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“The university’s response has been pathetic”: Scenes from the pro-Palestine encampment at U of T

Protesters have been living in tents on the University of Toronto campus for over a week, with no intention of packing up until their demands are met. It’s ignited a clash with the school’s administration over the bounds of private property, the university’s financial and academic ties to Israel, and the limits of free speech

By Emma Buchanan| Photography by Joshua Best
A photo of many tents spread out on the grass in front of King's College

In the early hours of May 2, a group of students at the University of Toronto took over King’s College Circle to set up a pro-Palestine encampment, one of about a dozen similar student-led protests across the country. Now, the very heart of the St. George campus—usually an expansive but empty patch of lawn that was just part of a massive revitalization project—is covered with tents, where students have been living for more than a week.

As the death toll from the Israel-Gaza war has exceeded 30,000 people, protesters have renewed their calls for the immediate disclosure of—and subsequent divestment from—the university’s financial ties to Israel; U of T, for its part, claims the students are trespassing on private property but that it hopes to avoid removing them by force. The clash has sparked debate about what universities owe to students who fork over tuition dollars and whether protesters exercising their right to peaceful assembly impede other students’ learning on campus.

On May 12, in a meeting between both sides, U of T’s administration offered to create an investigation team to come up with non-binding recommendations on disclosure and divestments, but the students say they won’t budge until their demands are met in full. Meanwhile, both parties reaffirmed their commitment to a peaceful resolution (unlike the violent police interventions that have occurred at encampments in Calgary and the US).

University of Toronto president Meric Gertler declined an interview with Toronto Life. As the protest continues into its second week, we spent a day at King’s College Circle interviewing students, staff and community members about the stand-off. Here’s what they had to say.


A young woman holding a sign that says "Disclose Divest"
Toronto, Canada. Portrait of people interviewed about the UofT Palestinian solidarity encampment. Photographed for Toronto Life

Erin Mackey, 23

Protester, undergraduate political science and environmental studies student at U of T

How long have you been at the encampment? I’ve been here every day since we started camping out last Thursday. I think it’s starting to show with my massive sunburn. One of the encampment medics set a reminder on her phone every three hours to come tell me to put sunscreen on. Last night was the first time that I went home and slept in my own bed, and I showered, which was nice.

How would you describe the atmosphere over the past week? It’s been overwhelming, chaotic and beautiful. There’s a sense of community here. I’ve been at U of T for four years now, and it’s a really large school. It can be hard to connect with people, and every single person that I’ve met in this encampment has been so kind. We have more than 100 people here right now. And people who can’t stay overnight are donating supplies and food. Overall, it’s been beautiful, which stands in real contrast to the fact that there’s an ongoing genocide. It’s important to remember that there are many Palestinian students here with us who are grieving the losses of their loved ones, of their friends, of their families, of their homes. I can’t imagine doing this work in the midst of all that grief.

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What are your demands? We have three demands. The first is for disclosure: we’re asking the University of Toronto to disclose all its investments. U of T has an endowment of over $4 billion, and as students, we think it’s important that we know where our tuition dollars are going. The second is divestment, so getting U of T to divest from Israeli apartheid. That includes weapons manufacturing companies complicit in Israel’s military actions. Our third demand is to end all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions, such as U of T’s active research partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Are you concerned that the police will forcibly remove—and potentially arrest—protesters for trespassing like we’ve seen on other campuses? U of T would have to call the Toronto police and give them the authorization to do that. We know police are violent—we’re seeing a lot of police violence toward students across the US. If the administration decides to call police to raid this encampment, that would say more about the administration than it would about the students.

How has the encampment affected the general mood on campus? I’ve had many conversations with students here, including Muslim and Jewish students, who feel connected to other members of the campus community in a way that they hadn’t previously. On the other hand, the administration has increased campus security. I think most of what’s making people feel unsafe is actually the administration and campus police—it’s not what’s happening here inside the encampment.

