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Students lift veil on university financing and demand end to genocide complicity

The politics of power and resistance are raging on campuses across Canada

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Scenes from the People’s Circle for Palestine at King’s College Circle on the University of Toronto Campus, May 2, 2024. Photo by Can Pac Swire/Flickr.

The politics of power and resistance are raging on Canadian university campuses. At a campus in downtown Montréal, students protesting against Israel’s mass crimes in Gaza have declared victory and agreed to dismantle their encampment on June 6 after the board of directors at the Université du Quebec à Montréal (UQAM) promised to disclose its investments on a yearly basis and refrain from holding any assets in funds or companies profiting from weapons. The university also vowed that its current and future academic agreements worldwide would comply with the spirit of human rights law. UQAM’s board, which insists it has no ties with Israeli educational institutions, agreed to set up a fund to facilitate exchanges and scholarships for Palestinians.

“Through our occupation and our courage, we have proven that it is possible to establish a balance of power and obtain significant gains,” the UQAM protesters said in a statement. “We are sending a clear message to the administrations of other universities. If you want to see an end to the encampments, you must take courageous actions,” they said.

Just a few blocks away, at a sprawling encampment on the grounds of McGill University, students are less sanguine about the prospect of reaching a settlement with the administration anytime soon. A number of student activists said McGill wanted to remove the tents because they draw attention to the school’s financial ties to companies profiting from the carnage in Gaza.

“The bottom line is McGill thinks the encampment threatens their investments, finances and monetary goals. The admin prioritizes that over educational values and the health of students,” Raoul, a McGill law student, told me. He also bristled at the idea that protesters were creating an unsafe environment for Jewish students. “There are a lot of Jewish brothers and sisters in this camp. The notion that all Jewish people are a certain way is antisemitic. The real Jewish tradition stands against oppression.”

McGill has argued that the protests are creating insecurity on campus, in particular for Jewish students. Two provisional injunction requests were filed to have the encampment dismantled but both were rejected by Quebec’s Superior Court. Montreal police have so far refused to arrest the protesters, who insist their movement is peaceful.

“McGill filed legal action against us in the middle of our negotiations,” a representative for the encampment who asked not to be named, said in an interview. “That shows us they’re not willing to negotiate in good faith. We’re not budging until our demands are met.”

The protestors at McGill have listed four demands across a large cloth banner that hangs on a fence around the encampment: Disclose investment in companies complicit in the genocide in Palestine; divest from these companies and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions; defend students’ right to protest, and; publicly condemn the ongoing genocide and call on the Canadian government to cease all arms deals with Israel.

The students’ list of demands inside the McGill encampment. Photo supplied by the author.

McGill has actually disclosed some of its investments and recently announced that it was willing to “examine divestment from companies whose revenues largely come from weapons.” McGill’s publicly-available list of investments show that the university invests in nine of the top 100 largest international arms-producing and military services companies, including Lockheed Martin, Safran, Airbus, Thales and Dassault Aviation Group. McGill investments in these companies amounted to an estimated $7 million in 2023. McGill additionally invests an undisclosed amount—via sums under $500,000—in BAE Systems, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Science Applications International Corp, Textron and Moog.

In April, two student groups—McGill Hunger Strike for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine—released a list of 50 companies that the university invests in, which students say have “links to the ongoing Palestinian genocide.” The investments totalled at least $73 million.

In Oshawa, students at Ontario Tech University dismantled their encampment on May 20 after convincing the school to disclose and review all holdings in companies profiting from Israel’s onslaught against Gaza. The university has insisted it is not aware of investments in any companies benefiting from the ongoing war in Gaza, but that it would establish a working group to review best practices and make recommendations about any future investments with “particular attention to companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery and/or benefitting from military action in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, the University of Toronto appears to be doubling down in the face of students expressing solidarity with Palestinians, issuing a trespass notice to protesters and threatening disciplinary measures for students and faculty supporting the camp. The university grounds are now home to one of the largest student encampments in North America, housing 175 tents, hundreds of campers and a First Nations’ sacred fire. The fire, brought in from the Three Fires Confederacy, M’Cigeeng First Nation, Anishinaabe, is meant to bring communities together. The First Nations’ protesters at UofT say that Israel is committing a colonial genocide. Students supporting the encampment are calling for the immediate disclosure of, and subsequent divestment from, the university’s financial ties to Israel. The university has filed an injunction to have police clear the encampment. A hearing is set for mid-June.

In Vancouver, police recently cleared pro-Palestinian protesters blocking an intersection at the University of British Columbia, but made no move against an encampment that was set up a month ago. Students at UBC and the University of Victoria are demanding their schools end ties with companies and institutions complicit in the genocide against Palestinians. The rift between students and university bosses could not be greater in the province. As Israel commits disproportionate and boundless crimes against Gaza civilians in response to the deadly attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023, school administrators in British Columbia have urged students to adopt a ‘neutral’ position on the conflict. UBC protesters have instead demanded the school divest from Israel and condemn the Gaza genocide, while affirming the Palestinians right to resist the Israeli occupation and military campaign.

By far, the most brutal police response to student activism in Canada has been in Alberta. At the University of Calgary, riot police used shields and unleashed tear gas and flash bangs to ultimately break up a protest and tent camp on May 10, merely days after it had been erected. The next day, in Edmonton, police used batons and chemical irritants to evict protesters from the University of Alberta, drawing the ire of faculty members and students alike. The associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at the faculty of arts promptly resigned. Two doctoral students in Indigenous studies announced their departure, as well. The students, both Métis, wrote a poignant, anonymous open letter to the University of Alberta president, board of governors and the administration.

“Asking you, the university administrators, to divest from genocide was only one option available to concerned students, as it is ultimately our tuition that funds your investments—in whole or in part. The University of Alberta has demonstrated that it is so committed to funding genocide that it will use violence against its own community to protect that commitment. This is unconscionable, and we cannot continue to be complicit in genocide by providing our time, labour, and money to this institution. If the university is so intent on investing in genocide that its administration will turn state violence against us, then we have no choice but to cease to provide you with our money or our labour to invest.”

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

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