Dozens of students organized a walkout Humber College in Toronto on Tuesday after one student was removed from campus for putting up stickers of the Palestinian flag amid heightened tensions on many Canadian university campuses.
Hani Alaf, a Syrian-Canadian postgraduate student, says he plastered about a dozen stickers around Humber's Lakeshore campus last Tuesday. The stickers depicted the Palestinian flag and read "Boycott Israeli Apartheid."
Two days later, he was sitting in class when a staff member of Humber's public safety department approached him and asked him to leave campus and not return, he says.
"[I was told] that I have been accused of spreading hate speech, of spreading antisemitic rhetoric and of desecrating and vandalizing property," Alaf told CBC Toronto.
"My actions of putting up those stickers were in protest, in the most peaceful and diplomatic of ways and not in violation of their code. It was just an absolutely crazy accusation that has absolutely no truth."
The incident comes as many colleges and universities are seeing a rise in on-campus tensions amid the ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip following Hamas's attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, and rallies calling a ceasefire to stop the climbing death toll.
The Hamas attacks on southern Israel killed 1,400 people and resulted in 240 people taken hostage, according to statistics from Israeli officials. Israel's military response has killed 10,328 people in Gaza, including some 4,237 children, according to Palestinian health officials in the enclave.
Thousands of people have taken to Toronto streets over past weekends, calling for a ceasefire as Israel continues to pound the besieged enclave. The Toronto rally was just one of many other demonstrations that took place in more than two dozen Canadian cities.
Toronto police meanwhile say there has been a significant rise in reported antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in the city.
A sticker with a Palestinian flag that reads 'Boycott Israeli Apartheid.' (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)
Alaf, 24, says he was told Thursday that he could face arrest if he returns to campus and was given no other details.
"I had not spread hate speech and misinformation and I did not spread antisemitic rhetoric," he said. "To [say] that Israel is an apartheid state is an unequivocal fact affirmed by international human rights organizations."
The government of Canada has previously said it rejects the view that "Israel's actions constitute apartheid."
He says fellow classmates were "dismayed" after he was reprimanded by the school and organized the walkout to protest the incident.
Humber expresses 'regret'
Later that same day, he says he received an email from the school telling him he could return to campus and attend any classes. On Friday, Alaf says he was contacted by the Dean of Students by phone and told that the school deeply regrets what unfolded.
Emily Milic, associate director of communications at Humber College, says the school initially received a number of complaints about the content of the stickers.
Milic said when the school identified that Alaf had posted the stickers, a school employee went to his classroom and asked him to leave.
"We have since expressed regret for the way that was handled and that it was disproportionate to the violation under the code of conduct for students," Milic said.
Dozens of students gathered outside of Humber Lakeshore campus with signs that read 'End the siege on Gaza' and 'From the river to the sea.' (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)
College prohibits posting 'unauthorized materials'
Milic said Alaf violated school policy by posting "unauthorized materials" around college property, something Alaf says is not a violation of the code of conduct.
Asked if the school deems the message on the sticker as hateful and antisemitic, Milic did not directly answer.
"That was not the cause for him being approached," she responded.
"We are looking out our processes following this event [and] we have been in contact with both the organizers of the walkout today and the student directly to talk about next steps and to help them feel supported on campus," Milic added.
Organizers of the walkout told CBC News they have not received any correspondence from the college.
Humber did not directly say which policy the stickers violated. But it Level 2 incidents under the code, such as damage to property," have a significant impact on the rights or academic experience of others but may not pose a threat or danger to other individuals in the community."
It also notes that only masking or green painter's tape can be used to post "authorized materials," on campus.
Humber spokesperson Sylvie Lendvay said in an email to CBC News its code of conduct is in place "to ensure that student conduct aligns with the principles of maintaining a safe, respectful, and inclusive learning environment for all community members."
"It also serves to prevent potential disruptions and conflicts that may arise."
Students demand public apology
But Alaf says the school's response does not go far enough and does not address the real issue at hand.
"I'm destroyed by this but I'm fuelled by anger right now, and the call for justice, for recognition," Alaf said.
"They have made us feel unsafe, unincluded and not belonging. We're waiting and demanding that Humber issues a public apology and recognizes what they have done was seriously wrong and hurtful," he added.
"We're demanding that they understand and differentiate between anti-Zionism and antisemitism."
The group of students is also calling on the school to do its due diligence when looking into student complaints before disciplinary action and to affirm its support of freedom of speech on its campuses.