Updated to include information about protests inside Convocation Hall: About 20 people, including professors, students and community members gathered outside Convocation Hall on the Mt. A. campus today to protest against awarding an honorary degree to Deborah Lyons, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel and Afghanistan.
The protesters waved a large cloth symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation along with signs that read “honorary degree, dishonorary actions” and “dis-honor to Lyons.”
“I’ve just finished my fourth year — I’m graduating in the fall — and it’s really important that a university is very careful about who they give honorary degrees to,” said a student who identified herself only as Jamie.
“Right now they’re giving an honorary degree to someone who has been outspoken supporting Israel’s apartheid and settler colonialism,” she added.
Krista Johnston, director of women’s and gender studies, said she’s been encouraged by the response to an online petition she helped organize against awarding the honorary degree.
“There’s been great reaction from students and from the community as you can see,” Johnston said.
“Just this morning, the Jewish faculty organization in Canada got in touch to express their solidarity and to let us know that they are also sending letters, so that has been really heartening.”
As the academic procession approached Convocation Hall with the former ambassador near the front, the protesters chanted “Free Palestine, end The Nakba” a reference to the continued Israeli occupation as well as the displacement of Palestinians in 1948.
Inside Convocation Hall, everything seemed to go smoothly as Lyons received her honorary degree before delivering an address to Convocation that lasted just over 17 minutes.
About 30 students stood up from their seats and turned their backs as Lyons began to speak.
“There are some students and faculty who aren’t so happy that I’m speaking to you today,” she began as someone shouted from the audience, “You’re a war criminal.”
After a pause, Lyons added: “It saddens me that my appearance at your Convocation has attracted this negative attention on a day that should be focused on you, the graduates and your achievements.”
The audience responded with a round of applause that lasted almost 15 seconds.
“It is also unfortunate that my work and actions as a Canadian ambassador and as a United Nations mission leader have been misunderstood and that they did not approach me to exchange views.”
Lyons went on to explain that diplomacy requires frank exchanges of views even with those you disagree with.
At the same time, she said that free expression is vital, especially at universities where ideas are tested in robust debate.
“In late 2019 when political talks with the Taliban seemed inevitable, it was important to me that the UN leader negotiating with the Taliban, sitting across the table from them, was a woman and that Afghan women could trust that they had a sister representing their voice,” she said.
She added it took courage to face down the Taliban, to open the doors of her various diplomatic residences to support activists working for social justice and to lead Canada’s efforts to rescue hundreds of Syrian White Helmet volunteers and their families.
“All of these actions were not easy,” she said, “and each brought moments of self-doubt and demanded courage.
“Frankly, the last few weeks have demanded a little of my courage. But my advice to you is this: When life presents you with different paths, choose the one that takes the most courage because that’s the one where you will find more of yourself.”
To read previous coverage of this story, click here.
To listen to Lyons’s address, click on the media player below.