Protesters demand McMaster cut ties with companies, institutions linked to Israel

A sign with tents in the background.
McMaster University students formed an encampment on Sunday on the campus in Hamilton, demanding the school divest from companies they say have ties to Israel and the conflict in Gaza. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A group of McMaster University students set up tents and banners on campus Sunday in Hamilton, joining the handful of other pro-Palestinian protests calling for schools to cut ties with Israel as its war in Gaza continues. 

Some 75 demonstrators, including students and some faculty members, set up roughly two dozen tents at the Burke Science Building field. By midday Monday, around 100 people had gathered. 

“We’re proud of what we’re doing and we stand by our demands,” said Caleb Smolenaars, a third-year labour studies student and spokesperson for the group.

“This issue is incredibly important because … there are thousands of people who have been killed and are suffering in Gaza.”

Tents on a field.
Roughly two dozen tents were set up at the McMaster encampment on Sunday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Smolenaars said protesters are prepared to stay in the encampment “indefinitely” and won’t leave until the school meets their demands. They want the university in Hamilton to:

  • Disclose its investments in weapons companies and defence contractors, and divest from companies they say have ties to Israel and the conflict in Gaza.
  • Terminate exchange programs and partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.
  • Declare that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is a genocide.

The encampment at McMaster is among similar demonstrations at post-secondary schools in Canada and the U.S., including McGill UniversityUniversity of TorontoWestern University in London, Ont., and the University of British Columbia.

Encampments form amid war in Gaza

The student movement began at Columbia University in New York City on April 17. It was forcefully cleared by police at the request of administrators last week.

Participants said they are trying to draw attention to the ongoing humanitarian situation in Gaza, resulting from the Israeli military response to an attack on Oct. 7 that was launched by Hamas and other militants.

More than 34,735 Palestinians have been killed and over 77,000 have been wounded since early October, according to health officials in Gaza. The tally does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but officials say at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

The latest development in the war came Monday, when Israel told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah.

In the Oct. 7 attack, 1,200 people were killed, including several Canadian citizens. Hamas also took more than 250 people hostage.

WATCH | Israel begins instructing civilians to leave Rafah ahead of expected offensive:

Israel begins instructing civilians to leave Rafah ahead of expected offensive

3 days ago

Duration6:18The Israeli military has told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah in what appears to be preparation for a long-threatened assault on Hamas holdouts there. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has warned of ‘catastrophic circumstances’ for the 1.4 million people sheltering there.

In late April, the student-led McMaster Apartheid Divest Coalition formed before launching the encampment on campus this weekend.

The group isn’t the only local action raising awareness in Hamilton about the impact of the war.

There have been walkouts at high schools calling for a ceasefire and protests through the downtown area. Police have also reported a rise in hate crimes related to the war and a proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of McMaster’s Jewish students.

‘It’s a stand for justice’

On its first day, the McMaster encampment, which formed around 2 p.m. ET Sunday, was mostly quiet. Some protesters wrote on the sidewalks in chalk and others helped hang signs and banners that included messages like “no pride in genocide” and “stop arming Israel.”

“Everyone is here in solidarity as one. Our aim is peace,” Smolenaars said.

A man standing.
Yaser Haddara, an engineering faculty member at McMaster, was at the encampment on Sunday in support of students. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Yaser Haddara, a McMaster engineering faculty member, was at the encampment to support the students. 

“It matters because it’s a stand for justice,” he said. “I’m going to support them as long as they’re here.”

Haddara said he isn’t worried about facing consequences for his participation.

“McMaster leadership, so far, has dealt with student protests in a reasonable manner and affirmed the students’ right to express themselves,” he said.

“I have every hope that will continue and the university will negotiate with the students practical and concrete steps to meet their demands.”

McMaster says it’s balancing free speech, safety

In an online statement, McMaster said university activities and classes are continuing as usual amid the demonstration.

“McMaster’s campus safety team is closely monitoring the situation and sharing information on the fire and safety risks of encampments and the rights and responsibilities for freedom of expression at McMaster.” 

The university added its leaders met with students over the weekend to continue conversations that began in October and noted there have been over 30 peaceful protests and events at the school. 

“Despite our willingness to continue exploring the topics the group has raised, it is disappointing that instead they have chosen to establish the encampment,” provost Susan Tighe said.

“The safety and security of anyone who participates is very concerning.”

President David Farrar said in a statement that the school will balance its role not to constrain free thought while also providing a safe and welcoming space for all.

CBC contacted McMaster University with questions about encampment protesters’ demands, but the school declined to answer, instead pointing to its online statement.

A person using chalk on a sidewalk.
A demonstrator writes messages in chalk near the McMaster encampment. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Among local politicians who were at the encampment to support students were Hamilton public school board trustee Sabreina Dahab, Hamilton Centre’s Independent member of provincial parliament, Sarah Jama, and Hamilton Centre’s NDP MP Matthew Green.

Green said the university has a chance to be a leader and respond in good-faith negotiations rather than having police “crack down” on demonstrators or allow “violent counter-protests to come and agitate” students.

“My hope is McMaster makes the right decision … and shows other institutions across the country ways in which post-secondary institutions can ethically and safely engage in this discussion,” he said.

A banner sits in front of tents.
Demonstrators at McMaster say they’ll stay in the encampment until their demands are met. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

CBC Hamilton contacted local police for comment but did not receive a response at time of publication. 

Jazmin Rymberg, communications co-ordinator of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said the federation hopes the protest will be “peaceful and respectful, devoid of any expressions of antisemitism.”

WATCH | PM Justin Trudeau speaks about campus protests while in Hamilton on Friday:

Trudeau on campus demonstrations in support of Palestinians

2 days ago

Duration2:33A group of McMaster University students in Hamilton set up an encampment on Sunday and say they’ll join protests at other post-secondary school campuses in support of Palestinians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the protests on Friday May 2, 2024, two days before the McMaster protest began.

During a visit to Mohawk College in Hamilton late last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said universities are “places where freedom of speech … are a core part of what campuses are all about.”

“At the same time, we need to make sure that as part of that everyone can feel safe on campus, whether you’re a Jewish student, whether you’re Palestinian, whether you have strong feelings on one side or the other,” he said.

“And on that, we have to trust both universities to manage their campuses right and local police of jurisdiction to do their work to make sure that everyone is safe.”

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Written By: Bobby Hristova