The student protesters at U of T continue to camp out at King’s College Circle, despite several attempts by the university to remove them. 

On May 23, U of T President Meric Gertler issued a statement to the university community, outlining the administration’s offer to the protesters. The students were given 24 hours to accept the offer and clear the encampment or receive a trespass notice. The students have since rejected the university’s offer and remain inside King’s College Circle.

On May 27, the university sought an injunction from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to authorize police to remove the protesters who refused to leave the camp. The injunction hearing is scheduled to take place from June 19–20, as convocation ceremonies come to an end.

In response to the university’s attempts to bring an end to the encampment, U of T community members, unions, and international organizations have expressed their solidarity with the student protesters and have condemned U of T’s response to the ongoing encampment.

As the camp enters its 31st day, UofT Occupy for Palestine (O4P) — the encampment’s organizer — continues to call on the university to disclose its financial holdings, divest from companies supplying the Israeli government with weapons and services, and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Drawing parallels 

“An ongoing genocide is not the time to play bureaucratic games.”

On May 27, student climate activist group, Climate Justice UofT, posted an open letter on its Instagram, expressing its solidarity with O4P and their decision to reject Gertler’s offer. Alumni, faculty, and student groups who are former members of the university’s fossil fuel divestment campaign signed the letter.

The letter described the administration’s offer as “misleading” because, “the same tactic was used to delay fossil fuel divestment for years.” 

The letter explained that in 2014, the university created an Advisory Committee to look into “the merits of divestment,” after a student campaign called on U of T to pull its financial holdings from fossil fuel companies. 

Although the committee’s concluding report in 2015 recommended fossil fuel divestment, U of T rejected the recommendation in 2016. Five years later, Gertler committed to divesting from fossil fuel companies.

“Working groups and advisory committees are among Gertler’s favourite delay tactics; they are not a legitimate form of engagement with students’ demands, and they include no provision for accountability,” the letter read.  “An ongoing genocide is not the time to play bureaucratic games.”

In a statement to The Varsity on May 31, a U of T spokesperson stated that “decisions at the university are not made based on the demands of those who shout the loudest or at the unilateral declaration of the president.” 

They added that there is a “thorough, rigorous consultative process [U of T] must follow to make the most informed decisions.”

Union support

On May 26, CUPE 3902 — a union representing over 10,000 U of T contract education workers — posted a message addressed to Gertler on its Instagram.

It wrote, “Should the UofT administration authorize the Toronto Police Service to clear the encampment, CUPE 3902 is prepared to take further action.” 

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) — Canada’s largest labour federation — also addressed Gertler in an open letter released on May 25. 

In the letter, OFL President Laura Walton wrote that “Universities should be where we learn to debate and disagree with each other — without the fear of violence.”

Walton referred to the university’s 1992 Statement of Institutional Purpose, which states that “within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research.”

Faculty support

“If you decide to move against the students, you’ll have to go through us first.”

On May 28, over 60 faculty members attended a press conference in front of Simcoe Hall to demonstrate their support for the encampment. 

Deborah Cowen — a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning — spoke at the conference, noting that approximately 200 faculty members had been at the encampment since it began on May 2

“We are here because we care deeply about our students and because we care deeply about what we are meant to do here in this institution of higher learning,” she said. “If you decide to move against the students, you’ll have to go through us first.”

Defending human rights

On May 24, Amnesty International Canada — a non-governmental organization that aims to tackle international human rights violations — published a press release, warning the university against criminalizing the encampment. 

Ketty Nivyabandi — Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section — wrote on behalf of the organization, “The administration must not call upon law enforcement to disperse a peaceful protest.”

“Anyone who participates in a peaceful assembly to raise awareness about violations of international human rights is a human rights defender and should be protected as such,” she wrote.

According to the university’s FAQ page, the encampment is limiting the use of a shared space on campus and that it entails “health and safety risks” for both protesters and other community members. They added that they are not seeking to limit students’ rights to protest.

“This is stolen land”

“This is not the University of Toronto’s property and land, this is stolen land,”

On May 8, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity & Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat issued a statement to the university community, explaining that they have asked the encampment organizers to address their safety concerns — including large piles of firewood and two fires burning inside the encampment.

In response to the university’s concerns, O4P spokesperson Erin Mackey, a fourth-year student studying environmental justice and political science, told The Varsity that the fires were being used for “religious and spiritual purposes” by Indigenous elders in the encampment. 

Health workers Alliance for Palestine (HAP) — a group of health workers in solidarity with Palestine — expressed concerns over the university’s “safety issues” in a statement on Instagram issued on May 28.

It wrote, “How can they call themselves the Vice President of People Strategy, Equity, [&] Culture, if they are spreading slander, lateral violence, and defamation of First Nation Sacred Ceremony?”

According to the statement, there is one fire within the encampment and the firewood is being used for ceremonial purposes.

“This is not the University of Toronto’s property and land, this is stolen land,” it read.

It added that the group has taken a number of safety precautions, including verbal instructions for those around the fire, a fire extinguisher, two fire blankets, and water on hand. Furthermore, according to HAP, the Office of the Fire Marshal has approved the fire.

A U of T spokesperson told The Varsity that the university’s Indigenous staff members connected with the Indigenous firekeepers at the encampment to provide “an appropriate above-ground container to ensure the ceremonial fire could burn safely.” They added that this step was necessary to ensure the fire pit did not contact flammable materials covering the parking garage’s roof under the encampment.