A labour arbitration board has decided to exclude journalists and members of the public from hearings into Mount Allison Psychology Professor Rima Azar’s seven month suspension without pay.
“The Board met, considered the matter, and decided that the proceedings would be closed to the public and press,” said William Kaplan, the chief of the arbitration panel in an e-mail to Warktimes, campus/community radio station CHMA, and The Argosy, Mt. A’s student newspaper.
When asked why the arbitrators decided to hold the hearings behind closed doors, Kaplan replied: “There is nothing further that I can say.”
He was responding to a joint request to cover the hearings, which are scheduled to begin on April 5th, from all three local media outlets.
“We believe the issues in this case go well beyond a narrowly focused labour dispute,” the local journalists wrote in an e-mail addressed to Kaplan.
“On the one hand, there are issues of free speech, academic freedom and the right to engage in wide-ranging political debate, while on the other, there are issues related to diversity, human rights and inclusion,” the journalists added.
“These issues are of interest and concern to students and other members of the Mount Allison community as well as members of the general public. In addition, Mount Allison University is a public institution that receives public funds and so, should be open to public scrutiny.”
Background to Azar suspension
In February 2021, Mount Allison announced it was conducting an internal review after students circulated highlights from Rima Azar’s personal blog including posts that denied the existence of systemic racism or systemic discrimination in Canada, accused the group Black Lives Matter of peddling communist propaganda and questioned concerns about climate change.
CHMA reported that the Mt. A. Black Students’ Union issued a statement calling for Azar’s removal from her university teaching job.
“Her behaviour does not foster [an] inclusive nor fair learning environment and some students have already expressed that they will avoid taking classes with Dr. Azar. No student should fear discrimination by a professor,” the statement said.
The campus radio station also talked to Zoë Wright, a fifth-year student who identifies as a Two-Spirit Indigenous person, someone who carries both feminine and masculine spirits.
Wright complained that Azar refused a request to be addressed in the classroom using gender-neutral pronouns.
“I went up after one of the lectures to just introduce myself,” Wright told CHMA. “I mentioned that I was Two-Spirit, and I would prefer her using they/them pronouns when addressing me,” Wright added.
“Her response, straight to my face was, ‘No, I don’t believe in other identities.’”
(Azar herself denies that the exchange took place.)
University issues suspension
In an e-mail to students, faculty and staff on May 4, 2021, the university indicated that its decision to suspend Azar without pay until December 1st, was based on a report from an unidentified, independent investigator whom it said, “reviewed complaints from students alleging discriminatory conduct, stemming from blog posts and student interactions,” but gave no further details.
“Students, faculty, and staff deserve to have a safe place to learn and work, and should not have to avoid any class, activity or person because of their race, gender identity or gender expression,” the e-mail added.
It also said the university supported the investigator’s recommendation that Azar undergo “equity, diversity and inclusion training” and that Mt. A. had offered to pay for it.
It later emerged that in addition to her seven-month suspension, Azar had been banned from the campus until December 1st.
Arbitrators hearing the case
The three arbitrators who will be hearing Azar’s challenge to her seven-month suspension were appointed under the terms of the collective agreement between the university and the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA).
Chief Arbitrator William Kaplan is a prominent Toronto lawyer, labour arbitrator and author. He’s best known for two books about the Airbus Affair. His 1998 book, Presumed Guilty: Brian Mulroney, the Airbus Affair, and the Government of Canada argued that Mulroney had been the victim of unjust persecution by the RCMP, the federal government and prominent journalists. In 2004, Kaplan published a sequel, A Secret Trial: Brian Mulroney, Stevie Cameron, and the Public Trust after he had revealed in the Globe and Mail that the former prime minister had accepted $300,000 in cash payments from German/Canadian Karlheinz Schreiber, the businessman who had been instrumental in the deal to sell Airbus jets to Air Canada while Mulroney was in office. Kaplan’s most recent book is Why Dissent Matters. To view his website, click here.
Arbitrator Robin Vose is the MAFA-appointed representative on the panel. He served as President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers from 2016-2019 and now teaches history at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. According to information on the STU website, Dr. Vose has lectured widely on subjects such as academic freedom and university governance.
Arbitrator Lauri Reesor is the Mt. A-appointed representative. She is a partner in the Toronto law firm Hicks Morley and specializes in subjects such as human rights, pay equity and labour arbitration. Her biography on the law firm’s website describes her as a “leading human rights lawyer in Canada.” To read more about her, click here.
For coverage of free speech concerns raised by the Azar suspension, click here.