Canada dispatch: University of Toronto encampment organizers and supporters persist in calls for investment transparency and divestment from Israeli weapons companies Dispatches
© JURIST // Pitasanna Shanmugathas
Canada dispatch: University of Toronto encampment organizers and supporters persist in calls for investment transparency and divestment from Israeli weapons companies

Pitasanna Shanmugathas is a law student at Vermont Law & Graduate School and a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. On Saturday May 11 Pitasanna participated in Day 10 of the student-led encampment calling for the University of Toronto to divest from funding Israeli institutions allegedly involved in sustaining the occupation of the Palestinian territories. 

According to organizers, approximately 150-200 university students and faculty members participate daily in ongoing protests on the University of Toronto campus. Notable individuals like distinguished author and dissident Naomi Klein were also present at the protest, offering solidarity and speaking to various media officials. Many of the protestors stay overnight, sleeping in tents, and food is regularly provided thanks to financial donations and contributions from supporters within the wider Canadian public.

Erin Mackey, a fourth-year student majoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto and one of the encampment’s organizers, spoke to JURIST and articulated the demands of the protestors: “First, we want the University of Toronto to disclose its investments—so the university has an endowment of over $4 billion dollars, and they invest it in various entities—so we want full disclosure of where our tuition dollars are going. The second demand is divestment. We are demanding that the University of Toronto divest from weapons manufacturing companies complicit in Israeli apartheid, and the third demand is for the university to cut all ties with Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in the ongoing occupation of Palestine.”

Despite these demands, the University of Toronto’s President, Meric Gertler, has refused to engage in substantive conversation about any of the students’ demands [editor’s note: a meeting on Sunday between student representatives and representatives of the university administration resulted in no breakthroughs]. Mackey asserted that Gertler did confirm to the organizers that the University of Toronto does have investments in weapons manufacturing companies complicit in Israeli apartheid but refused to confirm the financial amount of the investment or to what extent the university is invested.

Mackey asserted that “the university clearly cares more about corporate profits than their own students.” The University of Toronto was one of the last universities in Canada to divest from apartheid South Africa. Moreover, its questionable history of financial ties is evidenced by the fact that its controversial global affairs school, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, receives significant financial assistance from the Peter Munk family, the founder of one of the largest gold mining companies in the world, Barrick Gold, known for its egregious human rights abuses in the Global South.  

What is visibly present within the perimeter of the encampment are surveillance cameras—with enhanced audio amplification—that were recently installed. The organizers allege, based on analysis by digital security experts, that the newly installed cameras are Toronto police technology with facial recognition capabilities, suggesting that the university is likely working in conjunction with the Toronto police to monitor the activities and identities of the protestors.

The protestors have faced acts of intimidation during their encampment. Sara Rasikh, a graduate student at the University of Toronto and one of the media spokespeople involved in the protest, told JURIST that “[protestors] have been getting verbally attacked since day one. Our Jewish comrades, when they hold Shabbat dinner, Zionists outside yell at them and call them Nazis and self-hating Jews, which is disgusting, [and] the university has not taken a stand for its own students, faculty, staff, and community members. When our Muslim brothers and sisters are praying, we have agitators from the outside yelling at them and threatening to physically harm them and their family. Agitation is something that is constant and it is the only safety risk that exists.”

Salma Zahid, federal Liberal Member of Parliament for Scarborough Centre, was among several individuals who visited the encampment on Saturday to show solidarity with the student protestors. In a comment to JURIST, she asserted that “peaceful protests are part of democracy. And in Canada we [abide] by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under which expression of speech and peaceful protest is protected. I’m a mother of two young boys, what they have been seeing [has taken] a big toll on their mental health, I never saw those videos [of the massacres in Gaza] at their age. I’m really worried about their mental health because they have seen too much. I would encourage the university to sit down with the students and listen to them, escalation is not an answer, what happened in Calgary yesterday with the use of teargas against a group of students who were just protesting against the killing of innocent [Palestinian] civilians and the displacement of millions of people was shameful.”

When asked how Zahid reconciles her position on accountability for Israel with Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s refusal to apply any meaningful pressure to hold Israel accountable, such as his opposition to ongoing investigations by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice regarding Israel’s atrocities since October 7th, Zahid told JURIST, “In the Liberal Party, we have different perspectives. We need to have an immediate ceasefire; we need to end the killing of innocent civilians…Invading Rafah is totally and absolutely wrong. There should be consequences for Netanyahu. There needs to be sanctions on illegal settlers.” Zahid further emphasized that “whatever decision the [International Criminal Court] takes, Canada is a signatory and should accept that…. Canada has voted in favor of the [ceasefire motion in Parliament] on March 18th and [has voted] at the UN for a ceasefire.”

With graduation approaching in June, the protestors indicated that the university feels pressure to reach an agreement with the students to avoid disruptions. The students have insisted they will not end their encampment until the university completely divests from institutions complicit in atrocities against Palestinians.