Have you talked to the administration about its safety concerns? We’ve had two meetings with admin about logistical concerns and sanitation, because initially we didn’t have overnight access to washrooms, so we brought in portable camping toilets, and that situation wasn’t necessarily working. But, again, that is a problem the administration created. So we had those two conversations to ensure that we could regain overnight access to washrooms. After that, we told the administration that we are no longer interested in communicating unless it’s about our demands, and initially it came back and flat-out refused. It’s appalling that the people running the university weren’t willing to listen to the hundreds of students and staff members who are here.


A young man sitting in a tent with shelves full of books

Abdurraheem Desai, 22

Protester, third-year philosophy and linguistics student at U of T

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How long have you been at the encampment? From the very beginning: May 2 at 4 a.m.

There is a temporary metal fence surrounding the encampment. My understanding is that U of T originally put it up before students started camping out, as a deterrent, but it now looks like protesters are using it to let people in and out. Did you see the fences going up? I saw the university erecting them at the end of April. There are still No Tents signs on the fence, so it paints a funny picture when you have those signs and then 100 tents on the field. On one hand, the fences have helped the people organizing the encampment set up a perimeter. They also gave us a wall to hang art on, and we’re able to manage the flow of people coming in and out. But by setting up the fences, the university has basically made a previously publicly accessible place into one where it can claim students are trespassing.

Who is allowed inside? I’m not really involved in how that side of camp works, but from what I’ve seen, as long as you’re not agitating or violent, anyone can come in. In terms of the people actually staying here, I would say that the vast majority of campers are students. Throughout the day, we get a lot of alumni and faculty coming in as well, and occasionally they stay with us through the night. We usually like to let people come in and explore, but we try to do some crowd control because we don’t want to lend credence to claims that this encampment is “mostly non-students,” which isn’t really the case. There are non-students coming in, but they’re not the ones organizing the encampment. There are also parents coming in to see their children, and at one point we had younger children here flying kites. That was adorable.

Why did you join the encampment? I have a lot of Palestinian friends who have lost many family members in Gaza. I’m also a Muslim student, and I believe that justice is fundamental. After trying a lot of different methods—protesting, rallying, vigils, die-ins—it was time for a different strategy. We didn’t get much of a response from the university with those other tactics.

Have you slept here every night? Yes, and it’s actually been pretty fine. I sleep on the ground pretty often at home as well. The hardest night was probably a few days ago, when it was raining like crazy. But, besides that, it’s been quite pleasant.

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Can you tell us about the library you’ve set up in this tent? This library is called the Watermelon Coalition Library, but this campus has 40 libraries, so as a joke we also call it U of T’s 41st library. It’s an extension of a reading group that I founded with a friend. We started the group back in November, and it’s not limited to the Palestinian cause. We have a reading section that covers philosophy and anthropology, which we’ve titled “Revitalizing or Revolutionizing Language.” We have a historical and political theory session to educate ourselves and others on the context of the current Palestinian situation. We also have a decolonial theory session, when we read thinkers like Frantz Fanon and civil rights activists like Malcolm X. We started with seven books, and now we have so many that the library has sections. People have come in here to chill for hours, and we’ll discuss philosophy and politics. It’s basically become another part of campus that facilitates what university students should be doing, which is meeting people and engaging in discourse.


A young man with headphones around his neck
Toronto, Canada. Portrait of people interviewed about the UofT Palestinian solidarity encampment. Photographed for Toronto Life

Qjiel Mariano, 22

Global health student at York University

What are you doing here today? We’re just visiting, but my friend wanted to see the U of T campus. And I was like, Oh, I want to see the encampment as well. I wanted to see how people are doing. Are they fine? Are they doing okay? Do they have the resources to keep staying here? It’s a very good cause, but this must bring a lot of mental pressure for them, because they’re away from their families and they have to be here for a while to fight for an important cause.

How do you think the administration should respond? I mean, the institution shouldn’t be investing in genocide in the first place. Universities should be teaching and encouraging us to make this world a better place. They shouldn’t behave like private corporations or diploma mills.


A young women standing in front of a fence with tents behind it

Shreya Garg, 21

Third-year computer engineering student at U of T

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How do you feel about the encampment? I think it’s a really powerful move. The emails that we’re getting from the school say, “You’re allowed to express your free speech,” but they’re putting these rules on it. Like, You can protest, but you have to leave by 10 p.m. It kind of negates their original statement. I’m standing right next to the encampment. It’s very peaceful—there’s no disturbance of any kind.

