On the night of Nov. 24, the cannon on the University of Guelph campus was painted black with bright yellow paint that read “Stand with Hong Kong” and "Free Hong Kong" and it did not sit well with some students on campus.
Student Daniel Ginovker — who spoke on behalf of a group of students from Hong Kong — said the statements were painted by students from Hong Kong and, subsequently, students began to write statements expressing their support for freedom. However, on Nov. 25, he says the cannon was splashed with purple paint that covered the statements and sparked outrage among students who challenged the right to free speech on campus.
A heated verbal argument broke out among students on Monday evening while repainting the cannon for the third time. The video was widely shared on social media where students are seen arguing about democratic rights in Canada and the recent events unfolding in Hong Kong.
Recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have been taking over the streets, universities, shopping areas and airports for the past five months demanding a more comprehensive human rights reformation.
The cannon, named Old Jeremiah, has been a central campus fixture since the late 1800s and the painting of the cannon is a time-honoured tradition usually completed wholly by students and is not facilitated in any way by the university.
Ginovker said the confrontation on campus began when a few students of Chinese descent said "Free Hong Kong" is an offensive separatist expression and must be censored.
A member of UGCSSA, Yuhan Huang, said the initial painting of the cannon caused a misunderstanding among students.
“After many Chinese students saw "stand with Hong Kong", they thought it was a group of forces that split the country and they expressed their ideas. Then, they spontaneously decided to paint some slogans against violence in Hong Kong and support for peace,” said Huang in an email exchange, referring to the slogan “Don’t take democracy for granted,” painted below the previous statement “Stand with Hong Kong.”
“They may represent their positions, ideas, what they believe, and even the parties they support. The subject of their debate may be mainly whether Hong Kong is part of China and whether Hong Kong should be independent. Everyone is free to express their ideas,” said Huang.
He said that the UGCSSA is not the initiator of the event — reacting to accusations on social media that are pitting the UGCSSA and Hong Kong students against each other — in any way and their role has and will be to maintain order to avoid conflicts among students.
Ginovker says there is a lot of genuine fear among students who belong in the Hong Kong community with the current events in the region.
“If Guelph students are doxxed (i.e. their identities are found out by Chinese authorities), their family ties in China can suffer. And that's one of the goals of the Chinese students with their cameras around campus yesterday,” said Ginovker.
He said the student organization has seen a few cases of Chinese students messaging them pseudo-anonymously with support.
The UGCSSA released a statement declaring its position on the official UGCSSA WeChat app, which is to oppose the existence of a small number of internal separatist forces, oppose ulterior external reaction forces, oppose relevant false reports, oppose discrediting rumours and oppose the occurrence of violence.
U of G administration was aware of the incident.
Spokesperson of the U of G Lori Bona Hunt said campus police went to the cannon after they received a call concerning the gathering of students and left determining that the group gathered to paint the cannon.
"They were only present for 10 to 15 minutes and were not there when the verbal exchange took place," said Hunt.
She said the university supports students’ right to engage in freedom of expression, including painting the cannon.
"Freedom of expression is vital to our academic mission,” said Hunt.
“No community, including a university community, is going to have a unanimous opinion on this topic or any issue. What is important is ensuring that U of G continues to be a place that values differing viewpoints, champions free speech, and promotes inquiry. People should feel comfortable voicing their opinions and engaging in respectful debate and discussion.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a masked individual was seen removing the words of peace on the cannon once again.