On May 2, a group of 50 students broke down part of a fence surrounding King’s College Circle and set up an encampment referred to by the protesters as the “People’s Circle for Palestine.” The student protesters plan to remain in the encampment until U of T meets their demands which call on the university to disclose their financial holdings, divest from companies supplying the Israeli military, and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions. 

In the span of four days, U of T raised safety concerns about the encampment, students received widespread support from community members, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) issued a statement in solidarity with the student protesters. 

May 6 marks the fifth day of the encampment, with no clear end in sight. While U of T has met with student representatives of UofT Occupy for Palestine (O4P) — the group of students organizing the protest — the students felt that their demands were not being heard. 

More student unions, including the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), also issued statements in solidarity with the encampment on May 6. 

“Constructive” discussions 

At 9:31 am, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat emailed students to provide an update on the student encampment as the first day of summer classes began. They wrote that the university’s goals remain the same: “to find a peaceful conclusion to the unauthorized encampment as soon as possible, without the risk of violent confrontation or physical injury.”

According to the email, members of the administration met with representatives of the encampment over the weekend, noting that “discussions have been constructive, and we see a way forward.”

However, students in the encampment do not feel the same way. Kalliopé Anvar McCall, a fourth-year student in Diaspora Studies and a spokesperson for O4P spoke to The Varsity about the meeting with the administration. 

McCall noted that the administration’s conversation with the O4P representatives was more focused on “logistical issues,” such as fire safety and health issues, rather than students’ demands. “We’re happy to cooperate with the administration to ensure that this is a safe space for all students and so that we don’t violate any health and safety concerns,” said McCall. “However, the fact that [the administration has] solely focused on these logistical issues, to me, points to the fact that they’re not actually willing to listen to our demands.”

According to McCall, the O4P has “put a condition” that if the administration wants to meet their student representatives again, they would have to discuss U of T’s divestment or the O4P will no longer engage with them. 

Solidarity statements 

Following the UTSU issuing a statement of solidarity with the students’ encampment on May 5, the UTMSU and the SCSU issued a joint statement on Instagram, stating that they “fully support the peaceful protests and ‘People’s Circle for Palestine.’”

The joint statement mentioned that over the last seven months, the university has “continued to dismiss students’ demands and refused to take accountability for their complicity and direct support in this genocide.” 

The UTMSU and SCSU called on U of T to “reflect on its complicity in the Israeli apartheid and to meet students’ demands without resorting to force,” in their statement.

The Muslim Students’ Association at UTSC and the University of Toronto Mongolian Students’ Association also posted an open letter addressed to President Meric Gertler and Welsh on their Instagram. The groups wrote that they were “deeply disappointed by the university’s curtailment of peaceful protests and freedom of expression” and demanded the “protection of students’ right to express themselves without fear.”

Over 40 U of T student clubs and organizations have signed the open letter, including the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.

Causes of administration’s concern

Welsh and Hannah-Moffat’s email to students also mentioned that there have been “critical modifications” to the fence around King’s College Circle. They wrote that U of T hopes to implement “temporary sanitation improvements and additional changes to the fence this week to create even safer surroundings for all community members and minimize health risks.”

Yet, McCall claimed that if the university “really cared about the safety of their own students,” they wouldn’t have proposed to the student representatives to cut the camp in half. McCall alleged that the administration proposed to make the camp smaller by moving the fence in, amidst an increase in agitators threatening the protesters with violence.

For further investigation, the university has forwarded four reports of incidents of assaults and hate speech at the encampment to Project Resolute — a Toronto Police Service initiative that adds patrols in Jewish and Muslim community spaces to address antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents.

At around 6:30 pm, the encampment shut its gates to the public. While the entrance to the encampment is typically closed off to the public around 11:00 pm, McCall noted that they changed this today to “be prepared [as] there’s a lot of things in the air when it comes to safety and we just want to make sure that everything goes well tonight.”

McCall explained that during the day, the protesters have “community hours,” where the public can enter the encampment. At night, the encampment is closed off, and only campers can stay overnight.

With files from Muzna Erum and Isabella Reny.