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.”
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’
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.
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times, where this story first appeared on May 1, 2023.