An organization representing many B.C. university and college instructors is calling for the resignation of Minister of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills Selina Robinson.
The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC alleges Robinson inappropriately intervened in the disciplinary process for Langara College English teacher Natalie Knight, who publicly celebrated the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israeli civilians as “amazing” and “brilliant.”
Knight was placed on leave by the college after her Oct. 28, 2023 comments at a pro-Palestine rally in Vancouver. Last month, the college’s academic freedom advisory committee cleared Knight to return to classes; however, after she subsequently defended her pro-Hamas commentary online and turned up to another pro-Palestine rally, this time on college grounds, the college announced Jan. 26 Knight was “no longer employed.”
The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC represents about 10,000 unionized instructors at 20 institutions — mostly medium-sized colleges and excluding the province’s three major universities (UBC, SFU and UVic).
The federation, which has previously called for a ceasefire in Gaza, took aim at Robinson, who is Jewish, for supporting (via social media) calls from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to terminate Knight.
“The notion that a Minister would intervene directly with a college and call for the termination of a tenured faculty member is highly inappropriate and unprecedented. We will assist the Langara Faculty Association in grieving this unjustified termination,” stated federation executive director Michael Conlon in an online statement Feb. 1. (Conlon clarified to Glacier Media by email that Knight is not tenured with an indefinite academic appointment.)
Conlon and federation president Brent Calvert went on to say it was “concerned that the Minister had inappropriate access to confidential employment information about Dr. Knight.”
Calvert called Knight’s comments about Hamas “clearly hurtful to some in the Jewish community.”
“But,” said Calvert, “the reality is that freedom of expression applies to speech we may well find offensive. Free speech is meaningless if it is reserved only for speech we agree with.”
Conlon told Glacier Media via email that “we do not believe that Dr. Knight’s comments are hate speech nor are they disciplinable under the collective agreement and neither does Langara.”
Robinson declined an interview with Glacier Media but issued a statement Feb. 1 by email wherein she said the federation’s allegations are false.
“Langara College made the decision independently and the Minister was only notified of the College’s decision after it was made,” said Robinson, whose public mandate is to "provide leadership and direction for post-secondary education."
The federation and the Canadian Association of University Teachers also targeted comments Robinson made in a B’nai Brith Canada panel on Jan. 30. There, Robinson describes her interactions with respect to the Langara College instructor and her stated concern that some universities in Canada are not adequately addressing anti-Semitism.
Robinson stated she spoke to many post-secondary presidents since Oct. 7 and “they want to do the right thing. They feel stuck. They feel so trapped around what legally I can ask them to do, what can I do within the realm of the collective agreement and not get sued and yet help ensure our university and college campuses are safe right now.”
The federation claims, “the Minister indicated that she had been pressuring college and university presidents in B.C. to police speech related to the war in Gaza.”
Asked to clarify that comment, Conlon said by email that “she is clearly raising concerns and asking presidents to clamp down on speech on Gaza and their reply is there are laws and collective agreement issues here — except of course Langara.”
Robinson and the ministry called the federation’s interpretation “demonstrably untrue.”
“The Minister's comment is about a desire from post-secondary presidents to work through how to support their students/school communities in situations that are often complex.
“Minister Robinson’s focus is on our commitment to making sure that post-secondary education institutions throughout B.C. are safe spaces where students can study and learn,” the ministry stated.
Online, Robinson also doubled down on her opinion on Knight’s commentary, calling it “outrageous.”
Robinson said Knight “went out of the way to be vitriolic and celebrate the massacre that happened.”
Now, said Robinson at the panel, “I’m being called out by the faculty association because I expressed my disappointment of her reinstatement, but I also represent a constituency and they needed to see me be upset and be concerned that this was happening.”
“I also value free speech and I value democracy. And while I hate what they have to say they also have a right to say it, within limits — and this is where we get challenged,” said Robinson.
Robinson has defended Israel’s military actions to kill Hamas leaders, and she also reiterated support for Israel’s existence since the Second World War, and a need for younger people to better understand the conflict and the context in which Israel exists.
“They (18-34 year-old people) don’t understand it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it; there were several hundred thousand people but other than that it didn’t produce an economy.
“It was the folks that were displaced that came, and the people who had been living there for generations and together they worked hard; and they had their own battles and we know their history,” said Robinson.
It was those comments that sparked further online criticism Feb. 1 leading Robinson to apologize on X.
"I want to apologize for my disrespectful comment referring to the origins of Israel on a ‘crappy piece of land.’ I was referring to the fact that the land has limited natural resources. I understand that this flippant comment has caused pain and that it diminishes the connection Palestinians also have to the land. I regret what I said and I apologize without reservation," states Robinson.
At the panel Robinson also noted her BC NDP government recently implemented mandatory Holocaust education in high schools.
The minister also asserted that “Jewish hatred” is behind a seemingly more selective concern against Israel, as opposed to other ongoing state-backed conflicts.
The federation’s statement against Robinson was filed in its online news section, which includes a Dec. 4 statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. It is among few political statements; the federation previously condemned suppression of women’s rights protests in Iran, in 2022; it never weighed in on the conflict in Ukraine, among others.
The federation is a member of the Canadian Labour Congress, which has long issued statements criticizing Israel’s military actions in Palestine.
Editor's note. This article was updated to reflect Robinson's apology for her comments about Palestine.