On April 1, UofT Occupy for Palestine (O4P) — a student activist group calling for Palestinian liberation — began a 26-hour occupation of Simcoe Hall. The students agreed to leave after the administration offered them a meeting with U of T President Meric Gertler on April 3.

The student protesters occupied the building to demand that U of T divest from companies supplying the Israeli government with weapons and services, disclose the names of companies it invests in, and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions. 

Members of O4P have since made allegations against the university’s Campus Safety regarding their behaviour toward the student protesters during the occupation. The university has commissioned the private law firm Henein Hutchison Robitaille LLP (HHR) to investigate the allegations of misconduct. 

According to O4P spokesperson Kalliopé Anvar McCall — a fourth-year student studying diaspora and transnational studies — the investigation will result in a report with recommendations for remedial action, policy training, and follow-up investigations into the allegations. They claimed that the report would be shared with Gertler and made public by the university. 

Students who participated in the occupation have raised allegations of sexual harassment; voyeurism; sleep deprivation tactics; intentionally restricted ventilation; intentional “abuse of the building’s thermostat”; restricted access to food; as well as restricted access to the press. Anvar McCall has said that these actions violated students’ rights under both the “university constitution” and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

O4P has also questioned U of T’s choice of law firm. They have expressed concerns over the firm’s partner Marie Henein, who defended former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi against four charges of sexual assault between 2015 and 2016. 

Allegations against Campus Safety

Anvar McCall told The Varsity that the occupation was “quite fraught, especially between students and campus police.” 

They said that the hallway — in which the occupiers were staying — became very hot during the duration of the occupation, alleging that a Campus Safety officer had purposely “turned up the heat” to make the occupiers uncomfortable. 

They also claimed that ventilation was cut off in the hallway, stating that “all the windows were purposely shut.” They added that the administrators’ offices in the building remained air-conditioned. 

Anvar McCall also raised allegations of voyeurism and sexual harassment against Campus Safety officers. 

They noted that because of the increased heat, many of the occupiers had unzipped the flaps of their tents and slept with little clothing on. 

“A lot of protesters were sleeping in their underwear or their bras,” Anvar McCall said. They explained that this meant the student protesters had little privacy from Campus Safety officers, who “came in throughout the night” and took photos of the protesters and the inside of their tents. 

Anvar McCall also alleged that Campus Safety officers used sleep deprivation tactics, where they turned the hallway lights on and off during their periodic visits in the middle of the night when occupiers were sleeping. 

They also alleged that the university had cut off the occupiers’ access to food. “We had hot meals prepared by community members waiting for us outside,” Anvar McCall said. “[The university] knew our supply of food was short and that we were being forced to ration and yet they continued to bar us access to food.”

Additionally, Anvar McCall claimed that “press was completely restricted.” They observed the university preventing a reporter from Ricochet Media from entering Simcoe Hall while students were occupying it. 

While a Varsity reporter entered the building with the students at the start of the occupation, The Varsity was restricted from bringing in food and sleeping supplies to the reporter inside Simcoe Hall.

In response to the accusations, a U of T spokesperson told The Varsity that the university is presently choosing not to share details, in order “to enable dialogue.” They added that the administration is “working hard to find a peaceful resolution.”

“It’s them trying to cover their ass”

O4P spokesperson Erin Mackey, a fourth-year student studying political science and environmental studies, told The Varsity that O4P raised the allegations with the university in the meeting with Gertler and other members of the administration following the occupation. While O4P did not specifically request an external investigation, Mackey said, “we did raise [the allegations] as quite serious concerns that we were appalled by… [and] we wanted the university to take [them] seriously.”

Mackey also raised doubts over the university’s motives for launching the investigation. 

“I do think it’s more of a PR stunt, to be honest,” she said. “I think it’s them trying to cover their ass.”

Anvar McCall also called into question U of T’s choice to hire HHR — which Henein opened as Henein &Associates in 2002 — as the law firm to investigate the complaints. They pointed to Henein’s reputation as Ghomeshi’s criminal defence lawyer as a cause of suspicion. 

Henein was widely criticized and accused of betraying women by taking on the Ghomeshi case. She has also come under criticism by some legal scholars across Canada for the tactics she used in cross-examining Ghomeshi’s accusers at trial, on the grounds that they make it harder for victims of sexual assault to bring forth accusations. 

On May 29, The PEARS Project — a student group that provides peer support and resources to survivors of sexual violence at U of T — released a statement expressing their concerns with Campus Safety’s presence at the encampment amid the ongoing investigation as well as U of T’s choice of law firm.

HHR confirmed on May 11 through a post on X that U of T has engaged with firm partner Danielle Robitaille to “conduct an impartial investigation into the complaints made by [O4P].”

According to the post, Robitaille has expertise in investigating and reviewing misconduct for private and public institutions in cases including “sexual violence, voyeurism, and police misconduct.”

Anvar McCall emphasized the fact that HHR is one of the most prestigious and expensive criminal defence firms in Toronto. 

“This speaks volumes to us,” they said. “We believe that [U of T] want[s] really strong representation because they know that the evidence that we have against campus police is ironclad and irrefutable, and they want as much as possible to try to refute our evidence.”

Despite their concerns about the law firm, O4P has committed to cooperate fully with the investigation. 

“The university has handed us an opportunity to further damage their reputation on campus, loudly and publicly,” Anvar McCall said. “We’re taking this chance since President Gertler has categorically refused to meet our demands a month ago and again, now it is time we turn to public shaming.”

They noted that O4P is collecting student testimonies from those who occupied Simcoe Hall as well as videos of “police abuse” that they claim occurred during the occupation.

Editor’s note (June 4, 3:37 pm): This story had been updated to reflect information about The Varsity reporter in Simcoe Hall at the time of occupation, as well as HHR LLP’s statement on the investigation.