Mt. A profs urge university not to confer honorary degree on former ambassador

Canadian diplomat Deborah Lyons. Photo: Mount Allison University

Two Mount Allison professors are calling on the university to abandon its plan to confer an honorary degree on Deborah Lyons, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel and Afghanistan.

Politics and International Relations Professor Lara Khattab and Krista Johnston, Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, are gathering signatures for an online petition urging Mt. A. to rescind its decision to grant Lyons an honorary degree at this year’s convocation ceremonies on May 15th.

“Deborah Lyons is being honoured at a time,” Khattab said in an interview, “when Palestinians are being slaughtered, they’re collectively being punished and I cannot but think that this person has supported the agents of repression and dispossession and colonization of Palestinians.”

Among other things, the petition condemns the former ambassador for not speaking out about Israeli war crimes against Palestinians and for negotiating with members of the Taliban, including those who have been designated as global terrorists.

“In my Women’s and Gender Studies course this term, we did a lot of work around Afghanistan,” Krista Johnston says, “thinking about how those of us located in North America can be in meaningful solidarity with social movements in Afghanistan and this [honorary degree] is the opposite of that.

“This is celebrating someone who definitely backed some abhorrent practices in Israel, but who has also aligned herself with noted terrorists in Afghanistan. She has urged for negotiation with the Taliban while recognizing that they are the reason why girls and women in Afghanistan don’t have access to education.”

Israeli military

The petition accuses Lyons of encouraging Canadians to join the Israeli military in violation of section 11 of Canada’s foreign enlistment act which makes it a crime to recruit or induce “any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state.”

“While the international human rights community and organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Special Rapporteur, found that Israel is guilty of apartheid and of settler colonialism, Mrs. Lyons continued to white-wash Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the petition states, adding that during her term as Canada’s ambassador (2016-2020) the Israeli military killed 233 Palestinians and wounded more than 8,000 in Gaza.

“Mrs. Lyons should have condemned human rights violations and war crimes as a high-ranking Canadian diplomat. Instead, she chose to engage in the settler colonial erasure of the plight of Canadians and Palestinians and to white-wash Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism,” the petition says.

“As scholars, students, and human rights advocates committed to critical perspectives grounded in uplifting the dispossessed, marginalized, and repressed at home and abroad, and as scholars who are committed to decolonization, anti-racism, human rights, social justice and the self-determination of Palestinians, and Indigenous nations at home, and abroad, we demand that Mount Allison immediately rescinds its decision to grant Lyons the honorary degree at Convocation 2023,” the petition concludes.

‘There will be disruptions’

Mount Allison convocation procession. Photo: Mount Allison University Facebook

Khattab and Johnston warn there will be consequences if the university goes ahead with its plan to award the honorary degree to the former ambassador on May 15th, a date that coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the day that Palestinians mark as the destruction of their society and homeland.

They point out that plans also call for Lyons to speak at the ceremony.

“There will be disruption at convocation, absolutely,” Johnston says.

“We have many student organizers who are really enraged, there are alumni, there are community members, there are lots of faculty who have signed our petition who are also enraged, so there will be disruptions at the convocation. I don’t know exactly what it will look like yet,” she adds.

“This doesn’t end at convocation,” Johnston says. “She may well get this degree on May 15th, but she won’t keep it.”

Meantime, a spokesperson for Mt. A. said there would be no immediate statement today from the university on the petition.

And, a communications officer at Global Affairs Canada, said in an e-mailed statement that for privacy reasons, he could not provide contact information for Deborah Lyons.

Jason Kung added the following:

Canada is committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel. In keeping with Canada’s long-standing position, it is important at this time to reiterate our commitment to a two-state solution and self-determination of all peoples. Our position remains that this can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties. We urge the parties to create the conditions for such negotiations to take place.

You may also consult our Statement on punitive measures taken against the Palestinian Authority by Israel and Canadian policy on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict website.

To read the Mount Allison University biography of Deborah Lyons, click here.

To view the online petition against awarding her an honorary degree, click here.

To read about a similar Mt. A. protest in 2010, click here.

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10 Responses to Mt. A profs urge university not to confer honorary degree on former ambassador

  1. Tim Reiffenstein says:

    First of all, these are the sorts of conversations on important topics that absolutely should take place at the University, and so the petition authors, my colleagues, should be commended for raising their voices on these matters. However, I think the text of the petition makes a well-intentioned but nonetheless bad-faith elision between person and policy, between Lyons in her role as Ambassador to both Afghanistan and Israel (neither easy postings by any measure) and the policy of Global Affairs Canada. There are a litany of legitimate criticisms of Israel, some of which are recounted in the petition. The same can be said of Canadian policy and practice in the Midde East. However, the claim that Lyons acted out of line from her diplomatic role as Canadian Ambassador is poorly evidenced in the letter and supporting documents. It comes across to me as a brave but clumsy effort to show solidarity with Palestinians/stick it to Israel by besmirching the Canadian Ambassador.

