University of Toronto graduation ceremonies to begin with protest in background

University of Toronto graduation ceremonies to begin with protest in background

Convocation ceremonies for University of Toronto graduating students begin Monday against the backdrop of a pro-Palestinian encampment that has remained on campus for weeks despite an invasion notice and imminent legal action.

More than 30 ceremonies are scheduled to take place through June 21, and the university says all events will go ahead as planned with “additional precautions.”

The university attempted to clear the encampment before convocation began with a request for an urgent court order authorizing police action to remove protesters who refused to leave. But the judge who heard the case said the earliest a hearing can be held is June 19 and 20, to give protesters a fair chance to respond.

That means most graduates and their families attending ceremonies on the downtown campus will likely pass through the fenced encampment filled with tents, signs and flags. Convocation Hall faces King’s College Circle, where the camp was set up on May 2 after protesting students broke down a temporary fence the university erected around the large grass area.

Among the evidence and affidavits the university has submitted to the court so far are correspondence from students and family members who are concerned about the protest’s impact on convocation.

But protesters have said they don’t see how their presence could disrupt graduation events. Camp spokesperson Sara Rasikh said the billboards have been present at King’s College Circle “for years” during convocations.

“The only difference this time from last year is that there are Palestinian flags on the fences,” he said in an interview, adding that many students at the camp are among those graduating this month.

“Graduating people should attend (the convocation) if they wish and we will not take any public stance on this,” Rasikh said.

The university argues that the camp poses health and safety risks and has led to numerous reports of harassment, hate speech, anti-Semitic incidents and violence, claims denied by protest organizers.

In court documents, U of T says the increased number of students, faculty and others on campus during graduation ceremonies “creates the potential for ongoing verbal and physical harassment of community members by occupiers.” and increases the likelihood of potentially violent altercations.

Among the emails sent to the court, a student wrote to U of T to say he will not attend his graduation dinner in the Hart House building because “the campus is no longer a safe place for Jews.”

A concerned parent of a graduate student wrote to ask if the convocation ceremony could be moved to “a safer location.” The email said that one of the family members planning to attend is a Holocaust survivor and that walking through the camp would be harrowing.

“Please explain how U of T plans to ensure a safe and meaningful graduation ceremony,” the parent wrote.

“How does (the university) plan to ensure the safety of all graduates and attendees? And how does it plan to ensure that there are no political disruptions to the ceremony? We are very proud of our daughter and simply want the celebration to be a smooth one.” “

The University of Toronto said it takes the safety of graduate students and their guests “very seriously” and has a “well-established” process for handling event disruptions.

“This year, we are taking additional precautions to ensure a safe and celebratory environment, including requiring graduate students to show identification when picking up their gowns and placing restrictions on bags and personal items brought into Convocation Hall.” , he wrote in a statement to The Canadian. Press.

The university’s court documents also include some emails it received in support of the encampment, including a note from a student registered to graduate this month who urged the administration to listen to protesters’ demands and avoid using police force to clear the camp.

“If a safe convocation cannot be guaranteed due to the unintended effects of the protest, I would rather have my convocation ceremony canceled than see other students arrested and brutalized,” the student wrote.

Protesters have said they will remain in the camp until the university meets their demands, which include disclosing investments in companies that benefit from Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Similar encampments have emerged on university campuses across Canada in recent months, and several schools are considering or taking legal action against protesters.

There has been a camp at McGill University for more than a month, forcing the administration to move graduation ceremonies off campus to the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens.

McGill President Deep Saini expressed frustration that camp representatives walked out of the latest meeting aimed at ending their protest.

With files from Rianna Lim

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2024.