Valedictorian’s speech calling for Gaza ceasefire ripples through U of Manitoba community

A valedictorian’s speech for medicine grads at University of Manitoba that addressed the war in Gaza is spurring reactions beyond the convocation hall, as some students and faculty disagree on whether the message was fit for the moment.

Dr. Gem Newman delivered the 10-minute speech during a convocation ceremony for the Max Rady College of Medicine at the university’s Bannatyne campus Thursday. Parts of the speech were later shared on social media, and prompted a statement from the college of medicine’s dean.

During the last three minutes of his address, Newman said doctors’ voices “have power,” and called out the Canadian Medical Association, Doctors Manitoba and the Professional Association of Residents and Interns of Manitoba (PARIM) for their “deafening silence” on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Newman also urged his fellow new graduates — 106 new physicians made up the class — to call for a ceasefire.

“I call on you to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people everywhere. Here in Treaty 1 territory, where an Indigenous man can expect a life 10 years shorter than mine, and in Palestine, where Israel’s delivered targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure has led to more than 35,000 deaths and widespread famine and disease,” Newman said.

“I’m sure that some of you here today are worried that you might face censure for speaking about the genocidal war that Israel is waging on the people of Palestine, that it could jeopardize your career before it’s even begun,” he later added. 

“But look … surely, I don’t have to remind any of you that advocacy is literally in our job description.”

Some students upset, dean says

Dr. Stefon Irvine, one of the graduates in Newman’s class, was present for the speech.

“From my perspective, there wasn’t any students that were graduating that were upset with what was being said,” Irvine told CBC News on Sunday.. 

“I think it’s important to state that calling for a ceasefire is not inherently anti-Semitic, it’s not inherently pro-Hamas. It’s not inherently divisive. It’s saying, ‘Let’s just stop the bloodshed on both sides.'”

The day after the speech, however, the school sent out a statement from the college of medicine dean Dr. Peter Nickerson in which he said some people present at the ceremony were “disappointed and alarmed by the political message” in the speech.

“I, too, am disappointed that the address was delivered in a way that didn’t represent all students and that was disrespectful to some audience members who were there to celebrate and be celebrated,” the statement released on Friday said.

A man in a dark blue suit, blue and green bowtie and green-rimmed glasses.
Dr. Peter Nickerson, the dean of University of Manitoba’s medical school, released a statement on Friday responding to the valedictorian speech, saying grads ‘were there to celebrate and be celebrated.’ (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

“This isn’t the purpose of a valedictorian address and the speech should have better reflected shared experiences, successes and a commitment to serve all communities.”

Nickerson said valedictorian speeches have historically been “an encouraging, congratulatory message,” not a political platform.

He said the speech wasn’t vetted or endorsed by the college, and that Newman was expressing his own views. CBC News has reached out to Nickerson and the school for comment.

Dean set ‘dangerous precedent’: Grad

Irvine, however, said that while a convocation is a celebration, it’s still an academic event that should reflect core principles like freedom of speech.

“My graduation at this university is inherently political as an Indigenous person,” Irvine, who is Métis and Cree, said.

On Saturday, Irvine sent a letter to the dean and others in the faculty in which he said Nickerson’s statement was an attempt to “impose academic censorship” and pander to those opposing a ceasefire in Gaza.

“If I was the valedictorian, I would have reminded people about Brian Sinclair. I would have reminded people about Joyce Echaquan, I would have reminded people of the other unnamed Indigenous people that died at the hands of health-care professionals across Canada. And it worries me that … my speech would have been seen as … inflammatory and divisive.”

Irvine said the dean is setting a “dangerous precedent” as to who can and can’t speak out on any political issue in an academic setting. 

A person with glasses
Dr. Stefon Irvine, who is part of the class of 2024, says that while a convocation is a celebration, it’s still an academic event that should reflect core principles like freedom of speech. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

He said the graduating class voted for Newman out of a list of nominees to speak, and that they knew a reference to Gaza was “a great possibility” based on his past political advocacy.

CBC News reached out to Newman for comment this weekend. He wasn’t available for an interview, but he did say that a ceasefire “does not take sides,” and that he only wishes for an end to the violence.

In an interview with Radio-Canada shortly after the ceremony, the valedictorian said the speech was an opportunity to talk about things that were important for himself and his graduating class, including things that all physicians must keep in mind when they work with the people they serve.

Dean disinvited over statement

On Saturday, following the dean’s reaction to the speech, the school’s Queer and Trans graduate student group rescinded an invitation for Nickerson to speak at their Lavender Graduation ceremony this coming Tuesday.

The group said the event is meant to be a “safe and affirming place” for all students, and that the dean’s statement didn’t align with that goal, according to a statement it posted on social media.

The group said it has about 20 active members, but advocates for all 2SLGBTQIA+ U of Manitoba graduates.

“As a group of 2SLGBTQIA+ students whose identities are also currently highly politicized, we were surprised by his words,” the group said in a statement to CBC News.

It said students are concerned that their own existence could be also considered too “inflammatory and divisive” at some point, and that the dean will not be invited to speak to any of their future events until he issues an apology to Newman and the wider U of M community.