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Student encampment voices need to heard: B.C. human rights advocate

Human rights head urging decision makers to respect student rights in pro-Palestinian demonstrations

B.C.’s human rights commissioner says she is once again concerned that people speaking out in solidarity with Gaza are being penalized, as pro-Palestinian encampments arise on post-secondary campuses.

As of last week, demonstrators have set up camps at three B.C. universities – the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University – as similar actions build across Canada and around the world.

The organizers behind the encampments, primarily students, say they are calling on their schools to disclose any ties they have with the Israeli government and divest from Israeli companies. Protesters at UVic also demanded that the university “cease partnering with Israeli academic institutions that constrain Palestinian rights.”

The protests are in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which came after Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. The Health Ministry in Gaza says Israel has since killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in its response.

On Monday (May 6), B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender said she stands with the United Nations in asserting that people must be allowed to speak out about “atrocities in Gaza or the actions of the state of Israel.”

“So long as the limits of hate speech are not violated, universities, colleges and public institutions should stand up for and protect the rights of students, faculty and staff to make their voices heard on campus…”

Govender said peaceful demonstration allows people to “speak up against injustice and violence, even when such views are controversial.”

She urged decision makers to think about how they react to the encampments and what impact their choice may have on the strength of democracy and human rights protections in general.

“We will remember this moment and this movement in the future, just as we look back on the student movements of our past.”

READ ALSO: Trio of B.C. camps join growing wave of pro-Palestine university protests

Protesters in B.C. have so far been allowed to maintain their encampments.

Elsewhere, however, police and universities have made moves to shut them down. More than 2,100 pro-Palestinian protesters have been arrested at U.S. college campuses, according to The Associated Press.

On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he is “not in favour” of the encampments and that protesters “need to move on.”

B.C.’s opposition party, B.C. United has also raised concerns.

Party member and Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee characterized the encampments last week as “anti-Semitic” and questioned why the province hasn’t taken action to “protect students from radical activists who openly praise Hamas.”

Lee’s latter remark refers to a woman who called the Oct. 7 Hamas attack “heroic and brave” at an unrelated demonstration outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver police arrested her last week and are exploring recommending hate crime charges against her. Premier David Eby also condemned her words.

Responding to Lee on Monday, B.C. NDP’s Aman Singh, MLA for Richmond-Queensborough, warned against “interfering in places where free expression should have its greatest protections” and conflating “criticism of a state with anti-Semitism.” He also pointed to various government initiatives to combat racism and anti-Semitism, including the introduction of mandatory Holocaust education.

“Our government has been extremely clear that hate of any kind will not be tolerated in British Columbia,” Singh said. “We expect post-secondary institutions to support a diverse community that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. But students and staff have the right to free expression, and we will continue to support that.”

Also on Monday, Thompson River University issued a statement saying it had reached a number of agreements with pro-Palestinian protesters there, ahead of any encampments being established. TRU agreed to process any Freedom of Information requests related to its investments within 30 days and to review student proposals on a divestment of Israeli-related investments.

The university said it doesn’t take positions on global events, but that it supports student’s rights to peaceful demonstration.

READ ALSO: Police arrest B.C. protester who called Hamas attack ‘heroic and brave’

-With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press