Pro-Palestinian protesters to present counter offer to U of T administration

TORONTO — Pro-Palestinian demonstrators who have been camped out at the University of Toronto for weeks planned to present a counter-offer to school administrators on Sunday, hours before a deadline university officials have set for clearing the encampment.

Shortly before a scheduled 5 p.m. meeting with the school's administration, an encampment spokesperson said protesters had put together a list of demands it hopes will encourage the university to speedily divest itself of investments in companies profiting from Israel's offensive in Gaza.

As of 10 p.m. Sunday, there were no updates from either the protesters nor the university.

"We hope that the University of Toronto acknowledges the gravity of the situation at hand and acknowledges that we don't have time to waste," Sara Rasikh, a master's student studying social justice education at the school, said in an interview.

"Our counter-offer puts forth that procedures cannot be slow or bureaucratic or dictatorial when people are dying."

Rasikh and her fellow protesters planned to ask the university to immediately disclose its public investments linked to Israel's offensive and to form a joint working group to study its private investments.

The protesters prefer a working group to the ad hoc committee the school proposed, which they argue could drag out the divestment process and end with no action, Rasikh said.

Also in the counter offer was a demand for the school to cut ties with the Hebrew University, which she claimed has a presence in illegal settlements, and with the Technion, an Israeli technology institute she alleged works with artificial intelligence-based technology Israeli forces use to pinpoint bombing targets.

Rasikh was unsure who would represent the university at the meeting or how long the session would last, but said she hopes "they again come to the negotiating table in good faith."

The university issued a trespass notice to the protesters on Friday, which requires them to vacate the premises by 8 a.m. Monday, when Rasikh said the school intends to seek an injunction that could force them to leave.

The university said in a Friday statement it had "negotiated in good faith with encampment participants" who are "unlawfully" occupying its campus.

The statement said health and safety concerns had arisen since the creation of the encampment, which "created an environment on campus that is contrary to the university’s commitment to fostering a welcoming and safe community for all members to partake of and express themselves freely."

A University of Toronto spokesperson confirmed in a statement Sunday it would be seeking an injunction through an urgent hearing if students did not comply with the trespass notice.

School officials were looking forward to the Sunday meeting with students representing the encampment, the statement added.

Protesters have said they will not go anywhere until the school complies with their demands. Rasikh said protesters have lawyers prepared to fight any injunction that comes their way.

The group picked up support over the weekend from the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and one million workers in Ontario.

Federation president Laura Walton said in a Saturday letter to Meric Gertler, UofT's president, that she was "disappointed" the school had issued a trespass notice and urged him to "reverse course immediately and choose negotiations and discussion over ultimatums and repression."

Walton told Gertler she planned to host a solidarity rally at the grassy expanse of King's College Circle where protesters have pitched their tents since May 2. The rally is set to begin at the same time as the deadline provided on the trespass notice.

"If, by then, you decide to move against the students, you’ll have to go through the workers first," Walton wrote to the school's president.

Encampments on university campuses have cropped up across Canada in recent months, with several universities grappling with how to appease protesters and free up their spaces again.

Over the last month demonstrators have taken over sites at the University of Calgary, McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University in B.C.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2024.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press