  2. IndieMediaEastcoast Canada says:

    Mount Allison University should be defunded. This wealthy charity is a drain on the taxpayers! Taking another chunk of money $36M for a library extension when the peasants in town cannot even get a tax break on their property nevermind a great new concrete skatepark venue built despite being requested in the summer of 2013 by local youth — why they keep suctioning off so much money is absolutely baffling. As for their honourary degrees I doubt the petition will amount to anything at all… lots of posturing and chattering though – something these professors are specialized at. 2021 saw them give honours to Dominic Leblanc MP and Bonnie Henry – not a peep of a protest then.

  3. Wayne Feiindel Puppet of the People says:

    “Who among you will cast the first stone.?” Sixty years ago I learned that human beings are a bundle of prejudices,(pre-judgments). at UNB sorry MTA. The trick was not to judge people until you know better. Having the luxury of travelling for a year throughout Europe and part of the Middle East, I enjoyed the wonderful stereotyped image that Canadians had as a result of the other side of our colonial roots. People like my Dad, who served, literally made it safe to travel.. For Americans, that flag pinned to a knapsack was Shield.. Israel is the size of PEI and tens of thousands in Israel protest in an effort to stop Netanyahu’s attack on the checks and balances being removed from the only democracy. Many Canadians hardly recognize that WW 111 has started with a sitzikrieg or sitting war or as the French referred to as the drole de Guerre. Whoever wins or loses in these types of conflicts still wounds all of us. Just takes one nut.. Now I could be a Professor if I could just remember who said: “What luck for rulers that men do not think”

  4. Jon says:

    The petitioners ought to talk with someone in PolSci about how ambassadors represent *the government*, not themselves, and don’t make statements that aren’t approved by Ottawa.

    In their eagerness to invoke all the buzzwords, the petitioners are not seeing the selectivity of their position. Do not Jews have as much, or better, claim to be the indigenous population of Israel as Palestinians? The area is the only cultural homeland of the Jewish people. Does that not make Israel the “unceded ancestral territory” of the Jews? Or how are they defining these things? Arabs conquered the area centuries ago in “settler colonialism”. How many centuries does it take, in the minds of the petitioners, for the descendants of past conquests or settling to belong on the land? Evidently in their minds 1400 years (since the Arab conquests) is enough, but the centuries since Europeans arrived in North America are not enough. Or are they making their distinction by race, not by years?

    The petition statement is full of the kind of lazy intellectual dishonesty that comes with any strongly biased proclamation from either right or left, accusing the ambassador of “collaboration with acknowledged war criminals and terrorists” and accusing her of negotiating “with members of the Taliban including those who are Specially Designated Global Terrorist”, while conveniently ignoring both Palestinian terrorism and the fact that the point of having ambassadors is that they talk with other governments, no matter how much we dislike those governments and their policies. The petitioners denounce colonialism, at the same time as seeing it as the west’s job to reject the government of Afghanistan and instruct Afghans on how they should live.

    The long list of their political objectives indicates that they aren’t acting as scholars but as activists, which may be why they are only seeing the world in stark black and white polemical terms rather than the nuances of scholarship.

    • Wayne Feindel Pupoet of the People. says:

      Yes! A beautifully written objective observation of well know facts.

    • Steve Berube says:

      I cannot speak to the situation in Afghanistan. I’ve never been there and I do not know any Afghans.
      I can tell you that most Palestinians are descendants of those who were there prior to the diaspora that came with the sacking of the second temple. In terms of your comment regarding activism verses scholarly work, especially in terms of human rights issues, I’m not sure there is a line. Reaching back a few hundred years, was Martin Luther an activist or a scholar? What about Booker T. Washington or Angela Davis?

  5. Maria Gonzales says:

    Good goal but wrong target.

