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Pro-Palestinian encampment on McGill's downtown Montreal campus dismantled

Police keep protesters away from the encampment at McGill University in Montreal, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. The university closed its downtown campus as police descended in large numbers to help clear a pro-Palestinian encampment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Under pounding rain, pro-Palestinian protesters carried their belongings off McGill University's downtown Montreal campus on Wednesday, as bulldozers and security forces dismantled the encampment that had been on the school's lower field since late April.

“That was officially the last stand. There’s nobody in the encampment anymore,” said protester Félix Burt, 20, standing a block from McGill's lower field, where a pile of tents and wooden pallets were what remained of the protest site. He and others had refused to leave until the university divested from investments tied to Israel's military and cut ties with academic institutions in that country.

Earlier in the day, McGill president Deep Saini called the encampment, one of many that had sprung up on campuses across the continent since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, "a heavily fortified focal point for intimidation and violence, organized largely by individuals who are not part of our university community."

But for Burt, who said he wasn't a McGill student, the protest was about resistance.

“As long as the people in Gaza will resist, we will resist as well," he said.

A Montreal police spokesman said one person was arrested on Wednesday for assault on a security agent.

McGill says that after consulting with lawyers, it hired private security firm Sirco to dismantle the encampment, which was composed of dozens of tents. In May, the university tried and failed to secure an emergency court order to have police clear protesters. Since then, McGill filed a request for a different injunction to remove them, which is making its way through the courts.

"The owner of a property has every right to request individuals who are occupying its property without authorization to leave," the school said in a statement Wednesday, adding that it maintains that right even if the school is engaged in legal proceedings against protesters.

Earlier on Wednesday, police, some dressed in riot gear, cordoned off streets leading to the university's lower field, while a crowd of demonstrators gathered by the police line, waving Palestinian flags. Several protesters vowed to keep fighting despite the dismantlement of the camp.

"The students are steadfast in their struggle," said Zeyad Abisaab, a Concordia University student, who looked on from the street.

Zaina Karim, a McGill student who wasn't inside the camp when the dismantlement began, said protesters will persist until the university discloses and cuts its ties with Israel.

"This is not the end at all. Students are more motivated than ever to keep fighting," Karim said.

Sarah Shamy, former McGill student and organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, says she believes McGill decided to use a private security agency because of its unsuccessful attempts to dismantle the encampment through court injunctions.

“I’m definitely disappointed but not surprised. I think it’s been very clear that the McGill administration has not been committed to actually bringing a peaceful end to this encampment," Shamy said.

In its statement, the school said an investigation had uncovered what it described as "serious health and safety risks" inside the camp, including two overdoses, fire risks and a rat infestation.

Karim denied Saini's accusations. "These are all lies," she said.

In Quebec City, Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry told reporters "it was time" to remove protesters from the encampment.

“I'm not going to put people on trial today, but I think the situation over the last few days and weeks has gotten worse,” she said. “Again, I’m speaking about acts of vandalism, antisemitic acts. There was damage, there was violence.”

Déry said the atmosphere on campuses has become “toxic,” and expressed hope that things would be calmer by the time fall classes begin.

In June, protesters barricaded themselves in a McGill administration building a few metres from the encampment, and 15 were arrested. Last week, police said a 66-year-old man was arrested for breaking the windows of a McGill building and assaulting a campus security guard.

A pro-Palestinian encampment in the heart of Montreal's financial district was dismantled by police last week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press