Philanthropist who gave $30M to U Manitoba condemns 'hateful' valedictory speech, university for allowing it

Ernest Rady, through the Rady Family Foundation, made the largest gift in the University of Manitoba’s history, donating $30 million in 2016. (Thomas Fricke/University of Manitoba - image credit)
Ernest Rady, through the Rady Family Foundation, made the largest gift in the University of Manitoba’s history, donating $30 million in 2016. (Thomas Fricke/University of Manitoba - image credit)

The philanthropist behind the University of Manitoba's largest-ever personal donation — $30 million — has denounced a speech made by a valedictorian for medicine grads and admonished the university for letting it happen.

In a letter dated Monday, Ernest Rady says he was hurt and appalled by the remarks by valedictorian Gem Newman at the May 16 convocation for students from the Max Rady College of Medicine. The school was renamed in honour of Rady's father after the 2016 donation.

"Newman's speech not only dishonoured the memory of my father, but also disrespected and disparaged Jewish people as a whole," said Rady's letter, sent to U of M president Michael Benarroch and college of medicine dean Dr. Peter Nickerson.

Approximately two minutes of Newman's nine-minute address focused on the war in Gaza and called for a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, which began after an Oct. 7 cross-border attack on Israel led by Hamas that killed roughly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage.

Israel launched an offensive in response that has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the latest estimates by Gaza health officials. The Israeli military operation has also triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80 per cent of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to UN officials.

"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," Newman said in his speech.

"But … surely, I don't have to remind any of you that advocacy is literally in our job description."

A video of the convocation that included Newman's speech had been posted to the U of Manitoba's YouTube page. By Tuesday, the video was no longer available there.

'Hateful lies': letter

CBC News reached out to Rady for an interview but he declined, saying everything he wanted to express about the speech is contained in his letter.

In the letter, dated May 20, Rady chastises the university for allowing Newman "to spew these hateful lies to a captive audience" and then posting the video "for all to see."

He demanded that the video be taken down and that the university denounce Newman's remarks.

"For failing to call out Gem [Newman's] words for what they are, the university is no better," the letter states.

He called on the university to "acknowledge they were not only inaccurate, but flat-out lies, that they were hurtful to the university's Jewish students and all people of the Jewish faith, and that the remarks do not have a place in any setting at the university."

The day after the speech, a statement from Nickerson was posted on the UMNews website, in which he called Newman's remarks  "divisive and inflammatory."

He said some people were "disappointed and alarmed by the political message," which he called disrespectful to some audience members.

In his letter, Rady called that a "lukewarm" response.

"When I make a gift to an institution, I do it because I believe in that institution and I trust its governing body to do important, significant, and good work with that money," he wrote, adding he makes it a point to not impose any direction on an institution he helps.

"But in this instance, by remaining silent, I would be complicit," he wrote, adding he has seen where "this kind of speech" has led to in the past.

"Those words are not political opinion. They are hate speech and they are lies," he wrote.

"They espouse the same age-old prejudices about Jewish omnipotence and thirst for domination that have been used for centuries to justify the atrocities committed against this religious group."

'Horrifying and disproportionate response': Newman

In a statement emailed to CBC News on Wednesday, college dean Nickerson confirmed the video that included the speech had been taken down.

"Mr. Rady was far from the first person to request that the speech be taken down due to the harm it has caused members of the Jewish community," he wrote, and the university "decided it was not appropriate to continue to host the speech on our channels."

The university is "listening to feedback from our broader community … many of whom have expressed deep distress at what was said," Nickerson wrote.

"We will discuss Mr. Rady's concerns with him directly."

He also said no decisions have been made around future U of M events.

CBC News also reached out to Newman, who was on vacation and offered an emailed statement in lieu of an interview regarding Rady's reaction.

"Israel's conduct toward the people of Palestine is overtly genocidal," Newman's email said.

"[Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have made their genocidal intent clear through both their words and actions. Both have a history of making dehumanizing statements about Palestinians, with Netanyahu describing them as 'the people of darkness' and Gallant calling them 'human animals.'"

Newman said his valedictory address was critical of a government engaged in a campaign of collective punishment of the Palestinian people that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, calling Israel's actions a "horrifying and disproportionate response" to the Oct. 7 tragedy.

"It is frankly incredible to me that advocating for a cessation of hostilities is seen as not only controversial, but somehow hateful," Newman wrote.

"Criticism of the actions of the Israeli government does not in and of itself constitute antisemitism. That accusation…  serves to trivialize the regrettably very real instances of antisemitism that do occur."

Since his valedictory address, Newman said he has received hundreds of supportive messages but also "more than my share of harassment and threats."

"But at the end of the day, I still get to hug my kids, something that so many parents in Gaza will never get to do again."