    Following up on responses above, perhaps the petitioners are inexperienced or otherwise unaware that in certain organizations, especially high level foreign policy government organizations, the hierarchy must be respected in order to carry out the organization’s goals. It would undermine these goals to have the representatives of the organization giving public expression of their individual personal opinions not approved in advance by the top policymakers. It is foundational that the ambassador cannot give his or her personal opinion which might conflict with the organization’s (or its head’s) goals. S/he must be perceived by the diplomatic community, even before being selected, to know this, as well as to have the savoir faire to carry out the role. A Canadian ambassador is designated by the government as its resident representative in a foreign state. As mouthpiece for the government and its top policy makers, an ambassador who takes it upon her/himself to make a personal opinion statement about what the policy should be that differs from top policy is hard to imagine. It would be outside the scope, and as such grounds for dismissal in virtually every organization. A lot of complex threads must be carefully braided at the very highest levels, and followed by the government’s ambassador and other representatives. A contrary example that comes immediately to mind is when nominee Lani Guinier spoke outside the scope of her upcoming job, voicing her own opinion without advance approval from President Clinton’s national security advisors, her nomination was quickly pulled. The petitioners here should have protested to their representatives and perhaps to the government heads in charge of the policy to make a statement if they wanted to be effective.

    Mt. A’s hiring committees should ensure during the interviewing process that its professors have this basic knowledge about the workings of all types of organizations, from government policy organizations to private businesses large and small. Perhaps PoliSci, National Security specialists and other departments could inform the interviewing process?
    It would be at best ironic if the petitioners supporting equal opportunity and justice for females and others were to oppose women from serving in high level government office, however well intentioned their primary purpose. It would be unfortunate to misinform the young graduates about job requirements.

  6. Frank McKenna says:

    Two Mount Allison Professors are calling on the University to abandon its plan to confer an Honorary Degree on Deborah Lyons, Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel and Afghanistan.

    I am not going to question the sincere intentions of the two Professors who started this petition. I suspect, as committed feminists, they would be leading the acclaim for this extraordinary daughter of New Brunswick, who brought us such respect and honor on the world stage, if they were in full possession of the facts.

    Firstly, I unequivocally associate myself with the remarks of most of the other commentators which pointed out the obligation of Ambassador Deborah Lyons to respect the views of the Government of Canada in her mission.

    As a former Ambassador, I can state, without fear of contradiction, that our job is to represent the well-considered views of the Government of Canada rather than freelancing and indulging our own whimsy. The latter would be a recipe for chaos!

    However, my respect for Ambassador Lyons goes far beyond her title and legal obligations. Deborah Lyons took on the toughest assignments the Canadian Government threw at her and she did it with courage and good humor. She accepted a nomination as Ambassador to Afghanistan, the most dangerous assignment on the planet. Over a half dozen of her security team were killed protecting her during her tenure.

    It should be noted that she was the only female Ambassador in Kabul during her first two years in the role. During her tenure the Canadian Embassy in Kabul became the leader in fighting for women’s issues in Afghanistan. As Ambassador Lyons said in 2015, “One thing I know it has done is it has helped the Afghan women’s groups – it has helped validate them, and it has helped them believe that they have a strong champion for their issues and their work”.

    Her dedication to the women and girls in Afghanistan was so admired that, after her roles as Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Canadian Ambassador to Israel ended, she was nominated to be a special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. In other words, having earned a rightful place in a rocking chair, she headed back to the most dangerous assignment in the world.

    When the West pulled out of Afghanistan and the country collapsed within days I received a frantic inbound from a US VIP who was desperately trying to protect a pregnant Afghan journalist who was being hunted by the Taliban. The US Government seemed incapable of helping.

    I contacted Ambassador Lyons who, within an hour, had brave Canadian soldiers going “outside the wire” to find and secure the woman. Her efforts were always far beyond the call of duty.

    I witnessed similar heroic efforts from her when she was Ambassador to Israel. The White Helmets rescued people from airstrikes and collapsed buildings during the Syrian civil war. The Assad Government was determined to kill these brave men and women, branding them as traitors.

    Things came to a head very suddenly, by complete coincidence, at an event I was hosting, that included Ambassador Deborah Lyons, the Canadian Ambassador to the UN and the Canadian Minister of Immigration.

    I watched as Ambassador Lyons was able to organize, with her colleagues, a whole of government effort within minutes that saved the lives of hundreds of White Helmets and their families by extracting them from Syria. It was truly another Ambassador Ken Taylor, Iran hostage crisis moment, for which Canada could be justifiably proud. I was in the Middle East several weeks ago meeting King Abdullah of Jordan and various Israeli political leaders and whenever Deborah Lyons name came up it was treated with respect and reference.

    You can see why I feel so passionate about this brave Canadian woman, a daughter of the Miramichi, who made us so proud on the world stage. As a former Honorary Degree recipient from Mount A, I am proud of the University for honoring this extraordinary woman.

  7. Ian Newbould says:

    Good for you Frank McKenna. Well said. I hope the two professors are shown your comments and realize that their position is not tenable.

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