‘A small town’: Pro-Palestinian protesters organize for another week at McGill

“I think that today we are much more equipped and prepared for the different weather conditions that exist. We are positive, morale is good.”

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A patchwork of colorful tarps covered dozens of tents at a pro-Palestinian encampment on McGill University’s downtown campus on Sunday, shielding protesters from both heavy rain and prying eyes.

More than a week after the first Canadian pro-Palestinian university camp began in Montreal, organizers at both McGill and the University of Toronto said they were better prepared for the days ahead, thanks to donated materials and support from the community.

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Protester Ari Nahman said Sunday that the Montreal encampment has become a “small city” with dozens of rainproof tents, a library, a stockpile of donated supplies and makeshift wooden sidewalks to keep the mud.

Nahman, a student at nearby Concordia University, said morale is high at camp, despite several days of rain that have at times turned McGill’s lower field into a slippery mess.

“I think today we are much more equipped and prepared for the various climates that exist,” Nahman said. “We are positive, morale is good.”

On Sunday, camp members could be seen digging a shallow trench to drain heavy rain, while others tended to a tent serving as a “free store” serving hot coffee, food and rain gear.

Nahman said that as of Sunday morning, the camp had received a large number of donations, including power banks, craft supplies, blankets, tents, tarps, ponchos, pallets and “a lot of food.”

While a sign on the camp’s chain-link fence calls for more trash cans, whiteboards and clear storage containers, Nahman said campers have been able to deliver some additional donated goods to local shelters.

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Pro-Palestinian activists have also set up tents at the University of Toronto, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, following a wave of similar protests on US campuses in response to the war between Israel and Hamas. Students at the University of Manitoba have said they are planning a camp this week.

Both McGill and Quebec Premier François Legault described the Montreal encampment as illegal and asked police to help dismantle the tents, although as of Sunday the force had not complied with the request. Opponents of the camp, including counterprotesters who showed up Thursday, have said it makes some Jewish students feel unsafe.

The pro-Palestinian camp on McGill's lower field has grown slightly in size, as seen on Saturday, May 4, 2024.
The pro-Palestinian camp on McGill’s lower field has grown slightly in size, as seen on Saturday, May 4, 2024. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

The University of Toronto has said tents, banners and flags at the camp on its grounds are a safety issue and has expressed concern about reports of threats, discriminatory language and hate speech.

On Sunday, dozens of Jewish Defense League counterprotesters gathered near the Toronto camp, waving Israeli flags. A few special agents from the university campus stood between the two groups as a line of control to ensure a peaceful protest.

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Mohammad Yassin, a University of Toronto student and one of the camp’s spokesmen, said accusations that protesters were being hateful or violent were “contrary to reality.”

“People walk with their pets and their children,” he said. “There are people drawing, reading books and sitting in prayer circles, and that’s exactly what the space is supposed to be.”

Yassin said protesters have everything they need to continue their camp, including food, water, bathrooms, a library and a medical tent with trained staff. There are also community and prayer spaces and a “care tent” to offer moments of calm or support to people with mental health problems. Members of the local community have stepped up to offer three meals a day.

“We’re planning for longevity,” he said. “We understand that this will be a long fight. “The university is not going to listen to our demands if we are here one day and then disappear.”

Protesters in the camps are demanding that their institutions disclose all investments and divest funds from companies that protesters say support Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. They also want the schools to cut their ties with Israeli institutions.

Nahman, a member of Independent Jewish Voices Concordia, said McGill protesters are watching closely what is happening in the United States, where some protesters have reached agreements with their schools and others have faced police action.

The Associated Press has counted about 2,500 people arrested on about 50 campuses since April 18, based on its reports and statements from universities and authorities.

Last week, McGill offered to hold a forum to discuss protesters’ demands if the stores were dismantled “immediately.” On Sunday, the school said it was working “diligently and in good faith with all interested parties.”

Nahman, a member of Independent Jewish Voices Concordia, said Montreal campers would like nothing more than to pack up their tents.

“We are willing to walk away once we see divestment, not a promise of a discussion on divestment, not a vote in a few months in favor of divestment,” Nahman said.

With files from The Associated Press

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