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Unions want Conestoga College's president to step down over derogatory comments

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The president of Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. is facing criticism for derogatory comments he made about another college president.

Now two of the school's unions are suggesting that John Tibbits should step down.

Tibbits spoke at a public event on Tuesday to promote the school’s economic impact in the community. During the event, Tibbits defended the college’s international student admissions and housing.

“We now have 15 public colleges in Toronto, about 100,000 students. People criticize [Conestoga College] because we don’t have enough residences, they don’t have a bed! We are spending $50 million a year, 300 fulltime employees, focusing on support services for our students. I mean this is not a puppy mill here,” Tibbits said.

Afterwards he was asked for reaction to comments made by the president of Sault College.

On a podcast, produced by Village Media, David Orazietti discussed the federal government’s cap on international students. Orazietti, who is also a former Liberal MP for Sault Ste. Marie, criticized Conestoga College’s rising admission rate and the school’s lack of student housing.

"We have an institution in Ontario that has decided to take over 30,000 students into their community in a short period of time, without adequate housing and without adequate levels of jobs. To me, that's an irresponsible approach," he explained to CTV News on Friday.

According to the online news outlet CambridgeToday, when Tibbits was asked about Orazietti’s comments he pointed out that Sault College has an existing partnership with the private college triOS, which is based out of the Greater Toronto Area, and they have students living outside their community.

CambridgeToday quoted Tibbits as saying: “Like Orazietti, why are his goddamn students in Toronto? Why not up there? Talk about a whore, I mean, he's taking a percentage of the profits of an operation.”

He allegedly added that Orazietti needed to “shut his mouth.”

“I'm shocked that a public college president would use that kind of language and personally attack another individual or a colleague,” said Orazietti.

He’s now calling for an investigation into Conestoga College’s operations.

“I think it's probably time that the Ontario Auditor General investigate the operations at Conestoga College and I think that would be welcomed by the community,” he said.

David Orazietti, the president of Sault College, being interviewed by CTV News.

In an email to CTV News, the auditor general’s office said they couldn’t confirm if they’ve received an official request. However, the office confirmed it would be responsible for investigating allegations involving Ontario colleges.

“When selecting and planning our audits, we carefully consider all information available to us, including information that has been sent to us by the public,” the email read.

As CTV News has previously reported, Conestoga College has seen a 1,579 per cent increase in international students since 2014. Concerns have also been raised in the community about the impact on local housing, jobs, transit and food banks.

“We’ve grown much faster than we anticipated. We never planned to grow this quickly, but the demand is large and the needs are large,” Tibbits told CTV News in a September interview. “No question, we’re putting pressure on the local housing. But I don’t think the answer is to stop the international students because it’s not just caused by them.”

He went on to say some students didn’t want to live in residences and claimed there were available vacancies around the college.

Conestoga College's John Tibbits Campus in Waterloo.

Michael Harris, a councillor with the Region of Waterloo, had some harsh words for Conestoga College on Wednesday. He related an encounter with an international student he met while driving in the Doon neighbourhood. That student, Harris said, was living in a home with 13 other students.

“It’s inhumane. It’s unsafe. More needs to be done and the college has a responsibility,” Harris added.

CTV News reached to Conestoga College on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Monday to request an interview.

Each time the school said Tibbits was not available.

Statement from Conestoga College

On Thursday, the school’s Board of Governors issued a statement saying they were concerned about the remarks made earlier this week.

“The language used is unacceptable and does not align with the values and principles of our institution,” the statement said. “Dr. Tibbits has communicated his regret for making those comments and apologizes for the offensive remarks.”

It did not specify who Tibbits apologized to.

Conestoga College president John Tibbits speaking at an event on Feb. 13, 2024.

The Board of Governors also said it would be conducting an internal review of the matter.

According to the school, the Board of Governors is made up of four elected members from Conestoga College’s students, faculty, support staff and administration, as well as volunteers from the external community.

“Conestoga is committed to fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect for not only our staff and students, but our colleagues within the post-secondary education sector,” the statement continued. “Strong leadership helps guide our institution towards its mission, and is essential to ensuring we can meet the evolving needs of our local communities.”

Unions demand action

Two Conestoga College unions are now calling for Tibbits to retire.

OPSEU Locals 238 and 237 shared a joint letter they sent to the Board of Governors with CTV News on Friday.

Local 238 represents support staff and Local 237 represents faculty, librarians and counsellors.

The unions said they wanted to: “express our condemnation of the president’s recent public derogatory comments about sex workers and international students. An apology and investigation are only the first steps to re-establishing Conestoga’s values of inclusivity and respect; we are also calling for John Tibbits to consider retirement.”

They added that Tibbits’ comments contravene the college’s own employee code of conduct and were “deeply sexist.” Furthermore, the president exhibited an “insidious form of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment” by claiming international students are “choosing to live the way they do to avoid paying more than $400.”

The unions said “retiring will signal that he is taking responsibility for his actions” and “give him space to reflect on the harm these comments have wrought.”

Vikki Poirier, president Local 238, in an interview with CTV News as unions call for Conestoga College's president to retire.

Unions say comments undermine equity, diversity and inclusion work

In an interview Saturday, OPSEU Local 238 President Vikki-Lee Poirier emphasized the unions are calling for Tibbits’ retirement rather than resignation.

“We value the contributions that president Tibbits has provided to the college. It’s been over 35 years that he has supported us and led us,” Poirier said.

But they feel it’s time for change.

“His comments and his language undermines that solid work that we've been doing and that's a problem,” Poirier said.

OPSEU Local 237 President Leopold Koff echoed those comments.

“He's dedicated himself to the college fully, and we recognize that. But maybe it's time for a change, particularly with equity, diversity and inclusiveness. This could be an opportunity to introduce that at the senior-most level,” Koff said.

“Basically, we're saying that all the policies and the rule of law, if you want to refer to it that way, should apply to all equally – everyone that is employed at the college. It should be applied perhaps even more so to the person who is supposed to be the leader of that college.”

- With reporting by Colton Wiens

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