Sharryn Aiken

Sharryn Aiken

What Happened

In 2009, Sharryn Aiken was one of four organizers for an academic conference entitled “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace”, co-sponsored by Queen’s and York University and held in Toronto at York’s main campus. The conference explored state models that offered paths to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rights to self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians. The academic conference became controversial when the Harper government pressured funding bodies to withdraw funding due to complaints that some of the speakers were anti-Israel. Following the conference, Professor Aiken was the target of an anonymous Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

In 2009, with three colleagues from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Sharryn Aiken organized an international three-day conference entitled “Israel/ Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.” The purpose of the conference was to use a scholarly lens to examine which state models offered viable solutions to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conference was premised on the importance of civil dialogue, as well as the need to avoid anti-semitic and racist discussions about the conflict.

In addition to 10 other sponsors, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) granted the conference funding of up to $19,750.

The conference became controversial and was accused of having an “anti-Israel tilt.” Groups such as the Jewish Defense League held weekly demonstrations against it. Aiken and her co-organizer, Bruce Ryder, were quoted in the Canadian Jewish News responding to such criticisms by saying that, on “a topic as fraught and weighty as the future of Israel/Palestine,” everyone will “disagree passionately with at least some of the speakers.”

Harper government intervenes

The Harper government tried to intervene. Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Garry Goodyear, called for a review of the federal funding for the conference. The Harper government sought to have the SSHRC rethink its grant.

However, SSHRC stood by its initial funding decision. In a statement issued on June 15, 2009, SSHRC reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to “independent peer review and its grant policies and procedures.” It also sought assurances from the grant holders, the Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School and the Vice President Research and Innovation at York University, that procedures and policies for grant holders were being met under legal and ethical standards outlined in the Grant Holder’s Guide for the program.

In an opinion column for the National Post, Ian Lustick, Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, characterized these governmental pressures as “part of a pattern of misguided, ‘pro-Israel’ attempts throughout North America to suppress debate and ignore the challenges and questions we Zionists must face.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) expressed its dismay at this interference, and in a news release, CAUT executive director James Turk argued that:

“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference. This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”

The York University Senate declared that universities have the right “to organize and host academic conferences free from government intervention.”

FOI Requests

After the conference, Queen’s University received an anonymous request under Ontario’s freedom of information legislation (FOI law). The request sought the disclosure of “all written and email communications to and from Professor Sharryn Aiken…” containing nearly 90 key words, phrases and names. The requestor sought communications in relation to the conference participants, the conference advisory committee and several organizations that were obviously of interest to the requestor, including organizations working on Middle Eastern issues which were not direct participants on the conference.

However, the university deemed that the request fell outside the bounds of the FOI law. Consequently, the request expired without any follow-up.

This is not the first time that Canadian academics have been subjected to anonymous FOI requests. Amir Attaran and Errol Mendes, two professors at the University of Ottawa, were also targeted by anonymous FOI requests after criticizing the Harper government’s behavior during the Afghan detainee scandal. Attaran and Mendes were asked for information such as expenses, teacher evaluations and employment records.

Heather MacIvor, a professor at the University of Windsor, said she believes that these requests could be understood as a way to intimidate academics who are critical of the Harper government. The Harper government denies that it is the source of the FOI requests.

Anonymous FOI requests for personal information about university professors like Aiken, Mendes and Attaran have prompted concerns about a chilling effect on academic freedom.

“Normally I am on the bandwagon of transparency,” Aiken said. “But I think we cross a line when material that should properly be considered personal gets subject to politically-driven requests of this nature.”

Relevant Dates

  • 2009: Aiken and her co-organizers begin planning for the conference. They set up an international advisory panel consisting of scholars and researchers from Israel, Palestine and North America.
  • June 2009: Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, calls for a funding review for Aiken’s conference, “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.”
  • June 2009: The Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) issues a media release supporting the funding for the conference.
  • June 2009: Israel/Palestine: Mappings Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace convenes at York University between June 22-24, 2009
  • 2009: Queen’s University receives an anonymous, massive FOI request for a wide range of correspondence to and from Aiken in relation to the conference and Middle Eastern issues. The request fell outside the purview of Ontario’s FOI law. 

Role or Position

Sharryn Aiken is an associate professor and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on migration law and policy in context. Much of her current scholarship engages with the controversies, complexities and challenges posed by immigration and border security measures as well as the impact of these measures on asylum seekers, refugees and the communities they have established in Canada. She is also interested in the nature and meaning of citizenship in ethnically divided societies.

Implications and Consequences

  • Transparency:  Because FOI requests can be made anonymously vis à vis the target, they can be used to obtain access to personal information and be used for politically motivated requests and oblique political attacks. There are currently few controls on this type of usage of FOI laws.
  • Free Speech: Governments compromise open dialogue and academic independence when they pressure scholarly funding bodies like SSHRC in relation to academic initiatives on contentious issues. Academic freedom and freedom of expression are directly affected.
  • Free Speech:  Free and open dialogue about contentious issues is curtailed when participants feel that research work and personal correspondence related to it is subject to unwarranted or vexatious FOI requests.