On November 9, hundreds of U of T students participated in walkouts at UTM and UTSC, calling for an immediate ceasefire, free passage of humanitarian aid, and an end to the dehumanization of Palestinians.
The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) organized the UTM walkout in collaboration with the Association of Palestinian Students (APS) as part of an international “Shut It Down for Palestine” day of action started by a coalition of pro-Palestine groups. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) organized the UTSC walkout together with Palestinian students.
On the day of the protest, over 100 students gathered inside the UTM Student Centre to prepare for the protest. The protesters then walked along the campus from Deerfield Hall to UTM Vice-President and Principal Alexandra Gillespie’s office, where some protesters delivered speeches.
Speakers emphasized the need for international attention to the humanitarian crisis, condemning the Israeli military’s destruction of places of worship and healthcare facilities, and how the Israeli government’s siege of Palestine denies Palestinians’ human rights. The speeches also included personal stories and testimonials about the impact of the conflict. The speakers requested that attendees not film the personal stories speakers shared.
The SCSU estimates that more than 400 students attended its protest — which it organized jointly with Palestinian students — from 12:00–2:00 pm. The protest included a walkout from classrooms, marching, speakers, and writing letters to members of parliament and members of provincial parliament, calling on them to demand a ceasefire.
Omar Mousa, a fourth-year UTSC student studying psycholinguistics, helped organize the protest. He told The Varsity that, as a Palestinian with family in the Palestinian territories, he feels a responsibility to stand for his family and many others struggling. “It’s a humanitarian crisis, it’s apartheid, it’s colonialism,” he said. “We’re not in a post-colonial era, no matter who tells you.”
Students created a collaborative mural at the UTSC Student Centre where they stuck red, black, and white sticky notes on windows with slogans such as “free Palestine” and “stop the genocide.”
SCSU Vice-President, Academics and University Affairs Afshana Miah told The Varsity that she understands why students with connections to Israel might feel upset about the walkout if they view it as an attack on their homeland and identity. However, she specified that the walkout aimed to support Palestine and the Palestinians’ suffering and not to attack or promote violence against other groups.
In a speech, UTMSU Vice President External Kiki Ayoola demanded that the campus administration offer diverse mental health resources for students affected by the violence and provide additional academic accommodations for affected students.
In the Vice-President, International Joseph Wong’s October 9 statement on the conflict, he encouraged students needing support to contact U of T Telus Health Student Support — a 24-hour support line available immediately over the phone in 35 languages. He also noted that undergraduate students seeking academic accommodations can contact their faculty of college registrar.
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson also highlighted UTM’s Health and Counselling Centre — which offers short-term counselling and therapy over the phone and can refer students to other resources — and the extended health insurance offered by the UTMSU, which covers up to $125 of the cost of counselling visits for 20 visits.
Miah said that the SCSU hopes the university will specifically acknowledge the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. “I know on other university campuses, students’ academic freedoms and rights to speak out in a pro-Palestinian way [is] being censured,” they said. “We’re hoping that the university speaks out and makes students feel reassured that that’s not going to happen here.”
On October 10, UTMSU issued a statement on Instagram expressing support for Palestinians and innocent civilians affected by the violence in Israel and Gaza. The statement emphasizes it is meant to “[shed] light on the dehumanization of the Palestinian people.” It clarifies that it doesn’t endorse the killing of any innocent people, and it notes Palestinians’ “right to resist an apartheid regime and the forced dispossession of their territory.”
On October 13, Gillespie released a statement criticizing the UTMSU for expressing a position that she claimed did not accurately represent the diverse views of its entire membership. At the protest, Ayoola demanded that the administration reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech and expression, issue a public apology for “poorly depicting” the UTMSU’s statement, and commit to creating safer spaces for open dialogue and peaceful protesting.
In response, the university spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that “U of T leadership continues to have dialogue with the students’ union.”
“We demand that the UTM administration commit to creating safer spaces for dialogue and discussion, peaceful protesting, and freedom of expression and speech,” Ayoola said in the closing speech at the UTM walkout. “We hope that the UTM administration joins students in the advocacy for peace — peace in the Middle East, peace in our community, and peace everywhere.”
With files from Muzna Erum.
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