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Tensions simmer at pro-Palestinian student demonstrations across Canada

The pro-Palestinian student protest movement is gaining momentum nationwide as debates intensify over freedom of expression.

BY MOHAMED BERRADA | MAY 16 2024

Campuses from Vancouver to Montreal are heating up as the pro-Palestinian student protest movement gains momentum in Canada. Appalled by the growing death toll in Gaza — and inspired by protests in the United States — activists have set up encampments on campuses nationwide. The protesters are demanding that universities divest from companies with business ties to Israel.

Dozens of tents have popped up in encampments at universities across the country, including the University of Toronto, the University of Ottawa, and the University of British Columbia. McGill University recently asked police to intervene on campus. Protest organizers insist that the encampments will continue until universities divest from all assets that “sustain Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement of Palestine,” and sever ties with certain Israeli academic institutions.

Echoes from past protests

Jean-Philippe Warren, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, said he is surprised by the immediate strength of the protest movement. Compared to other previous protests, such as Occupy Wall Street or even the Vietnam anti-war movement, there are no direct or immediate repercussions on the daily lives of many North American students. Commitment to the movement stems more from an opposition to current events in the Middle East. As many of the protesters have personal ties to the Middle East, the cause is close to home.

Ferry de Kerckhove, a former diplomat and specialist in public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the protests on North American campuses are part of a broader global movement gaining traction in Europe and beyond. “The situation is so horrific that people are hard-pressed not to condemn the violence,” he said. “People are profoundly disgusted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance. Many believe he is dragging this out as a bid to remain in power. Students in particular are sickened by it all.”

There has been such a drastic increase in violence and loss of civilian life that it would be impossible for campuses not to be engulfed in controversy, if the history of campus protests is anything to go by.

Dax D’Orazio, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political studies at Queen’s University and affiliate researcher with the centre for constitutional studies at the University of Alberta, agreed. He said the tumult brought on by the recent debates and demonstrations is hardly new. Tensions have been escalating for decades, often flaring up during outbreaks of violence in Israel and Palestine. Campuses have become hotspots for turmoil. “There has been such a drastic increase in violence and loss of civilian life that it would be impossible for campuses not to be engulfed in the controversy, if the history of campus protests is anything to go by,” he said.

Students as drivers of social change

Public demonstrations have occurred on an almost weekly basis across Canada since violence re-emerged between Israel and Palestine on Oct. 7. But these protests have had very limited impact, often going unaddressed in the media. Student protests, on the other hand, have had a far greater impact in the media and the political sphere. While many federal and provincial leaders have reiterated their respect for student freedom, they’ve also called for calm and cautioned against hate speech.


READ ALSO: Balancing respect and freedom in an era of global tensions


Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have both called for the encampments in their respective provinces  be dismantled. Mr. Legault has said he expects Montreal police to remove the McGill encampment. However, a Quebec Superior Court judge rejected an injunction request filed by two McGill students to ban the camps.

Dr. D’Orazio finds the allegation that the encampments create a hostile environment unconvincing, saying the judge’s decision sets an important precedent. He said there’s a growing tendency to stretch the definition of prejudice — that moments of discomfort or insecurity are sometimes used as a pretext to restrict free speech on campus. But the demonstrations tied to recent events in Israel and Palestine show that such a broad interpretation of prejudice and security transcends the partisan divide. Dr. D’Orazio argued that an approach favouring across-the-board restrictions of expression is not conducive to robust debate or a culture of advocacy.

Dr. de Kerckhove believes political developments in the U.S. are responsible for the recent “outbursts of anger.” “Tempers were already simmering,” he said. “I think the U.S. announcement of new military funding for Israel — which included a trivial amount of aid for Gaza — is what stirred the hornet’s nest and sparked backlash from students.”

Dr. D’Orazio finds the intensity of today’s movement hearkens back to another era of student protests. The 1960’s were a political turning point, epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s controversial gubernatorial campaign in California. The resulting protest movements largely defined  the North American political era, with campuses emerging as hotbeds of demonstrations. “Thumbing his nose at his adviser’s warnings, Reagan stoked a deep popular resentment toward students perceived as entitled and out of touch with reality,” he said. “It proved to be a winning strategy, reinforcing the trend toward political polarization and leading state legislatures across the country to deliberately strike out against universities.”

These dynamics are still at play in the current debate on free speech on campuses, wherein universities have become prime targets for politicians and certain media outlets. Dr. D’Orazio maintains that universities are bastions of free expression and debate, and play a crucial role in preserving informed, democratic societies. The real challenge lies in drawing a clear line between reasonable expression and hate speech — a task universities face with increasing discomfort.

Dr. Warren added that students play a pivotal role as society’s moral compass. He pointed out that students are generally quicker to take a stand for the greater good against social injustice, and often concretize our collective consciousness. “Students are the only group that will mobilize unreservedly around interests that are not corporate,” he said.

These interests are often manifest in causes such as keeping tuition fees low. But though this collective social consciousness may often be seen as self-interested, students view it as part of building a more just society. Students also have a long history of weighing in on social debates. “Students have been at the forefront of great progressive movements for at least 150 years,” said Dr. Warren. This long history has lent them moral legitimacy in social procedure. As such, students have significant impact on social discussions and decision-making, especially in Western societies such as Canada.

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