University of Toronto graduation ceremony begins with protests in the background


TORONTO — Graduation ceremonies for University of Toronto graduates begin Monday against the backdrop of a pro-Palestinian camp that has existed on campus for weeks despite a trespassing notice and threatened legal action.

TORONTO — Graduation ceremonies for University of Toronto graduates begin Monday against the backdrop of a pro-Palestinian camp that has existed on campus for weeks despite a trespassing notice and threatened legal action.

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

The university tried to clear the encampment before the gathering began by seeking a temporary restraining order allowing police to remove protesters who refuse to leave. However, the judge reviewing the case said a hearing could not take place until June 19 and 20 at the earliest to give protesters a fair opportunity to respond.

That means most graduates and their families attending ceremonies on the downtown campus will likely pass by the fenced-off encampment filled with tents, posters and flags. Convocation Hall is across from King's College Circle, where the encampment was set up on May 2 after protesting students broke through a makeshift fence the university had erected around the large lawn.

The exhibits and affidavits the university has submitted to court so far include correspondence from students and family members concerned about the impact of the protest on the graduation ceremony.

However, protesters said they could not imagine their presence would disrupt the graduation ceremonies. Sara Rasikh, a spokeswoman for the camp, said there have been fences at King's College Circle during graduation ceremonies “for years.”

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

“Graduates should attend the (assembly) if they wish, and we are not taking a public position on it,” Rasikh said.

The university argues that the camp poses a health and safety risk and has led to numerous reports of harassment, hate speech, anti-Semitic incidents and violence – allegations that protest organizers deny.

Court documents say the increased number of students, faculty and others on campus during graduation ceremonies “creates the potential for sustained verbal and physical harassment of community members by residents and increases the likelihood of potential violent confrontations.”

Among the emails presented to the court was a letter from a student to the University of Toronto stating that he would not attend the graduation dinner at the Hart House building because “the campus was no longer a safe place for Jews.”

A concerned parent of a graduate wrote asking if the graduation ceremony could be moved to a “safer location.” The email said one of the family members planning to attend is a Holocaust survivor and walking past the camp would be disturbing.

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

“How will (the university) ensure the safety of all graduates and attendees? And how will (they) ensure that there are no political disruptions at the ceremony? We are so proud of our daughter and just want the ceremony to go off without a hitch.”

The University of Toronto said it takes the safety of graduating students and their guests “extremely seriously” and has a “well-established” process for dealing with disruptions at events.

“This year, we are taking additional precautions to ensure a safe and celebratory environment. For example, graduates will be required to show identification when collecting their gowns and there are restrictions on bringing bags and personal items into Convocation Hall,” the college said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

The university's court filings also include several emails it received in support of the camp, including a message from a student who will graduate this month urging the administration to listen to protesters' demands and refrain from using police force to clear the camp.

“If a safe graduation ceremony cannot be ensured due to unintended consequences of the protest, I would rather have my graduation ceremony canceled than watch other students be arrested and mistreated,” the student wrote.

The protesters said they would remain in the camp until the university met their demands, including disclosing its investments in companies that profit from the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Similar encampments have occurred on university campuses across Canada in recent months, and several colleges are considering or have already taken legal action against the protesters.

A student camp has been underway at McGill University for over a month, forcing university officials to move graduation ceremonies off-campus to the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens.

McGill University President Deep Saini expressed disappointment that camp representatives walked out of the last meeting to end their protest.

– with files from Rianna Lim

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

Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press