Police in Canada and the United States take a different approach to encampments

Researchers say the difference likely has more to do with the political climate in the two countries and the specifics of individual university protests.

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As police in the United States continue to dismantle pro-Palestinian encampments on universities and arrest protesters, police in Montreal and across Canada have taken a more hands-off approach.

Researchers who study policing and free speech say the different police response in Canada and the United States likely has more to do with the political climate in the two countries and the specifics of individual university protests than with the legal differences between Canada and the United States.

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“I think it’s primarily about politics, rather than law or a perception of free speech,” said Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Windsor.

Free speech rights in the United States appear to be stronger, he said in an interview. For example, hate speech laws have remained constitutional in Canada, unlike in the United States. But many colleges have felt under siege by conservative Republicans, she added.

In Montreal, a protest began at the encampment on McGill University’s downtown campus on April 27, following similar protests in the US.

While the university has asked Montreal police to dismantle the camp, police have said they do not plan to enter while the protest remains peaceful, although they have intercepted supplies brought by supporters on at least one occasion. Protesters are demanding that the university stop investing in companies linked to Israel and its military, as well as an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

It’s a similar situation at other Canadian universities, where the police have tolerated the protests so far, unlike in the United States, where around 2,800 people have been arrested on 50 campuses, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

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Jeffrey Sachs, who teaches politics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said many of the high-profile arrests in the United States have taken place at private universities, such as Columbia (where the encampment protests began), Emory University and the University of Chicago.

“These are places where the property is privately owned,” he said in an interview. “There is no First Amendment right that any protester has to protest, speak, or camp on private property. In other words, the bar for the university to call the police is much lower.”

A person is detained by police as pro-Palestinian students protest the war between Israel and Hamas on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, on April 24, 2024.
A person is detained by police as pro-Palestinian students protest the war between Israel and Hamas on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, on April 24, 2024. Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO /AFP via Getty Images

Freedom of expression protections do apply at public universities in the United States, he said, although police have dispersed protests at some of those schools. In some of those cases, police action has followed violence or destruction of property, he added, while in other places, such as Texas, police intervened after the state’s governor gave the order.

“We are not seeing the same degree of political interference or influence in Canada that we see in some states in the United States. In the United States, we have university presidents who are brought before Congress to testify about these protests. “We don’t see anything similar happening here in Canada,” he said. “The absence of that kind of pressure could go a long way toward explaining why managers are less confrontational.”

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Canadian administrators may also be more reluctant to demand police intervention because it is unclear exactly how the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies on campuses, he said. A 1990 Supreme Court decision on mandatory retirement at the University of Guelph found that the statutes did not apply to universities because they were not part of the government, but over the past decade lower court rulings have extended each once again the rights of the statutes to the universities. campus.

Police and protesters clash outside the office of then-Prime Minister Jean Charest in Montreal on March 31, 2011.
Police and protesters clash outside the office of then-Prime Minister Jean Charest in Montreal on March 31, 2011. Montreal Gazette

In Montreal, the legacy of the 2011-2012 Maple Spring student protests may also be a factor.

Francis Dupuis-Deri, a political science professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who studies political profiling by police, said in an email that in recent years, Montreal police have more or less abandoned practice of surrounding protesters and arresting them en masse.

Legal challenges to a municipal bylaw, known as P-6, that was adopted to limit those student protests resulted in thousands of charges being dropped, he said.

In 2023, the city of Montreal agreed to pay student protesters who had been arrested a total of $6 million to settle class-action lawsuits.

“Since then (Montreal police) have been in ‘de-escalation’ mode, even with unruly protests,” he wrote, adding that includes anti-capitalist protests in which windows were broken at downtown banks. He added that in 2011, police tolerated an Occupy encampment for several weeks before moving out.

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