Six Canadian universities are now facing class-action lawsuits over allegations of rampant antisemitism and an unsafe environment for Jewish students.
The institutions named in the lawsuits include Queen’s University, York University, Concordia University, Toronto Metropolitan University, the University of British Columbia, and McMaster University.
The Toronto-based personal injury law firm, Diamond and Diamond, representing the plaintiffs, said that given this issue is similar on university campuses across Canada, it intends to file class actions against other universities.
“This anti-Semitism is always couched in the language of free speech, of being only against the Israeli government but not Jews, and speaking up for Palestinians. However, the truth is that these rationalizations are a disingenuous and convenient cover for anti-Jewish hate. Jewish students are left unsafe and unwelcome at a university that professes to be a safe space for all views and all people,” Diamond and Diamond detailed in their class action lawsuit against York University and the York Federation of Students.
In some instances, the universities’ student unions were also named as defendants.
Diamond and Diamond is co-counselled by The Lawfare Project in their $77 million class action lawsuit against McMaster University and the McMaster Students Union. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are separated into different classes. They are all Jewish students currently enrolled at McMaster University, along with those who have graduated in the last two years.
The statement of claim against York University also listed a third class, all Jewish students who attended and graduated between 1998 and 2021.
“Our position is that these universities go out of their way to protect the civil rights of every other minority except Jews,” said Sandra Zisckind, managing partner at Diamond and Diamond.
“You should not be allowed to bring the Hamas flag to a university, she told CTV News. “These are basic, basic tenets of human rights.”
The lawsuits coincide with rising tensions following the Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7, 2023.
“Jewish students at McMaster University have suffered psychological turmoil due to the faculty praising the October 7th attacks in Israel and exposure to antisemitic rhetoric at rallies on campus,” wrote the Lawfare Project in a news release.
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, outlined the complex challenge facing universities. They are simultaneously working to curb harassment and hate speech, maintain the university’s essential function as a place for open debate, and provide support for students who feel unsafe thanks to rising tensions, he said.
“Striking that balance has proved very difficult,” Turk said, according to The Globe and Mail. “It has been a very difficult period for universities.”
Zisckind confirmed that her firm had received financial support to pursue the cases from a leading human and civil rights defender of the Jewish community, The Lawfare Project.
“I challenge anybody to tell me where you can chant for the genocide of a people and that be allowed on any campus,” said Zisckind. “They have a code of conduct; they have to adhere to it. And if they’re not going to, I’m going to make sure they adhere to it with a lawsuit.”
No statement of defence has yet been received from any of the six universities, Zisckind said.
Each case features unnamed representative plaintiffs. For these class actions to move forward, court certification is required, a process that usually spans several years.
For a class action lawsuit to achieve certification, a judge must determine that it is the appropriate legal avenue for the case and confirm that the plaintiff genuinely represents a broader group, among other criteria.
McMaster University has stated that they have not yet received the statement of claim.
“Fostering an environment that is safe and inclusive for all members of the McMaster community has always been and continues to be a critical priority for the university, which condemns all forms of hatred,” said the university.
Other universities involved in the lawsuit, including UBC, TMU, and Concordia, have not commented on ongoing legal proceedings. Queen’s University, while not addressing the case’s specifics, reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining a safe campus environment.
York University acknowledged receiving a notice from the law firm regarding its plan to file a class action and emphasized its stance against all forms of discrimination.