by: Sakura Saunders, published in Actions Speak Louder, the bi-annual publication of OPIRG-Toronto
In January this year students at the Munk School of Global Affairs received a rather curious e-mail from a school administrator. The message informed students of an upcoming event that the school’s founding director and professor, Janice Stein, was strongly encouraging everyone to attend, but provided minimal details about the event itself. When students showed up on January 6 at this event, they found themselves at a press conference with then-foreign affairs minister John Baird. “Look at how many students voluntarily came to see you,” Stein told Baird in her opening address according to Munk school students. At the press conference, Baird announced $9 million in government funding for the ‘Digital Public Square Project’, an open and secure digital space to be made available to citizens of “oppressive and authoritarian regimes”. According to Stein, the project built on an earlier Munk School initiative—the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran—which established platforms and tools that reached over 4.5 million unique users inside Iran. “We will learn what citizens want most and share that knowledge,” said Stein at the press conference.
Fast forward a few months, and Iran is on the verge of a diplomatic deal with the United States that would reshape its relationship to most of the western world. Decades of economic sanctions would be lifted in exchange for limiting Iran’s nuclear capability and imposing strict international monitoring on their nuclear program. In response, the Munk School, and their “Digital Democracy” program had, until recently, been notably silent. The school finally broke its silence on May 26, when lecturer and senior research fellow, Mark Dubowitz, argued against the motion that “that Obama’s Iran Deal is Good for America”, and by a small margin, won. Dubowitz, dubbed by Ynet, Israel’s largest English language news website, as “The Man Who Fights Iran” is also the executive director of a United States based think-tank that specializes in sanctions against Iran. Regardless of your take on whether the Iran deal was good for America, these talks and the subsequent deal are no doubt the most significant foreign policy achievement in Iranian recent history. Also, these talks have been overwhelming supported by the citizens of Iran, who welcome the end of the crippling sanctions. Why, then, is the Munk School, which received a boost of $9 million to speak directly with the citizens of Iran, so silent?
This seems to be an ongoing pattern at the Munk School. Its close relationship with both Israel, which strongly opposes the Iran deal, and Canada’s foreign policy objectives as determined by the likes of Stephen Harper and John Baird, have undermined the school’s credibility and objectivity. The school’s uncritical engagement with issues of foreign policy, for instance, is exemplified by a conference the school organized in 2013 entitled Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran which was criticized by the Iranian Canadian Community Council for excluding “experts, academics, political activists, students, bloggers, journalists and members of the Iranian diaspora (including those of the Iranian-Canadian community) whose views on Iran do not fully concur with the positions of the Harper government.” John Mundy, who served as Canada’s last Ambassador to Iran until he was expelled from that country in 2007, also wrote a damning editorial in the Globe & Mail entitled ‘In confronting Iran, John Baird stands in the way of real solutions’ pointedly criticizing the speech Baird delivered at the conference.
The school’s dissonance with the local Iranian community continues with the most recent $9 million Digital Public Square Project. “It is absurd that after severing all the diplomatic ties with Iran, the Conservative government spends millions of our tax dollars to fund a project called ’direct diplomacy’ at the Munk School,” explains Niaz Salimi, president of the Iranian Canadian Community Council. She further adds, “Dr. Janice Stein, presents that the project’s aim is to connect with diverse groups of Iranian citizens to understand their views and facilitate communication of various narratives, but in an Orwellian fashion considers some more citizen than the rest, worthy of exposure, eliminating any trace of an opposing view to the conservative agenda. This discriminative practice manifests in Munk’s total silence about the recent victory of diplomacy over other alternatives regarding Iran’s nuclear issue and in its disregard for the joy and relief expressed by Iranians around the world. It is sad to see how the dirty games of politics enter academia under the false notion of support for human rights.”
In July, just after the Iran deal was announced, Canada has announced that they will continue sanctions against Iran, despite the nuclear deal, rejecting the diplomatic path set by the U.S., Britain, France, and the European Union, instead choosing to side with Israel.
The collusion between the Munk school and politicians in charge of Canada’s foreign policy goes back even further. Former director of the Munk Centre for International Studies Marketa Evans started the Devonshire Initiative, a coalition of development NGOs who work with mining companies, while at the University of Toronto. The Devonshire Initiative then became a centre of controversy when the Canadian government, through CIDA, began to defund human rights organizations that worked with mining-impacted communities, such as Kairos, in favour of giving this money to the development NGOs that were apart of the Devonshire initiative. Marketa’s name popped up yet again in international policy circles when she was appointed Canada’s first Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor whose job it was to mediate disputes between mining companies in impacted communities. Her position was criticized by many as being “designed to fail”. Corporations could enter or leave the process at any time voluntarily, and most did. Of six cases opened during Evans’ tenure, three were closed after the companies walked away. One case was sent back to a company’s internal process and two remain open. Critics say they expect no resolutions to result. After Marketa Evans, the Munk School’s next director, Janice Stein, also publicly advocated for international policy that supported Harper’s agenda and Peter Munk’s pocketbook. When the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade made the bold move to dismantle CIDA, merge it into a newly titled “Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Development” and align its giving with foreign policy objectives, Janice Stein was at the fore-front of those applauding the move. In a similar vein, Michael Ignatieff, the former head of the Liberal party, was rumoured to have Munk School ties in 2010 when he chose to not show up to vote for a Liberal party sponsored bill (Bill C300) that would have introduced minimal standards for Canadian mining companies operating abroad. A Globe & Mail article titled “Will Michael Ignatieff bury his own MP’s mining bill?”  even had the Liberal leader speaking out against the bill. The article also claims that “Liberal Whip Marcel Proulx [told] caucus members to stay away from the vote on Wednesday.” The bill lost by a mere six votes, with Peter Munk’s Barrick Gold singled out as the number one opponent lobbying against the bill. Less than two years later, on September 7, 2012, Ignatieff joined the Munk School as a half-time professor.
While students might defend the Munk School’s approach to academic freedom, the school has developed a reputation as a mouth piece to defend the policies of a Canada increasingly seen as a pariah in international affairs. Through its close association with scandals supporting the continued impunity of mining corporations or its backing of Canada’s least popular foreign policy moves, the Munk School has branded itself with an agenda and lost the integrity that one expects from an academic institution.
National Post Staff “Michael Ignatieff denies ‘baffling’ report that U of T offered him an exit plan,” National Post, July 15, 2010 accessed July 26, 2015, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/breaking-michael-ignatieff-denying-reports-u-of-t-offered-him-an-exit-plan
JANE TABER, “Will Michael Ignatieff bury his own MP’s mining bill?”, The Globe and Mail, Oct. 27, 2010 (last updated Sep. 10, 2012), accessed July 26, 2015 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/will-michael-ignatieff-bury-his-own-mps-mining-bill/article1381196/