As a student, has the encampment affected your studies? Not at all. It’s honestly nice to see. Before the encampment, there was so much construction around this beautiful area. Now people are reading, throwing Frisbees, playing soccer. The encampment has brought life and colour to the community. I feel more connected to the issues that are going on in the world. We have classes about ethics; we’re taught to voice our opinions; we’re taught to stand strong. But how can the university teach something it isn’t practising?

Do you feel safe on campus? Completely.

How would you feel if the police were called in? I would feel very confused. Like, this is where police resources are going? I avoid staying out late at night because I’m afraid of getting stabbed, and the police don’t seem to be helping with that, so why would they be needed somewhere I feel completely safe? If anything, I feel safer walking around here at night because the people in the encampment are nearby. What they are doing is saying no to violence. Calling the police would be ridiculous because it’s very peaceful.

How do you think U of T should respond? The administration should stop avoiding the issue—address it straight up and remove these fences. I get that there are a lot of powerful people involved in this, but they’re looking a little pathetic by not coming out and actually addressing the students’ demands.

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How is the encampment changing your experience on campus? I feel like it has connected us to the world. In academia, you get tunnel vision. You think, Next assignment, next test. It’s all-consuming. But now, as I’m walking to class, I’m more aware of what’s going on in the world. This isn’t disrupting my life as a student—if anything, it’s enriching my experience. This is something that I would tell my kids about.


A woman with a black face covering on, holding a flag with an Indigenous figure
Toronto, Canada. Portrait of people interviewed about the UofT Palestinian solidarity encampment. Photographed for Toronto Life

Morningstar, 46

Three Fires Confederacy, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Anishinaabe

You have a sacred fire here that I’ve heard you’ve kept going for 18 months. How did it end up in the encampment today? The fire is about relationship-building—it’s a place to bring different communities together to communicate and heal. In this case, it’s an invitation for the University of Toronto faculty and administration to come sit and talk with us, not at us. I was approached by students about bringing it here, and then I got permission from my elders to do so. It came to my attention recently that U of T sent out a communication referring to this fire as a safety hazard. I’m what you call an unceded Indian, and that means my people never ceded any land. I don’t answer to U of T. They are colonizers. They make land acknowledgements about how this is an Indigenous space, yet they’re finding a problem with a sacred fire. That’s wrong. That’s part of cultural genocide, right? They’re trying to dictate to us what our ceremonies are supposed to look like.

Why is it important for you to be here as an Indigenous person? What’s happening in Gaza is colonial genocide. They’re killing the children. That is unacceptable. And that’s exactly what colonizers did to us. I see the commonalities. These kids are brave. And two of the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings are courage and bravery. It took a lot of courage for students to hop that fence. I have never met kinder people in my life. And that’s coming from me—I’m critical of people. I think it’s very important that, when the administration looks over here, they see that the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, the original inhabitants of this land, stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters.

Logistically, how did you move the fire here? We transferred ashes from the sacred fire into this pit, and that connects all of our fires together. This one is not going out until the students’ demands are met.

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A woman standing under a tree, wearing a keffiyeh

Clelia Rodriguez, 50

Protester, faculty member in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Why did you join the encampment? I am a descendant of people who were murdered in the 1932 La Matanza massacres in El Salvador, and I am a survivor of the Salvadoran Civil War. Right now in Rafah, there are children being bombed. I was that child, once upon a time, and I survived. I see it as my responsibility to try to protect them. I’m heartbroken. It is not business as usual. And I am profoundly proud of the work that the students here are doing. They’re defending the dignity of other human beings.

How long have you been here? Since day one. I’ve been helping run the community kitchen. I’ll go home to cook and prep, but I’m back here every morning. I cleared my schedule, and that’s what faculty should be doing, especially those who are going to fancy conferences to talk about the kind of movements that are happening here. If they’re publishing about liberation and anti-oppression, this is where they should be.

