York Aboriginal group apologizes for offensive shirt

The student wearing the t-shirt in question. (Credit: Hillel York Facebook photo)

The Aboriginal Students’ Association at York (ASAY) said in an email to The CJN that a member of its executive who wore a t-shirt that said “anti-Zionist vibes only” at York Federation of Students’ (YFS) Multicultural Week Parade has stepped down from her position on the executive. The parade also fell on the same day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.

In the email, ASAY acting co-presidents McKenzie Toulouse and Rachelle Naomi Beswick said they were not aware the student was going to be wearing that shirt.

“This was a personal statement made without our consent and went against our constitution. It took away the voices within our own organization and pitted individuals and groups against one another during what was supposed to be a celebration of individuality for all students,” they said.

ASAY apologized for the incident in both their email and on Facebook, and has consistently reiterated the importance of peace and inclusivity in its teachings and constitution, saying the shirt went against those values.

“The personal statement made resulted in further polarizing individuals and groups rather than building bridges and seeking understanding. Such actions are not representative of our traditional teachings,” ASAY said in one comment on Facebook.

To that end, the group has been communicating with Jewish groups on campus. Toulouse and Beswick said their first instinct on walking past Hillel’s office after they learned about the shirt was to “immediately apologize and acknowledge what was happening … we didn’t want students to feel marginalized and unwelcome a moment longer, as Aboriginal students we share a similar knowledge of pain and trauma.”

They also hope the former executive member can engage in constructive dialogue as well.

“We continue to support the growth of our past executive member during this difficult time and hope this is an opportunity for education, understanding and outreach. We have asked that she address recent events on her own accord. While her actions may have been done with honest intentions they do not negate the immense impact they have made in our community,” they said.

Anna Kissin, director of Hillel York, said in an email to The CJN that Hillel York is pleased to see ASAY’s apology, and that the two groups have been in touch and will continue working on meaningful programming together. She also welcomed ASAY students to attend their events, “so our communities will better understand one another and we can work together to make our campus a better place.” She added that Hillel has reached out to YFS and university administration to take steps to ensure all students feel safe.

Hasbara Fellowships Canada said in a statement that it was also pleased to see ASAY’s apology, as well as York President Rhonda Lenton’s statement condemning the t-shirt. Hasbara executive director Daniel Koren had met with Lenton a few hours before the incident to discuss the climate for Jewish students on campus.

Lenton wrote that she is concerned that pro-Israel and Zionist students were made to feel unwelcome at an event focusing on inclusion.

“The fact that this exclusion occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is particularly painful. These messages are inconsistent with the aims of Multicultural Week to give “students, faculty and staff a chance to celebrate their cultures and embrace the diversity of York,” the statement said.

Toulose and Beswick want those affected to know ASAY is serious about addressing their concerns. They are thankful that people have taken the time to educate them, and accepted their apologies and process of remediation.

“In our culture we often facilitate talking circles wherein individuals commit to creating a safe space, feel comforted and able to share vulnerably and powerfully to seek understanding with one another. We would love to create a similar culture of true acceptance where students feel confident and welcomed, engaging in conversations to promote true healing,” the said. “We remain committed to partner as allies and build relationships with one another.”