This weekend’s Pride Parade in Toronto was one of the most controversial in 30 years. The issue concerned a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), and whether it would be allowed to march in the parade.
In late May, the answer was “no.” Fearing a loss of city funding and private sponsorship, Pride Toronto decided to play a game of semantics and ban the words “Israeli apartheid.” In a statement released June 7, Pride Toronto said “the use of the words ‘Israeli apartheid’ made participants feel unsafe.”
Then, just over a week ago, Pride flip-flopped, announcing it would “no longer restrict language in the Parade.” Either Pride Toronto suddenly decided that “Israeli apartheid” doesn’t make participants feel unsafe, or it capitulated to pressure. You decide.
If we can put the embarrassing flip-flop aside; should QuAIA (or the words “Israeli apartheid,” if you want to play that game) been banned in the first place? I still can’t make up my mind. (Sorry, I know that doesn’t make for quite as compelling a read.) On the one hand, public dollars are feeding the parade. It seems fishy to use tax money to fund a potentially ostracizing message, especially at an event centred around inclusiveness. On the other hand, free speech should be upheld as a cherished right. Censorship can be a slippery slope, especially when a selected few are given the authority to decide what is and is not appropriate. But despite my wavering in that respect, I have made up my mind on one aspect of the parade and it concerns how student union leaders chose to participate.
Though I am certainly no expert on issues in the Middle East, the irony of QuAIA did not escape me. QuAIA members marched along the parade route Sunday, proudly chanting, “Israeli Apartheid, you ain’t fine, you ain’t got no alibi, you ugly!” despite the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that supports gay rights. Nevermind. Marchers boasted signs that read, “Israeli Apartheid is worse than South Africa” and “My Pride Includes Free Speech.” (Do you think that sign was recycled from the Ann Coulter event at University of Ottawa? No?) But all that didn’t irk me much. Indeed, QuAIA members aren’t speaking on my behalf, and though I didn’t agree with every poster board message, I watched placidly as they walked by. But then came the Ryerson/George Brown student float.
Yes, the music was pumping and the sun was just glorious, and there they were—students acting as my representatives—adorned in shirts boasting that their pride is “Against Israeli Apartheid.” Funny, I don’t think I’ve read enough on Israel to merit an opinion tee (I say that half joking). So why are my paid student representatives making a decision for me? And worse yet—why are they flaunting it on my behalf?
I have no problem with John Doe the individual advocating for whichever cause he desires. Nor do I have a problem with John Doe the public figure openly aligning himself with a position, however controversial it may be. I do, however, find issue with Mr. Doe, my representative, choosing a side on a polarizing issue, far removed from his mandate as a student advocate, and doing it on my dime.
I can already hear the response; “That’s government, kid. Get used to it.” Maybe so. And of course, this student union behaviour isn’t new. But when student fees are collected by a student union, I expect them to be spent on education issues. If nothing else, it seems careless from a strategic perspective for a student government to align itself, both fiscally and ideologically, on an issue that so severely divides its voting population, especially when the issue has little to do with education. City funding went to the Pride Parade as a whole, not specifically QuAIA. Student fees, on the other hand, seemed to be used to advocate a certain position.
At the very least, student leaders could have taken a sharpie to the “RSU” on their shirts. A city mayor advocating a certain position doesn’t speak for all municipal citizens in the same way a VP Student Life speaks for a university’s student body.
Here’s hoping the money for those student tees branded “Against Israeli Apartheid” was out of pocket, not out of student fees. Now, who’s up for a unicorn ride?