What do you think of the university’s response so far? I think it’s a shame. It’s hypocritical to be doing land acknowledgments and recognizing that they’re settlers here and then turning around and saying that this lawn is private property.

And how about Doug Ford’s comment that the encampments should be removed? I think he needs to come here and see for himself. This is a peaceful, beautiful protest. When I’m here, I feel protected. I feel rebellious joy. As a teacher, a mom, an elder in the making and a human, these students are giving me a lot of hope. I am really grateful for what they’re teaching me.

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A young man standing on a lawn, with the CN tower in the background

Avi, 21

Protester, fourth-year philosophy and international relations student at U of T

How long have you been at the encampment? I’ve been here since the first day. I live far away, so it’s actually easier for me to make it to my graduation ceremony from my tent.

Aside from the short commute, why are you camping out? I’m a member of a group of undergraduates called Tkarón:to Students in Solidarity with Palestine, and we’ve been trying to get the administration to listen to our demands and actually act on them for over six months now. We even spoke with the university’s president, Meric Gertler, a month ago with arguments about how not only is disclosing and divesting the morally right thing to do but the university actually has policy obligations that require it. They ignored us. So when we saw students at Columbia take their front lawn and ignite a wave of protests, we thought, If not now, then when?

What kind of response are you hoping for? First, the university needs to acknowledge that it’s been ignoring Palestinian students and their allies. But, more concretely, we want total adoption of our three demands. We are the largest university in Canada, with a massive endowment. Students and faculty workers have no idea where their money goes. The university refuses to admit that it has an obligation to prevent financial complicity in the bombing of Gaza.

We’ve seen police clear similar encampments at other schools. Do you anticipate that happening here? With American universities, the full force of the state was thrown at student organizers. At U of T, we’re seeing more bureaucratic violence. They put up this fence to keep us from getting in here, and they’ve been bringing up health and safety concerns to try to avoid our demands. We are committed to being peaceful and nonviolent. If the university were to call the police on us, it would be obvious that they were overreacting and throwing a temper tantrum.

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What do you think of Doug Ford’s reaction to the protest? Oh, we were heartbroken. We were really counting on his support—just kidding. It makes sense: it’s perfectly in line with Doug Ford’s entire tenure as premier. So we’re not surprised by it. I agree that the university needs to make a move—it needs to disclose and divest. That is the move, Doug. Not police violence. That’s never fixed anything, and I don’t think it will get Doug the votes he’s looking for.


An older man standing inside the encampment

Jan Mahrt-Smith, 57

Professor of finance at U of T’s Rotman School of Management

Why are you at the encampment today? I believe that many of the things the camp is concerned about, including the situation in the Middle East, are out of control and are putting many innocent civilians’ lives in danger. I needed to find a place where I could show that I don’t feel that this is acceptable as a human being. This seemed like where I need to be right now to show my outrage. I also believe that the university needs to do more when it comes to its financial transparency. Since that’s one of the things that the camp is calling for, I felt like I needed to show my support.

How would you describe the energy here? I’ve been here multiple times, and it varies. When it’s just the camp, it feels very peaceful and collaborative, almost joyful at times. But, when outside forces try to disrupt the camp, they often employ tactics that feel violent and oppressive. There have been threats and insults yelled over the fence, including gendered insults about young women or people saying that some protesters are “foreigners” and should “go back where they came from.” Some of the people harassing the encampment have had T-shirts that identify them as members of the Jewish Defense League or other right-wing organizations, but others seem to be lone actors who are far less organized. In those moments, the atmosphere changes, and the students and young people here clearly feel scared. And at the same time, they become really cohesive to defend one another. That can lead to a lot of tension around the perimeter. It comes in waves.

How do you think U of T should respond? I think the university can better engage on the issues, even if it feels the camp is troublesome and comes with sanitation and safety hazards, including the hate speech being thrown around when tensions rise. The university has a lot of legitimate concerns, but I think it’s using them as an excuse to not engage on the substance of the matter. I can’t say for sure because there is no disclosure, but it’s very likely that the university is invested in firms that engage in transactions and activities that are inconsistent with our stated values. In 2020, the UN published a list of firms that engage in illegal settlements in the West Bank. I’d be very surprised if none of them were in our portfolio.

