When a Toronto Star journalist is concerned that a colleague has written something discriminatory, in the newspaper or on social media, they’ve been encouraged to take their concerns to Shree Paradkar, the newspaper’s first internal ombud on editorial-related discrimination and bias, a position created in 2020 to ensure that racialized journalists have a voice in the newsroom.
But what if the allegedly discriminatory words are written by Paradkar herself?
That was the dilemma faced by several Toronto Star journalists, say sources inside the Star who spoke to Canadaland on the condition of anonymity. On Tuesday, Toronto Star editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens eliminated Paradkar’s ombud job, a decision communicated in an internal newsroom email obtained by Canadaland.
“We have come to a joint agreement with the union for a new guild position of Racial Justice and Equity Advocate. The position, which exists fully within the union, will be filled by Shree Paradkar. The role of internal ombud, which has proved to be untenable as a part-time management position will not be continued,” wrote Owens.
According to the memo first announcing the internal ombud position in 2020, Paradkar’s role was to “provide a safe place for BIPOC journalists and all journalists to express editorial-related discrimination and bias concerns if they don’t feel comfortable bringing it to their manager directly.” Specifically, she would handle “concerns over headline words or angle, photo choice or placement, social posts, cutline or other display writing, story wording or angle, or sometimes, assignment.”
But going forward, Paradkar will function “as a union rep,” wrote Owens in the internal email, “attend[ing] regular union-management meetings as needed and liais[ing] with management when more pressing matters arise.”
The move follows weeks of social media posts by Paradkar that appalled some of her Star colleagues, according to Canadaland’s sources.
When Owens was asked why she now considers the role “untenable,” and if the reason was Paradkar’s allegedly discriminatory words, she told Canadaland that it “sounds like you have a copy of my internal newsroom email. I’ll leave it at that.”
According to a memo announcing the change from the Star’s union, a unit of Unifor Local 87-M, they had proposed a similar position in 2020, and “believed — then and now — that the role belonged in the union.”
Paradkar continues on as the Star’s social and racial justice columnist.
Sources within the Star began alerting Canadaland to tweets by Shree Paradkar, which they felt were antisemitic, some weeks ago. However, they said they were not comfortable raising their concerns with their internal ombud, given that Paradkar herself held the role.
On November 19, Paradkar tweeted that “what happened on Oct 7 in Israel was a profound tragedy” but that “none of us armchair experts are eyewitnesses to who did what. Leave it to independent investigators.”
The Hamas attack on October 7 left approximately 1,200 dead, according to estimates from Israel. Media reports have documented numerous eyewitness accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during the attacks.
Paradkar went on to say that “there have been multiple Oct 7s since,” seemingly a reference to the number of deaths in Gaza since the outbreak of war. At the time of her tweet, the death toll in Gaza stood at around 13,000, per Hamas-run government ministries.
Criticism of Paradkar’s comments was not only internal.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and former Toronto Star contributing columnist, called Paradkar’s comments fuel for “a dangerous October 7th truther movement.”
Reading through discussion this tweet prompted shows the rise of a dangerous October 7th truther movement. The fuel for this movement are comments such as @ShreeParadkar saying “we don’t know” who did what or those doubting evidence and accounts of rape. https://t.co/kNsDTr1zzJ
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) November 21, 2023
Amid the criticism, Paradkar deleted the tweet.
And if there’s any chance that people I care about read that awful meaning into it, I don’t want it out there.
— Shree Paradkar//श्री पराडकर 🍁 (@ShreeParadkar) November 20, 2023
One Star journalist, who is Jewish, considered Paradkar’s messages to be antisemitic. “But Shree was the one I was supposed to complain about it to,” they said. “It was a complete conflict of interest.”
It is uncertain if Paradkar was aware of another tweet by Gelender suggesting that land could be returned to Palestinians by relocating Israelis to the United States, an act which could meet the UN definition of ethnic cleansing. Paradkar did not retweet that message.
It is not the position of any Palestinian body today that Israelis would be “relocated” in any final settlement. Half of Israelis are also descendants of people who were forcibly expelled from Arab Muslim countries. Let’s be constructive instead of feeding apocalyptic ideas. https://t.co/6UNJIP5blv
— Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain) November 14, 2023
Paradkar has not yet responded to Canadaland’s questions about the allegations of antisemitism, but has previously denied bias against Jews in her social media posts.
Can Holocaust Deniers be antiracist?
Another concern of the Star journalists mentioned above were several news stories on pro-Palestine rallies by reporters Joshua Chong and Ben Cohen.
The sources say they did not feel comfortable bringing their concerns to Paradkar, given her social media posts.
In two stories, Chong and Cohen included quotes attributed to the group Toronto4Palestine, one of the main advocacy groups organizing local marches and actions since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
Toronto4Palestine was quoted refuting concerns that their rallies were antisemitic, when questioned about a protester who brandished a swastika on a sign.
Neither story initially mentioned that Toronto4Palestine publicly engaged in apparent Holocaust denial in an Instagram post they later deleted, a post which the Star reporters were aware of.
Amendments to the Criminal Code last year prohibit communicating a statement that “wilfully promotes antisemitism by condoning, denying, or downplaying the Holocaust,” except in private conversation.
Chong confirmed to Canadaland that “we were aware, prior to the publication of the original story, that screenshots of T4P’s post were circulating online. We updated the story when we confirmed the veracity of T4P’s post.”
Regardless, the Toronto Star itself had verified the authenticity of the post weeks before Chong and Cohen’s stories ran, in a report cross-published from its sister newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator.
A November 14 story by Spectator reporter Grant LaFleche involved Toronto4Palestine and included this detail:
“Shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, a message on Toronto4Palestine’s Instagram page claimed Jews were lying about the extent of the Nazi Holocaust.”
A Toronto4Palestine representative confirmed to Canadaland that the group published then deleted the Instagram message, and claimed that they were not referring to the Nazi Holocaust but to the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948. The spokesperson, who identified herself as Farah, but did not provide a last name, said they “100 percent” stand by their claim that Jews are lying about the events of October 7.
Asked to not bear witness
Another issue was the newspaper’s decision to prevent some journalists from attending a screening of unreleased footage of the October 7th massacre, when the Israeli consulate invited reporters to view it.
Toronto Star managing editor Nicole MacIntyre confirmed to Canadaland that some journalists who wished to view the footage were instructed by management not to do so, in order to “avoid overlapping assignments” and in consideration of the psychological toll it might take on the staffers. However, MacIntyre said that other staffers did indeed attend the screening and would be writing about it.
An opinion column about the footage by Rosie DiManno was later published.
From Management to the Union
The bulletin issued on Tuesday by the Toronto Star’s union announced that Paradkar’s new “fully unionized position will assume the work of what until now had been the part-time management position of Internal Ombud.”
But in describing her new role as a union functionary, no mention was made of any authority held by Paradkar over the Star’s editorial content (union reps have no authority over a news organization’s editorial content).
One of the Star journalists who raised concerns about Paradkar remains skeptical that Paradkar will be an effective advocate for Jewish employees of the Toronto Star.
“My union is supposed to advocate on my behalf. How can she purport to represent me?”
Correction (December 18, 2023): A previous version of this article inaccurately stated the number of all Israeli deaths on October 7 as civilian deaths.
Editor’s note (December 18, 2023): This article has been updated and clarified to provide more context and detail, particularly with regard to comments by Toronto4Palestine, tweets by Amanda Gelender and Shree Paradkar, and the role of Racial Justice and Equity Advocate. (The earlier version can be viewed here for full transparency.)