UVic Ukrainian Student Society concerned over hate speech and lack of support
On Jan. 25, the University of Victoria Ukrainian Student Society (UVic USS) released a statement regarding increasing harassment toward Ukrainian students. Over the next week, similar situations came to light at three more Canadian universities.
“The UVic Ukrainian Student Society (UVic USS) is deeply concerned by the drastic increase in harassment and hate-speech directed towards Ukrainian students at the University of Victoria,” reads the statement posted to the society’s Instagram.
Shortly after, Ukrainian student clubs at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa posted similar statements, alleging hate-speech, harassment, and violence. According to the National Ukrainian Students’ Union (SUSK), York University is also experiencing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the form of displayed disinformation and Russian flags.
According to the UVic USS’ post, however, this treatment is not new, and has been increasing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. In the statement, the group alleges two specific incidents which both occurred during the university’s Clubs and Course Union Days event.
In September 2022, while tabling at the event, members of the UVic USS say a student approached them and asked to take a photo of their banner. The photo was later shared on the Facebook page of the Young Communist League – Victoria (YCL), which is a ratified student club at UVic. The YCL’s post called the Ukrainian Students Society Nazis and antisemites.
The slogan on the UVic USS banner which was photographed, translates to “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes,” has been a popular way to voice support for Ukraine since the 19th century.
“It’s a kind of national saying that’s been quite popular … especially since 2014 with the unlawful annexation of Crimea,” said a member of the UVic USS in an interview with the Martlet. The student has chosen to remain anonymous to protect their personal safety. “It’s been a real rallying cry for the people of Ukraine,” they said.
However, the Young Communist League – Victoria has denied any claims that they harassed, threatened, or committed any acts of violence towards the UVic USS. A statement sent to the Martlet by the YCL’s president, maintained that the UVic USS had used a slogan that was tied to anti-semitism and that it was “deeply offensive.”
According to the UVic USS, the group filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Equity and Human Rights. They were offered the option of holding a mediated discussion to find a “middle ground,” a suggestion UVis USS members found offensive.
More recently, at another clubs day event held in January, UVic USS members report that their sign-up sheet was vandalised with the phrase “Nazi scum” while the table was left unattended. Another member of the club who has also chosen to remain anonymous, told the Martlet that they believe they were insulted in Russian by a student who asked if they spoke Ukrainian.
Ukrainian students at other Canadian universities have had similar experiences, including the vandalism of club materials and university property with pro-Russian symbols and slogans, guest speakers spreading Russian disinformation about the war at campus events, and verbal abuse directed towards Ukrainians.
Most are aware that in February 2022, Ukraine was invaded by the Russian Federation, but the conflict between the two countries has been going on for much longer. The Russo-Ukrainian War began in 2014, when the Russian Federation invaded and annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian, separatist groups in the Donbas region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has commonly invoked the language of “denazification,” both to justify Russian military action against Ukraine and to delegitimize Ukraine’s status as a democratic nation. As a result, the idea that Ukrainians are sympathetic to fascism and neo-Nazism has been a prominent part of Russian propaganda.
Notably, this is not the first time members of the Ukrainian Students Society at UVic have experienced online harassment. In 2018 — four years after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War — UVic USS members were accused of supporting fascists and terrorists for sending letters to political prisoners by the YCL president on their private Facebook page.
Harassment has been apparent since the start of the war. Russia has been making various false claims and overstating their position and success in the war to garner more support. These messages are received by numerous people, even outside of Russian borders. The resentment and hostility that may face Ukranians has been noted across campuses and is in direct correlation with the war efforts.
UVic USS members told the Martlet, however, that they do feel like incidents of harassment have increased since the invasion last year.
While the YCL maintains that the slogan which appeared on the UVic USS banner is that of Nazi sympathizers in Ukraine, Alisha Gajjar-Fleming, a Slavic studies master’s student at UVic, points to its much earlier use. According to Gajjar-Fleming, the phrase gained popularity from a poem by Taras Shevchenko, who is commonly described as the father of Ukrainian Literature. Moreover, Gajjar-Fleming states that the language used by the YCL points to the same propaganda that has been disseminated by Russia about Ukrainian patriots.
Both the YCL and Gajjar-Fleming point to the work done by Dr. Serhy Yekelchyk. A professor of History and Germanic and Slavic Studies at UVic, Yekelchyk has put out several projects speaking on Ukraine and the use of the terms. He also speaks to the spread of misinformation and propaganda that happens when one contextual piece of history is used to define the slogan. In his book Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know, Yekelchyk notes the exact same logic used to criticize the UVic USS was used by Stalin as a “propaganda trick to associate a separate Ukrainian national identity exclusively with the most radical branch of Ukrainian nationalism.”
The UVic USS statement in January also demanded that both UVic and the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) release statements reaffirming support for Ukrainian students, and that they make additional support accessible for Ukrainians on campus. The UVic USS also expressed desire for revisions to both UVSS clubs policy and the Equity and Human Rights complaint process, and additional training for addressing instances of hate speech.
In response, UVic President Kevin Hall put out a statement on Jan. 26 announcing that the university is aware of the claims of harassment against USS members. A day later, Hall added that UVic would be opening an investigation under the Discrimination and Harassment Policy. The statement reiterated the intolerance of discriminatory acts, and advised students to take claims of hate and harassment to the Equity and Human Rights office.
The UVSS also released a statement in response to the UVic USS’ demands.
“The UVic Students’ Society condemns the acts of hate being perpetrated against Ukrainian students on campus,” read the statement, posted to the UVSS Instagram. “Harassing students on a university campus over events that have displaced them, their friends, and/or their relatives is absolutely unacceptable. Hateful beliefs and behaviours do not, and have never had a place on our campus.”
The Martlet reached out to both UVic and the UVSS for further comment on the situation, but did not hear back in time for publication.
UVic USS members have expressed a lack of satisfaction with the response from both UVic and the UVSS.
“Nobody has really given us any steps forward,” said one of the UVic USS members. “Really what we want is for them to take accountability and to give us a plan of action.”
Both members who spoke with the Martlet said that the main thing members of the UVic community can do is speak out against incidents of harassment and show their support for Ukrainians, especially as the war persists nearly a year after Russia’s invasion.
“At the end of the day, I don’t feel safe on campus right now because of a group that’s been harassing us … Loud support is what we need.”