Wave of Palestine solidarity encampments reaches Montreal

Apr 29, 2024

Wave of Palestine solidarity encampments reaches Montreal

Following the example set by students in the United States, solidarity encampments opposed to the Israeli state's assault on Gaza have now spread to campuses in Canada and around the world
The Palestine solidarity encampment organized by students in Montreal. (Photo: Jahanzeb Hussain)

Solidarity spreads fast. As the wave of student encampments has grown on postsecondary campuses across the United States, in protest of academia’s collusion with Israeli apartheid and its ongoing war in Gaza, students at McGill and Concordia Universities have followed suit. On Saturday, April 27, they erected camps on the grounds of McGill in downtown Montreal.

The organizers, comprised of Students for Palestinian Human Rights along with other solidarity groups, have installed the camps on the open ground next to the university’s main entrance off Sherbrooke Street. The camps were set up Saturday morning and supporters trickled in through the afternoon to show support. By the evening, hundreds were present at the site. The liberated zone, as the campers refer to it, is fenced off. Within the fence is where the activists are spending their days and nights in protest.

There has been a visible outpouring of support. Apart from showing up in solidarity, people have been donating food, water, and camping supplies. Despite the rain overnight, the spirit at the camps on the second day was high and the mood has been both defiant and festive, with a chorus of chants and music to keep the energy going. The camps are now the go-to spot for pro-Palestine activists and supporters in Montreal.

As has been the case with the protests since the start of the war in October, the social makeup of the crowd is extremely diverse, with Muslims, Arabs, and progressive Jews, as well as queer groups, on the forefront. Any accusation of anti-semitism is wide off the mark.

The organizers plan to maintain the camps until all their demands are met – complete divestment from companies that do business with Israel, and ending relations with Israeli universities. “We want all the focus we are drawing to be put straight back on what is happening in Palestine,” one member of the camps' media team told me. (She asked to remain anonymous out of concern about potential reprisals from her university.) “We are calling on both our university and Canada to end their complicity in the genocide.”

Based on publicly available documents on McGill’s website, the camp organizers estimate that the university holds around $20 million of endowment funds in companies that have close links with Israel. This includes around $1.6 million investment in the French weapons manufacturer Thales SA, the 8th largest defence contractor in the world. Thales has closely collaborated with the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems to manufacture drones that are said to have been used by Israel in Gaza. McGill has over $1.5 million invested in Airbus Aerospace that also provides drones to Israel to be used in Gaza. The university has a similar amount of money invested in Safran, another French manufacturer that provides equipment for the Israeli police in the occupied West Bank.

Just over $10 million of McGill’s endowment is with the Royal Bank of Canada, which invests in the Colorado-based Palantir Technologies, a company that provides surveillance systems to Israel to be used on Palestinians. McGill has over $500,000 invested in the US arms manufactures Lockheed Martin, whose lethal Hellfire 9x missiles are deployed by Israel. The university has over $1.4 million in France’s L’Oreal, which makes beauty products from minerals obtained from the Dead Sea, most of which forms the shoreline of the West Bank. L’Oreal also makes annual donations to the Weizmann Institute of Science, which develops weapons for Israel. McGill has undisclosed amounts of money invested in Coca Cola and Volvo, which, respectively, have a factory in the illegal colony of Atarot in Jerusalem and provide armoured buses that are used by extremist settlers in the West Bank.

Furthermore, McGill has partnerships with Israeli universities that the protestors want cancelled. This includes a partnership between the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute Tel Aviv University and the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute McGill. Lastly, the organizers also want an end to McGill’s association with the Heather Reisman Foundation, belonging to Indigo Books’ owner Heather Reisman, who is also the founder of the HESEG Foundation, which provides scholarships for lone IDF soldiers.

This is not the first time McGill students have demanded their university divest from Israel. A month after the start of Israel’s attack on Gaza, ​​the Students’ Society of McGill University held a a referendum where 78% of the participants voted in favour of divesting from Israel. In response, McGill threatened to end its agreement with the union.

Since then, the “administration has only done more and more to repress our voice,” one of the organizers said. “About two weeks ago, we had a peaceful rally on campus, and they brought riot cops. ...There have been maybe eight instances in the last five months where we have had riot police on campus. And that is completely unacceptable.”

In the lead-up to the encampment, McGill sent out an email stating that unauthorized camps violate university policy. But “we believe this is our campus. We pay to be here. It is our right to be here peacefully and we are expressing our protected right to protest,” the organizer said.

But what if McGill follows the footsteps of American universities and demand the police forcibly remove the protestors? “We know they closely collaborate with the cops, so I wouldn't be surprised if there was further escalation,” the organizer stated. “We have prepared for that. None of the students here today are unprepared for the fact that we may face repercussions and that's why it's so important that we're here in spite of that.” At the time of writing, there are reports that police presence around the encampment is increasing.

Professors have been out in support of the students. “Our students are connected to this issue in various kinds of ways, be it having family members in Palestine, or feeling a sense of solidarity with the students being killed and educational institutions that are being destroyed in Gaza,” said Ted Rutland, Associate Professor at Concordia University. “It's an honour to be here.”

Every single domain in academia has undergone some process in an attempt to decolonize,” said Daniel Schwartz, Associate Professor at McGill. “The students learn this and then they put it into action better than 99% of professors probably ever did in their lives. The least that we can do is to come out and support them.”

Social media has been full of scenes of police use of force against students on campuses in the US as well as in Germany following the encampments in support of Gaza. For Rutland, “when you call the police on your students, you're breaking that really important bond of accountability and care.” Professor Rutland, who studies policing, added that “universities have been pulling farther and farther away from accountability from the students for a long time. And so this is making visible a problem that's been getting worse. I think it's a time for like a reality check. You know, of what these institutions are and what they [have] become.”

Professor Schwartz added that universities are “afraid of the knowledge they actually impart. If the purpose of university isn't developing free thinking and upstanding students and human beings, then they should be honest about that. There's a contradiction between the university administration and its student body.”

Students [are] always on the moral side,” said an alumna of McGill who came to the camps with her two young daughters. She added that she would like her children “to go to a university that does not invest or have any connections with any genocidal states. And so hopefully, by the time they're of the age, we will have severed those ties.”

The response from administrators at American universities has shown they are unwilling to let that future happen. Soon, we will know which way Canadian universities wish to go.


Please subscribe to The Media Co-op's newsletter and donate to our current fundraising campaign!

Creative Commons Licence