Reviewing U of T’s campus closure

Hindsight very similar to foresight

When the University of Toronto announced it would be shutting down for the duration of the G20 there was a wide range of opinions on the subject. Student unions felt the campus should remain open. CUPE (representing university employees) supported openness as well, though with concern for the safety of its members. The faculty association was miffed about a lack of consultation and dialogue around the measure but stopped short of disagreeing with it. And the university issued a public statement that contributed, according to some, to the impression that protesters are inherently violent and that the threat to the campus is entirely one-sided.

The G20 is now officially over and life has resumed on campus. One can hardly say the protests have ended, as one of the largest yet is occurring this very moment outside police headquarters downtown, but the likelihood that this will directly impact U of T is much smaller now that the designated protest site is gone from Queens Park north. In fact this site didn’t stay designated very long, and police swept through it in the evening on Saturday, dispersing protesters throughout the campus and forcing them northwards. This seems a good time to review the university’s decision with the benefit of hindsight. But it doesn’t seem as though anyone’s opinions have changed.

U of T’s latest announcement on the subject combines discussion of arrests on campus (see below) with general statements such as this: “Unfortunately, G20 summits have been accompanied by violence in recent years.” In the nuanced world of media phrasing, it would be a huge difference to even say that G20 conferences tend to “inspire” violence, as this would at least leave the door open for interpretation as to who’s fault that happens to be. Adam Awad, speaking on behalf of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) representing undergraduates, says that “police actions over the weekend were heavy-handed and an affront to people’s rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” This perspective includes the view, hardly unique to student groups, that a significant portion of the problem is caused by authorities rather than protesters.

Professor George Luste, President of the university faculty association (UTFA) concedes that “it really wasn’t viable or safe or prudent for the university to continue business as usual.” He points out, however, that the university’s decision was made hastily and without consultation outside the most senior levels of administration. As before, even if the university’s decision was necessary, more sensitivity around tone and approach, as well as details of implementation, might have gone some way to achieve greater consensus. This is the one thing just about every critic agrees upon.

Looking back on the summit, Awad offers the sort of assessment that has become common amongst groups opposed to the event. “No event warrants this level of police presence and officially-sanctioned brutality against civilians. It is a testament to the lack of integrity of the G20 summits that such a high level of security was required and that so many people were unjustly arrested.” He finds some unlikely support from Professor Luste, who is certainly expressing his individual opinion when he offers this view: “All of the riot police looked like Darth Vadars. Were I confronted with that it would have inflamed me. This sort of measure provokes a response even from people who are otherwise neutral.” He notes that intimidation tactics tend to encourage either submission or aggression in reply, leaving room for no middle ground.

CUPE 3902 was unfortunately not available for a follow up at this time, very likely still dealing with the consequences of the G20. The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), meanwhile, has made their position abundantly clear through their actions, and theirs is a story still developing. What we know at this time is that the GSU opened their space, including a small pub and gymnasium, to temporarily host protesters coming to Toronto for the G20. On Saturday night that location was raided by police and a significant number of people were arrested. While its certainly clear the GSU stood by their resolution to keep the campus open and accessible for the G20, further details about the nature of the arrests and the reasons for them are not yet available. We’ll update as we can.