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Ontario universities warn student activists encampments will not be tolerated


Two Ontario universities are warning anyone planning to follow the lead of pro-Palestinian student activists in the U.S. and elsewhere in Canada that setting up encampments on campus will not be tolerated. 

The University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa say they understand tensions are high, many people are feeling anxious due to the scale of suffering in the Middle East and peaceful protests are central to campus and democratic life.

But the universities say they have clear policies that state the use of their facilities without proper authorization can carry serious consequences and protests need to be organized within the limits of university policies and the law.

"U of T’s lands and buildings are private property, though the university allows wide public access to them for authorized activities," Sandy Welsh, vice-provost of students, wrote in an email sent out to the student community on Sunday. 

"Unauthorized activities such as encampments or the occupation of university buildings are considered trespassing. Specifically, our Code of Student Conduct prohibits intentional damage to university property, unauthorized entry and use of university property contrary to instructions, disruptions of university activities, and other offences to property and persons."

Éric Bercier, the associate vice-president of student affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the university had heard of a protest planned for Monday and warned that the setup of any encampment would carry serious consequences.

"While peaceful protest is permitted in appropriate public spaces on campus according to our policies and regulations, encampments and occupations will not be tolerated," Bercier wrote in a statement posted on the university's website.

"We ask everyone to thoughtfully consider their responsibilities and the wellbeing of our entire community. We continue to call on all members of our community to treat each other with respect and empathy as they interact in our classrooms, common spaces, and online."

By Monday afternoon, a group of activists had gathered on campus in Ottawa with lawn chairs, picnic tables and snacks, but no tents were visible.

Activists who addressed the crowd said the group would be on campus every day from noon to nighttime to protest several issues, including the university's relationship with Scotiabank.

Scotiabank has been targeted by protesters in Canada since the start of the Israel-Hamas war for its investments in Elbit Systems Ltd., an Israeli arms firm.

The warnings from the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto – Canada's largest post-secondary institution – come after an encampment was set up by pro-Palestinian student activists on the grounds of McGill University in Montreal, where student activists from Concordia University are also participating. 

Student activists at McGill have said they are demanding the school divest from Israeli companies that are "complicit in the occupation of Palestine." They also expect the school to cut academic ties with Israeli institutions.

McGill has said the camp violates both school policies and the law. 

Campuses in the United States have seen a wave of protests in recent weeks linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

On Monday, Columbia University escalated its stance against protesters on its New York campus by sending an ultimatum for students to sign a form and leave the encampment by the afternoon or face suspension.

Early protests at Columbia, where demonstrators set up tents in the centre of the campus, sparked pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the United States. Students and others have been sparring over the Israel-Hamas war and its mounting death toll. Many students are demanding their universities cut financial ties with Israel.

Students have dug in at tent encampments at several high-profile American universities, with standoffs continuing between protesters and administrators at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and others.

When asked Monday about the planned sit-in at the University of Ottawa, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at an unrelated news conference that Ontario is known for its inclusivity.

"You know what I wish? I wish everyone gets along," Ford said. "Sure, there's conflicts around the world. They want to voice their opinion. And that's their democratic right. Do it peacefully. That's all I ask."

– with files from the Associated Press and Ben Simon

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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