McGill asks judge to order 'occupants' off its campus, end encampment protest

McGill University filed an injunction request against the pro-Palestinian encampment on its downtown campus lawn.  (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)
McGill University filed an injunction request against the pro-Palestinian encampment on its downtown campus lawn. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A Quebec Superior Court judge on Monday questioned lawyers representing McGill University about the need for urgency in their request for an injunction to take down a pro-Palestinian encampment on the school's downtown campus.

Jacques Darche, a lawyer representing McGill, argued in court that the university had a right to use its private property and repeatedly referred to student activists as "occupants," saying they were breaking university policy and preventing upcoming convocation ceremonies.

He referred to the encampment as a "fortress," a "village" and "fortifications."

But Darche faced sharp questions from Superior Court Justice Marc St-Pierre, who said the lawyer needed to display evidence of an urgent need for the encampment to come down.

St-Pierre said he "needs urgency" to grant a provisional injunction, "not just a clear right" for McGill to use its land.

Darche appeared increasingly frustrated by the questions and repeated his assertion that McGill, as the land owner, had the right to use the land on which the protesters were camping, but the argument did not appear to sway St-Pierre.

In court documents, McGill said the encampment was set up on its private property without prior warning, poses a "security, safety and public health risk" and has escalated tensions on campus.

The university said it does not want to limit the right to protest, but said the encampment "differs significantly from the typical protest experienced at McGill," calling it a "fortified and entrenched space."

McGill cited "fierce verbal exchanges" between protesters and counter-protesters, possible fire code breaches, and the presence of barrels of what could be "human waste."

Max Silverman, a lawyer representing Independent Jewish Voices, one of the groups targeted by the injunction request, said the debate in court was more complicated than expected.

He said St-Pierre's judgment, expected sometime Tuesday, could set a precedent for this type of protest in the country.

Silverman pointed out that the judge questioned whether the right to protest in Canada included occupying a space as a protected form of that freedom of expression.

Silverman pointed out that the judge questioned whether occupying a space was a form of freedom of expression protected under the right to protest in Canada.

The limit on freedom of expression is when that right interferes with the right of somebody else, Silverman noted, saying he argued that the encampment did not interfere with the university's property rights.

"It's not occupying a chemistry lab. It's not occupying a place where you go get lunch on campus. It's occupying a rather empty field," the lawyer said.

"The key question for the court is: Are these people there to deprive the property rights of somebody, or are they there to express a valid, protected political opinion? And if it's the latter, then the courts have to protect that," Silverman said in an interview outside the courtroom.

McGill claims about safety, hygiene disputed

University staff and the fire department have been prevented from seeing what's going on inside the encampment and assess its safety and security risks, according to the injunction request. It also said Montreal police refused to intervene and urged McGill to resolve the situation peacefully by talking to the protesters.

Lawyers representing the protesters argued in court that the McGill University failed to present clear evidence that the encampment was dangerous.

Alexandre Romano, who represents the Students Society of McGill University and the Association of McGill Professors of Law, who are currently on strike, cited an affidavit from a doctor who had visited the encampment, noting that there was no threat to public health in the camp.

At midday on Monday, the hearing was in recess after lawyers for McGill and for the defendants butted heads on a number of procedural rulings. They had not yet begun to argue the merits of the injunction request.

A previous injunction request to remove the encampment and ban other campus protests filed in Quebec Superior Court by two McGill students was rejected on May 1. Justice Chantale Masse said in her judgment that the plaintiffs failed to show the encampment caused them "irreparable harm."

In that case, McGill was listed as an interested party, not a plaintiff.

Both McGill and some protesters have said discussions to end the encampment have not been fruitful. The protesters have demanded that the university cut ties with Israeli academic institutions and pull all investments from companies that operate in Israel due to their "links to the ongoing Palestinian genocide."

Similar protests have taken place at university campuses across North America.

Deep Saini, McGill's president and vice-chancellor, said in a statement Friday afternoon that the university would continue its "discussions with members of the McGill community participating in the encampment" regardless of the injunction.

"We are committed to doing so in good faith," he said.

On Sunday, a second camp was set up at a Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) campus downtown Montreal. Students camping out there demanded that McGill withdraw its injunction request, that all Quebec universities universities divest from companies with ties to Israel. Protesters there are also demanding the Quebec government cancel its plans to open an office in Tel Aviv.

Similar encampments in Calgary and Edmonton were violently dismantled by police over the last week.