSCAD student believes they are representing NSCAD or that they are speaking for NSCAD. None of us have that power. Actually, the only person who has that power is [Shannon].”
The Halloween email also suggested there were examples of antisemitism happening at NSCAD: “Since the current conflict in the Middle East began, the alarming rise in reported antisemitic incidents throughout North America and associated acts of aggression on university campuses is now evident in our NSCAD community." But McAllister felt Shannon's concerns were too narrow.
"By not mentioning other forms of violence or hate and sending this shushing message, the position that [Shannon’s] presenting from NSCAD sucks and is pretty pro-Israel feeling," McAllister says. "That's irresponsible."
On Nov. 10, McAllister wrote Shannon about her issues with the Halloween email. "Specifically, she only labelled antisemitism among other forms of hate and violence that we're seeing at this time, as well as the fact that all universities' reputations are built on the backs of their students," McAllister says.
"When we graduate, they use our reputations and our successes to bolster their own without our permission. It's a double standard for them to be able to use us to strengthen their voices, and we can't use them to strengthen ours.
“I also wrote that NSCAD has done a lot in terms of curriculum and culture to try and decolonize and become more inclusive. Silencing people who are speaking out about colonization undermines the education that NSCAD is providing."
A month later, on Dec. 12, Shannon replied to McAllister. "NSCAD cannot take political positions," she wrote. "We can, however, respond to incidents." Although she couldn't give details without breaking confidentiality, Shannon clearly said troubling things had happened at the school.
"My October 31st message was in direct response to antisemitic incidents reported to my office by members of our community," she wrote. "My November 10th email was in direct response to Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian, and additional antisemitic incidents reporters to my office."
"She didn't address any of my points in her response to me," says McAllister, who also reached out to Jude Gerrard, NSCAD’s first-ever ombudsperson, who's on a two-year contract that began in 2023.
Between Shannon and Gerrard, McAllister was left with the understanding that an incident took place on campus between two students, sometime before the Halloween email. “From what I can gather it was a verbal altercation where one student was shouting very antisemitic things at another student,” says McAllister. This wasn’t “a flimsy definition of antisemitism. This was a textbook, undeniable, extremely antisemitic comment.”
McAllister says she and Gerrard talked about this incident in the context of how “definitions of antisemitism have been shifting” and how that can set a dangerous precedent on campus if students aren’t sure what qualifies.
“Following that conversation with Jude,” says McAllister, “I did send him another email asking for the university's definition of antisemitism. Does that include the phrase ‘Free Palestine’? And does that include the phrase ‘From the river to the sea’?”
The phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is contentious because its interpretation varies from a “Palestinian call for genocide” of Israelis to being a resistance to the ongoing “fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination,” writes Jewish Currents in June 2021.
Critics of the phrase see it as inherently antisemitic. However, some say backlash to the phrase comes from conflating *any* criticism of Zionism with antisemitism, “even when that statement is now [said] by a college student who might favour just granting of equal rights [to] Palestinians in the West Bank” says a professor of Israel Studies quoted in a CBC article examining the slogan in November, 2023. Use of the phrase comes with assumptions about intent, either way.
In one instance, reposting the phrase on social media caused institutional backlash at the University of Ottawa.
As The Maple reports, in November 2023, resident physician Yipeng Ge was said to have participated in antisemitism by another medical professor at the university for sharing a social media post that included the phrase. His colleague said Ge shared posts that included "the support and defense of the eliminationist and/or genocidal chant.”
Ge was suspended from his position at the university shortly thereafter. A petition was started to look into Ge’s suspension and reinstate him at the university. On Dec. 21, Ge resigned from the board of the Canadian Medical Association, because he says leadership created an “unsafe environment” where Ge experienced “bullying, harassment and intimidation” because of his shared posts.
In his statement of resignation, Ge says “context and intent are important to consider when the phrase 'From the river to the sea: Palestine will be free' is referenced” and that he finds “the inability to hold multiple truths and interpretations of this phrase at the same time” troubling.
At 875 students, NSCAD is a fraction of the size of the University of Ottawa. However, McAllister was concerned for every student and faculty member that vague definitions of antisemitism could lead to unpredictable consequences and potential mis-labellings of speech as hateful.
"I think that it's contributing to a culture of fear on campus by not putting out a formal definition" of antisemitism, says McAllister. “People don't know what potential repercussions they're facing or what risks… because the boundaries are so flimsy right now. Can you get penalized on campus for saying 'Free Palestine'? It's unclear."
Gerrard replied to McAllister’s question by sharing NSCAD’s statement on hate and discrimination that would be the basis for Shannon’s third email to all of NSCAD on Nov. 10.
Shannon uses Nova Scotia’s Dismantling Hate and Racism Act to define "hate" and says the university is “defining concrete actions to take to address discrimination in our community.”
However, what were the “concrete actions” against discrimination the statement mentioned?
One action students had noticed was the school painting over graffiti in the washrooms; the painting was happening at minimum bi-weekly and sometimes daily. McAllister says bathrooms on the second floor by the elevator at the Fountain campus were painted over three days in a row when she was there.
This troubled her and she spoke with Gerrard, who she says is trying to convince the administration to stop. "He's trying to teach them what a colonial gesture it is to paint over messages of resistance and activism,” says McAllister. “It's working against them by continuing this feeling that students are being silenced and don't have a right to speak."
"It's a double standard for them to be able to use us to strengthen their voices, and we can't use them to strengthen ours."
"I've also been in discussion with Jude about this,” says NSCAD student union president Owen Skeen. Gerrard wants a member of the student union–SUNSCAD–to help write a piece of policy that would ensure graffiti is allowed on campus “in a way that still prevents hate speech," says Skeen.
The Coast reached out to NSCAD for comment on bathroom painting, Shannon’s emails to students, the extent of antisemitism on campus and what they mean by concrete actions against discrimination. A spokesperson for NSCAD said they are “not commenting at this time on internal issues."
Gerrard did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
On Dec. 5, a few members of the NSCAD Student Action Group, of which Skeen and McAllister are both members, served free coffee at a booth displaying pro-Palestinian messaging outside the faculty holiday party.
McAllister says the point of being there was to show Shannon that “we actually don't need to be silent and we will not be silent no matter what her preference is–we have a right to make our views known on campus."
Skeen is hoping to get more students involved in the group. On Friday, Jan. 19 the group will be holding a general meeting open to all NSCAD students and alumni at the Glitter Bean Cafe on Spring Garden Road, from 6:30 to 8:30pm.
Currently, the group meets over Instagram, messaging apps and weekly in-person meetings once a week.
“We'd like to continue developing work around mutual aid and direct action on and off campus,” says Skeen. Some of the group's ongoing work will be presented at the meeting, including historical research into NSCAD and “mistakes that have been made, as far back as 100 years or more, that are being repeated today,” says Skeen. As well, a student-authored letter about Palestine will be read that connects NSCAD students to solidarity actions for Palestine with students more broadly.
As for what to do about Shannon’s emails, Skeen says the group's focus is on talking to students first.
“There are other people in the community who are affected by these things, and are not okay with being communicated with in this way,” says Skeen. "Being able to communicate widely within the university has been an effective part of what we do that’s not dependent on the administration to be the one small group of people that has all the control.
"Instead, recognizing that we are the vast majority of this institution–the students and the faculty–and so the way that we behave, and the way that we are able to change our behavior independently, can have a profound effect on the culture of the university,” no matter what the administration chooses to do.