Canada: High School student walk outs demand ceasefire in Gaza

November 20, 2023
Protesting for Gaza in Toronto, Canada on November 19. Photo: @isisnaucratis/Twitter/X

Palestine solidarity actions have increased in frequency and intensity across Canada, with tactics moving to more disruptive and direct actions — from blockades and pickets at arms companies to sit-ins at politicians’ offices. High school students have added to the variety of tactics with coordinated walkouts.

A day of student walkouts took place across Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, on November 13.

Student walkouts and rallies called for a ceasefire, an end to arms shipments from Canada to Israel, and denounced Israel’s bombardment and genocide in Gaza.

The walkouts were organised by Ceasefire Now, a coalition of more than 40 high school student groups in Ontario. In a statement released ahead of the walkout, the coalition said: “Canada and the rest of the world have failed the children of Gaza, and we are incredibly saddened and enraged by the apathy of so many leaders during these times.”

Ceasefire Now released the following demands to schools and school boards, including that “Ontario schools protect Palestinian students, create safe spaces for them, and refrain from censoring and punishing solidarity with Palestine”.

Students also demanded: that school boards (teachers, administrators and trustees) receive anti-Palestinian racism training; that the history of the colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine be taught in schools; and that Canada stop providing financial, military and political support to Israel.

November 13 actions

Hundreds of students at two high schools walked out of class on the November 13 in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario. Among the students who spoke at a rally afterwards was one who is mourning 16 family members killed in Gaza.

In addition to the calls for an immediate ceasefire and an end to military shipments from Canada to Israel, Windsor students called for supports for Palestinian students who are grieving and traumatised by the assault on Gaza. As one speaker put it, schools need to act on “Mental health assistance for Palestinian students, as well as countering antisemitism and Islamophobia to create a more inclusive environment for students who are going through such a hard time.”

Hundreds of students from at least five schools in the Hamilton, Ontario, area also walked out. Students expressed disappointment that the bombardment of Gaza is not being discussed, or not adequately discussed, in class.

In the smaller southern Ontario city of Guelph, more than 100 students, from at least three high schools, walked out of classes. They marched through downtown and ended with a rally at City Hall.

The growth of actions in smaller cities and towns is a notable development.

Walkouts also happened at schools in other provinces, such as West Kildonan Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

October 26 walkouts

This was not the first day of student walkouts. There were walkouts at dozens of schools on October 26.

Students raised calls for a ceasefire as well as highlighting anti-Palestinian racism and a rise in Islamophobia. They issued a list of requests regarding how Palestinian students are treated as well as how Palestinian issues are discussed in schools.

In Toronto, students criticised the district School Board for“active silencing and exclusion of Palestinian support”.

The walkouts were supported by parents who came together to form their own coalition — Palestinian and Jewish Families.

At a news conference outside of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) headquarters parents raised concerns about the wellbeing of Palestinian students, especially in a context in which politicians and the school board were expressing support for Israel.

They pointed out that on two occasions, the Board had “unequivocally and rightfully condemned the October 7 killing of Israeli civilians, and clearly named the perpetrators of these attacks”, but had not “unequivocally condemn[ed] the killing of Palestinian civilians and name[d] the perpetrators of those attacks”.

The parents want anti-Palestinian racism to be seen and named.

Students, educators targeted

Like others participating in Palestine solidarity actions, the teenagers have been targeted by Zionist groups that want to silence them.

In a particularly odious example, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) posted a video of students during a walkout chanting, “Trudeau, Trudeau, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” a popular chant at Palestine solidarity rallies which references the Canadian Prime Minister’s support for Israel’s actions, and refusal to call for a ceasefire.

Dishonestly, the CIJA claimed the students were chanting “Judah, Judah, you can’t hide”, and accused them of antisemitism.

Disturbingly, the video, which the CIJA eventually took down — only after it had received more than 1.2 million views — showed students’ faces, leaving them open to personal harm or discipline from school boards. Indeed, students reported receiving multiple threats.

The CIJA video distortion ended up having serious consequences, not for the CIJA, but for a well-respected Toronto educator who defended the students against this smear. Javier Davila was suspended by the TDSB on November 13, and placed under investigation. Davila had merely called on the TDSB to stand up for the students and publicly call out the CIJA's false claims.

A fundraiser has been setup for Davila, who he is taking the TDSB to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging systemic anti-Palestinian racism, and advocating for the severance of all ties between the TDSB and CIJA.

Word got out on November 14 that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, covering the schools where several walkouts occurred, was investigating trustee Sabreina Dahab for expressions of support on social media for Palestinians.

Dahab put out a statement saying, “At the end of October, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board of Trustees launched an external investigation into my social media activity as it relates to my posts on Palestine, alleging that my advocacy is a breach of the Trustee Code of Conduct.

“I am concerned that this investigation is an attempt to silence me for my vocal condemnation of Israeli apartheid and reprimand me for my posts about protests that were calling for the end to the siege of Gaza.”

Dahab also expressed concern for students, saying that in schools across Ontario they are facing repercussions for merely saying “Free Palestine”.

“To students across Ontario: know that I have your back and that your voice is important. You deserve a learning space free from anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.”

As the Palestine solidarity movement grows, and as it faces rising repression, having the backs of students, and others, who speak up against bombardment and genocide becomes pressing. This includes defending racialised and vulnerable students who face discipline, while simultaneously being marginalised or abandoned in their schools.

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