Students from several Hamilton area schools were among those across the province who walked out in support of Palestinians on Monday, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Groups from at least four public and one Catholic secondary schools in Hamilton said they were holding protests. Other walkouts took place last week.
Grade 12 student Yoseph Bustami was part of a protest at his Burlington, Ont., high school last Thursday.
He said he joined about 100 other students at Dr. Frank J. Hayden Secondary School in the walkout because he feels the need to do more than watch the conflict unfold online.
“You can feel the energy. There’s a problem going on and you need to do something about it,” Bustami told CBC Hamilton on Monday.
He said the conflict hasn’t been talked about in the classroom, even though Bustami, who is Palestinian, feels like it’s impacting “every aspect of my life.”
He said he’s seen how his parents and grandparents are hurting as they watch the news everyday and check in with family members living in the West Bank.
“This shouldn’t just be a problem in the Middle East,” Bustami said. “It’s a humanitarian problem. Everyone needs to talk about it more. School is the perfect place to talk about it, educate us about what’s going on and teach us about biases and misinformation.”
The Halton District School Board told CBC Hamilton it hasn’t told staff to refrain from discussing the conflict in schools.
“We recognize and empathize with the distress and emotional impact recent events in the Middle East have had, and continue to have on many students, families and staff,” said spokesperson Heather Francey.
“As educators, we continue to centre Human Rights and provide an environment that is inclusive and respectful, and where the humanity of all students, staff and communities is upheld.”
Students calling for ceasefire
The walkouts were organized by Ceasefire Now, which describes itself as a coalition of 42 high school student groups in Ontario.
In Hamilton on Monday afternoon, dozens of teenagers departed from Nora Frances Henderson Secondary School during fourth period, some carrying Palestinian flags and “Free Gaza” signs and wearing keffiyehs — a traditional Palestinian scarf.
They chanted “free, free Palestine” as they demonstrated along Upper Sherman Avenue near Rymal Road.
A Grade 11 student at Henderson who helped organize the march declined to give her name, but said they were demanding school boards and political leaders call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
“Canada and the rest of the world have failed the children of Gaza, and we are incredibly saddened and enraged by the apathy of so many leaders during these times,” said Ceasefire Now in a statement.
More than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths. About 2,700 people have been reported missing.
At least 1,200 people have died on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that prompted Israel’s airstrikes and ground invasion in Gaza. Palestinian militants are holding nearly 240 hostages seized in the raid, including men, women, children and older adults.
Some Jewish students staying home
Hamilton Jewish Foundation CEO Gustavo Rymberg told CBC Hamilton he’s been receiving messages from concerned Jewish parents every day and some students have stayed home on days when walkouts have been advertised, including on Monday.
“They feel unsafe, they feel terrified to go to school,” Rymberg said.
He said parents want schools to make clear they are not promoting the walkouts and will support and protect all students.
Sabreina Dahab, a trustee with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), joined the Henderson walk out Monday afternoon. She said she was participating and speaking personally, and not on behalf of the board or trustees.
“What we are seeing unfold in Palestine is devastating and I know so many of you feel connected to it in some way,” Dahab told the students.
“When we are here calling for a ceasefire and the end of the occupation, we are also saying children must have a right to safety, to security and an education in Gaza.”
Ceasefire Now is also calling for Ontario schools to “refrain from censoring and punishing” students who support Palestine, provide anti-Palestinian racism training to staff and teach Palestinian history as part of curriculums.
It said it’s also calling for Canada to stop providing “financial, military and political” support to Israel.
HWDSB did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to CBC News, Toronto District School Board said students have the right to express themselves but should do so in constructive and respectful ways.
Peel District School Board said it will remain vigilant to ensure all students feel safe at school and that hate and violence in any form will not be tolerated.