The University of Toronto (U of T) is often referred to as the ‘Harvard of the North’. It is Canada’s largest and most prestigious university, ranked among the top 25 globally. U of T has 97,678 students from 170 countries, and is the largest landholder and employer in Toronto (the 4th largest city in North America). India is the second largest international country of origin, with 2,405 students enrolled during the 2022-23 year, according to the most recent available data.

The People’s Circle for Palestine” started May 2, at the heart of the campus, surrounded by a massive fence that was initially erected by the University Administration to keep protesters out. It quickly became one of the largest encampments in North America with 150-200 tents on any given night, hundreds of campers, and a sacred fire led by Indigenous elders. The camp is supported by faculty, librarians and staff, alumni, campus unions and all student governmental organisations.

At a time when the International Court of Justice has outlined that Israel is plausibly committing genocide and has reaffirmed immediate implementation of provisional measures for Israel to stop its assault on Gaza, the U of T has been called out for its institutional complicity in Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide. For over 7 months, the University has neglected students’ demands to disclose, divest and suspend ties with Israeli universities complicit in human rights violations and war crimes.

The week of May 27-31 was a watershed moment:

May 27: The U of T Administration filed an injunction for police clearance of the camp. This follows a “trespass notice” issued on May 24, threatening disciplinary measures for students and staff supporting the camp, and threatening an unprecedented mass termination of faculty (including tenured faculty). These actions have been challenged by the Faculty Association.

The Ontario Federation of Labour, representing 54 unions and one million workers, took an unprecedented position, proclaiming at a mass rally that if the university decides “to move against the students, [they will] have to go through the workers first”.

U of T President Meric Gertler was the final speaker at the federal Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights hearings on antisemitism.

May 28: A faculty press conference held on the steps of the university’s main administrative building was attended by approximately 100 U of T professors who defended students’ right to protest, and underscored the importance of student demands that the University stop supporting the Gaza genocide by divesting from Israeli industries profiting from the war and occupation, and that it cut ties with complicit Israeli universities.

One of the professor spokespeople echoed the stance of the Ontario Federation of Labour, declaring on behalf of hundreds of colleagues that if university authorities “decide to move against the students, you’ll have to go through us first.”

May 29: The judge deciding whether to grant the university’s request for an injunction to clear the encampment set the hearing for June 19-20 “in order to afford the respondents a fair opportunity to answer the application,” which consists of more than 1,000 pages.

May 30/31: Toronto police confirmed that they will not clear the encampment without a court order (in response to a request to police from U of T authorities following the trespass order issued May 24).

May 31: The U of T authorities issued an update to “correct any possible misunderstanding with respect to the trespass notice issued on May 24, which referred to possible penalties up to and including termination of employment for faculty who do not comply with the notice.” However, the message did not refer to possible firing of librarians and other staff members, nor did it retract threats of other disciplinary actions against U of T staff and students who support the encampment.

June 3: The U of T’s spring graduation season began, with over 30 separate ceremonies across 3 weeks. These are taking place in the university’s historic Convocation Hall, immediately adjacent to the encampment, which is serving as a backdrop for photos of graduates with their families. The fact that the University went ahead with the ceremonies as planned refutes its claim that the injunction request was an emergency.

During the first 21 ceremonies, more than 120 graduating students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas from University officials while wearing kuffiyehs and/or unfurling Palestinian flags, or carrying posters decrying the Gaza genocide. The U of T has

sought to censor these actions on its livestream link to graduation ceremonies.

In another act of courage, Kristen Daigle, who is Mushkegowuk (Cree) and was nominated to be Eagle Feather Bearer at U of T’s convocation, resigned from this honour as an act of conscience. In her resignation letter to U of T President Gertler, Daigle stated “(i)t is our duty to allow students to explore their right to political protest.”

The Peoples Circle for Palestine has widespread support on campus and in the broader community. Palestinian, Jewish organisations and other organisations stand alongside prominent writers, artists, musicians, honorary degree holders and scholars (many who have travelled from afar to visit), including Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Naomi Klein, Dionne Brand, Deepa Mehta, John Greyson, Gayatri Spivak, Muhannad Ayyash, Glen Coulthard, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney.

The Circle has created an inspiring space of multiracial, multi-faith, multi-generational learning, building and shared struggle. Jews, Palestinian and camp supporters from various backgrounds have shared Shabbat services every Friday evening, with Kiddush offered in Hebrew and Arabic. The sense of unity and resolve within this historic protest grows stronger every day.

Contradicting this reality, U of T authorities have repeatedly claimed that by virtue of its very existence, the encampment is a flashpoint of “concerning incidents” of violence and vitriol. Yet the evidence points to the U of T doing nothing to stop the acts of hate and violence that have come from those opposing the encampment, as reported by the mainstream media.

The students have highlighted the University’s hypocrisy in a variety of ways:

  • By contesting the university’s characterization of King’s College Circle as private property
  • By maintaining scepticism about University promises to establish committees to discuss the possibilities of disclosure and divestment, given that the recommendations of a prior promised fossil fuel divestment committee were rejected outright by President Gertler
  • By anchoring their demands in research regarding the University’s ties with Israeli universities complicit in Palestinian oppression before and during the assault on Gaza

As they await the results of the injunction hearing next week, the students have reiterated:

“The senior administration at U of T had one month to engage in meaningful discussions about divestment from arms manufacturers. Instead, they derailed the process by approaching the table in bad faith and suing their own students.”

There are now two paths to the future. One points to the travesty of police violence, disciplinary hearings, lawsuits and inaction in addressing institutional complicity in Israeli apartheid and genocide, as we’ve seen in campuses across North America. The other path would see the university disclose, divest and suspend ties and stand on the right side of history. It remains uncertain which path the University of Toronto will choose.