As professors and graduate students across Canada soon head into conference season, many are reconsidering their plans to attend academic events in the United States. As of February 7, more than 6,200 scholars have signed an online petition calling for a boycott of international conferences in the U.S. until their colleagues from seven blacklisted countries are free to attend.
They are responding to the January 27 executive order by U.S. President Donald Trump that bans citizens of seven majority Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia) from entering the U.S. The ban is currently suspended by the courts, but the legal battle continues and the president vows to reinstate the order.
However, Ruth Hayhoe, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, has not added her name to the list. Instead, the former director of the Hong Kong Institute for Education has issued her own statement, encouraging colleagues not to isolate U.S. academics. Dr. Hayhoe writes: “I have the greatest respect for the motivation of those who sign. At the same time I think it is important to think of ways we can join in solidarity with our American colleagues, many of whom are taking brave action to oppose the current policies of their government.”
For Dr. Hayhoe, the decision to boycott is one she has faced before. In early 1989, Dr. Hayhoe was offered a position in the Canadian embassy in Beijing as Canada’s first secretary of education and culture. But, on June 4 of that year, just months before she took up the post, the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square rocked the country. In response, the global community stepped away from their diplomatic relations with China through boycotts and sanctions.
When Dr. Hayhoe arrived in Beijing that August, the embassy she entered was a quiet place. No high level visits from Canadian politicians were scheduled and trade missions virtually stopped. Dr. Hayhoe faced a difficult choice: should she follow the path of other embassies and limit her operations, or should she advocate for more resources and expand Canada’s cultural and educational programs?
In the end, “our government actually increased activities in cultural and educational exchange from 1989 to 1992 because the students and artists were the victims,” Dr. Hayhoe says. She felt that supporting Chinese civil society was the surest path to reopening the country. But, those three years, until Deng Xiaoping declared China open to the world, were dark days, she says.
During that time, the Canada-China scholars exchange program continued to fund scholar mobility between the two countries and a faculty enrichment program which had brought 20 Chinese academics to Canada each year was expanded to accommodate more than 50. On the ground in China, Dr. Hayhoe built a network of Canadian studies centres in Chinese universities and initiated “Canada week” television events in various cities.
She says some of their best work happened during those trips. “We really did people-to-people cultural relations. We worked away from Beijing and traveled around the country to meet the people. I even tried to find out what had happened to some of the student protesters.” The network reached across China, she says, and offered a space for academics who had been censured for their role in the protests.
Dr. Hayhoe says she hopes her experiences in China offer some perspective for academics who are looking for a meaningful way to both stand against President Trump’s policies and support their colleagues in the U.S. While there is certainly a place for boycotts, people-to-people meetings can be a powerful venue for change and a lifeline for restricted academics, she says. They provide a chance to join resistance movements on the inside and hear their stories firsthand. “Find out what [U.S. scholars] are doing, get a deeper understanding of the response on university campuses and see this as a lesson in the democratic process,” she says.
Grace Karram Stephenson is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.