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How have your students reacted to seeing you here? In general, they’ve been grateful. I teach sustainable finance, and I’ve met a lot of campers here before at climate divestment protests. They’ve been very accommodating. There are chants I will not engage in—like ones in languages other than English that I’ve not had the chance to translate—that other campers feel strongly about. But they appreciate seeing me here and that I’m being open in my support instead of hiding in one of the tents.

What’s your sense of how many faculty are here? There’s a significant number. A lot of them show up when tensions rise, because they’re equally concerned about a lot of vulnerable students here. People on temporary contracts are often not comfortable identifying themselves as faculty. I have tenure, so I feel relatively safe. But they still come to support their students. On the other hand, many of my Jewish colleagues have legitimate fears for their personal safety, with or without the camp. I feel horrible for them. It is hard for me to hear people say that I’m making things worse by supporting students who are calling for peace. There are some who, if they saw me speaking to you like this, would never speak to me again. I understand that, but it’s really difficult to live with.


A man standing in front of King's College

Gur Tsabar, 51

Spokesperson, Jews Say No to Genocide

How long have you been at the encampment? I’m not staying here, but I’ve been coming since around 5 a.m. on the first day.

How does it feel to be here? Amazing. It’s such a beautiful community. It’s heartwarming to know you’re surrounded by people who all have the same goal in mind.

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What brought you here in the first place? As an Israeli, as a Jew, thinking about this topic has been a part of my life since birth. It’s in my blood to do this. It feels like a diehard need for me to see this movement succeed and see this genocide come to an end. And in Toronto, this encampment felt like the next logical step to making that happen.

What do you think of the university’s response so far? Excuse my French, but it’s pretty fucking pathetic. It’s atrocious, actually. It’s hard to believe that an educational institution would not immediately support the idea of ending a genocide or empowering its students to exchange ideas and exercise their right to protest in a meaningful way. It’s shocking that the university doesn’t seem to be taking calls for divestment and disclosure seriously. But, on the flip side, universities are corporations, and they’re acting like a lot of corporations act: beholden to their donors or shareholders, without any moral compass.

What would you say to those concerned about Jewish students’ safety on campus as a result of this encampment? Zionists have done all of us Jews a ton of harm by watering down the concept of antisemitism. It’s understandable that students may feel uncomfortable with some of the chants or slogans, especially students who have grown up with that Zionist mentality. But there is a massive difference between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe. Unsafe is what Palestinians are, what people in Gaza are. Getting your feelings hurt over a slogan should be a signal to look inside and ask yourself, Why am I uncomfortable with this? I don’t have a lot of empathy for it at this point because this genocide has been livestreamed 24/7 on our phones. They can see it with their own eyes. At this point, it’s active denial and willful ignorance not to acknowledge what’s going on.

How long are you planning on staying? I’m committed to coming here every day until the university discloses, divests and terminates its partnerships with academic institutions of Israel.


A student standing on campus in a colourful sweater

Mikolaj Zabinski, 21

Undergraduate life sciences student specializing in pharmaceutical chemistry

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Why are you on campus today? I’m a summer research student, so I’m working in one of the labs to get experience.

Has the encampment affected your studies at all? No, it absolutely has not. I support the cause, so I believe it’s necessary, even though it can disrupt our everyday lives. Is everything they’re doing absolutely appropriate? Maybe not, but at the end of the day, I think the cause is just. Protesting through more traditional avenues leaves a lot of room to basically be ignored. This makes more of a statement. The situation in Gaza is dire, so every minute counts.

How has the encampment affected university culture? I think it has drawn out underlying divides in student opinions. I do feel like the pro-Palestian side is larger, but I’m not totally sure. At U of T, the culture in general is that people keep to themselves and follow the status quo. So it’s disrupted that and showed us we’re not as politically active as some other universities.

How do you want U of T to respond? I’m not too familiar with the procedures, so I don’t want to comment, but I do think that there is a need to ensure that students who are protesters are kept safe—that the university doesn’t fight them and that there is an assurance first and foremost of health and safety.


These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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