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Why Did Alberta’s Biggest Universities Call the Police on Protest Camps?

It could be terrible judgment — or pressure from Danielle Smith’s government.

David Climenhaga 13 May 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on X at @djclimenhaga.

Were the presidents of Alberta’s two largest universities pushed to use cops dressed up as stormtroopers to violently clear campus encampments used by students for a few hours to peacefully protest the continuing deadly assault on Gaza?

Or did they jump of their own accord when they asked police to clear the campus demonstrations Thursday night in Calgary and early Saturday morning in Edmonton?

If they jumped they should be held responsible, for it was a foolish decision that runs counter to the traditions of the academy and will likely make the protests bigger, more aggressive and potentially much more dangerous — especially if police continue to overreact and the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians continues into the fall when students return to campus in large numbers.

Most university degrees nowadays don’t require proof of competence in a second language, so perhaps modern administrators like University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan and University of Calgary president Edward McCauley don’t understand that the phrase in loco parentis is Latin, not Spanish.

It doesn’t mean university leaders should act like deranged parents who attack their own children, or encourage others to do so.

Yes, most university students are legally adults, but university teachers and administrative leaders nevertheless have a parent-like moral responsibility to defend their young charges, not facilitate assaults upon them, and to promote the tradition of free expression associated with scholarly pursuits, not undermine it.

Certainly many parents of university students who have paid their tuition will be just as unhappy with these administrators as growing numbers of faculty members appear to be.

Some of them will be lawyers or can afford to hire members of that profession. This too is a reason the decision was not a wise one, no matter whose idea it was. After all, if the universities had just left things alone, chances are a good many campers would have dispersed with the end of term, at least for the time being.

Flanagan’s claim the encampment “put the university community’s safety at risk,” doesn’t wash and doesn’t change a thing.

As for his assertion “the University of Alberta has been clear that violation of the law or policies of the university goes beyond the parameters of freedom of expression,” that is in fact not clear at all. As the Calgary Herald reported Saturday, at least some legal scholars say otherwise.

The Herald quoted Osgoode Hall Law School constitutional law professor Bruce Ryder observing that “it looks to me like they’ve engaged in kind of a mass violation of protesters’ constitutional rights.” Who knows? Flanagan and McCauley may find that the courts agree. Then what?

Naturally, we are going to hear a lot of claims like Flanagan’s in the next few days that many of the occupants of the tents on the two Alberta campuses were not students. Inevitably, they will be called squatters.

Don’t believe it. The encampment strategy to defend Gaza’s civilian population is a student movement in North America, although there are certainly non-students horrified by ethnic cleansing and genocidal behaviour who have joined them.

Indeed, if one were looking for a way to encourage larger crowds to come to campus with more people who are not students, then setting cops with flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets on a few dozen students in tents would certainly be an excellent way to go about it.

If the presidents were pushed, though, we need to know by whom.

While there is no proof, yet, it is natural to assume the United Conservative government of Premier Danielle Smith had a hand in demanding the foolish hardline response to the campus protests in Calgary and Edmonton.

After all, there can be no question that contempt for academic inquiry, free speech, and the rule of law are all on brand for the UCP government and the political staff in the Premier’s Office. There is no question Smith herself was delighted by the violent police response in Calgary. She said so Friday.

“I’m glad that the University of Calgary made the decision that they did,” Smith said at an unrelated news conference that day. “I think what they found in Calgary is that a large number who were trespassing were not students, and we have to be mindful of that.” (Note the similarity of Smith’s talking point to Flanagan’s.)

“I’ll watch and see what the University of Alberta learns from what they observed in Calgary,” she added. One wonders if she already knew something.

It is ironic, of course, that the same UCP government does nothing about squatters building semi-permanent structures from which to obstruct public highways as long as they are flying F-Trudeau flags and waving Axe-the-Tax placards. Apparently, they even get friendly visits from UCP MLAs.

Similarly, there is some irony in the fact the same government bullied Alberta universities into adopting the Chicago Statement on free expression, which demands “free, robust and uninhibited debate and deliberation,” including the right of students to publicly confront people with whom they disagree on campus.

Except, I guess, when the potential for free, robust and uninhibited confrontations venture into arguments the UCP doesn’t like. Then someone dials 9-1-1.

Edmonton-Strathcona member of Parliament Heather McPherson, a New Democrat, said on social media she was “appalled by the actions of the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service.”

“Using militarized police to violently attack and break up a peaceful protest goes against everything the university is supposed to stand for,” she tweeted. “The protesters were not a threat to anyone and they were not preventing any university activities.… The U of A betrayed its students, faculty and its mission.”

This statement is difficult to dispute.

A joint statement Saturday by Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir and advanced education critic Rhiannon Hoyle called the police response “completely disproportionate” and noted “it would be remiss to not contrast the police response in the last two days to the response to other current protests, on Alberta public property, that have not resulted in evictions, arrests or injuries.”

By noon Saturday, there had been another demonstration on the Quad at the University of Alberta. I doubt it will be the last.

I expect many faculty members at the two universities opposed to the roust and suppression of the protest are mulling their next moves.  [Tyee]

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