Message to the U of A community: Update on encampment – May 12

I want to thank the many members of our university community and members of the public for writing to me over the past day to express their deep concern about the university’s decision to request the assistance of the Edmonton Police Services to remove the encampment on the Quad yesterday. This was a tremendously difficult decision for me and for the university to make. As a university, freedom of expression is a core value. We must remain a place of open debate and dialogue, including matters of controversy and dispute. We must do all we can to facilitate discussion and learning. This includes making space for public protests that some in our community might find offensive or objectionable.

At the same time, we also have a fundamental duty of care, legally and morally, to our university community members to ensure their safety and take all reasonable measures to prevent harm. Although the broader public might assume the encampment posed no risk, it is essential to underscore the serious and potentially life-threatening risks associated with the encampment in the Quad.

We fully understand that the majority of the members of the encampment, particularly our students, were peaceful and posed no threat to public safety. However, this did not extend to all members of the encampment. To the best of our knowledge, only 25% of the camp's occupants were U of A students. Most individuals in the camp were not members of the university community. Some encampment members were collecting wood pallets, materials known to be used to make barricades — actions that are counter to peaceful, law-abiding protests. The fire inspector declared the presence of these pallets a fire hazard. Although we had asked encampment members to remove all the pallets, we found 17 wood pallets located within 150 meters of the encampment. When the tents were dismantled yesterday morning, we found potential weapons, including hammers, axes and screwdrivers, along with a box of syringes.

There can be no question that the encampment posed a serious and imminent risk of potential violence and injury to university community members and members of the public.

Because the encampment was on university premises and involved university community members, the university has a clear legal and moral duty to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of those present. No court of law and no court of public opinion would accept an excuse from the university that because the encampment was unauthorized, the university bears no responsibility for any injuries or violence associated with the encampment. Had anyone been injured or killed, the responsibility for this would rest squarely with the university. Everyone would quite rightly demand: how could the university have done nothing to prevent this?

As a university, we simply do not have the resources or expertise to manage an encampment of this size and complexity and ensure public safety. We have no means to supervise the encampment to ensure there are no weapons or illegal drugs. We have seen that these encampments can quickly spiral out of control and attract the attention of counter-protesters, as happened at the University of Calgary and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). With our limited security resources, we have no means to protect the encampment from escalating tensions and potential violence if there are counter-protesters.

The only reasonable measure we have to ensure public safety and security is to take steps to end the encampment as peacefully and respectfully as possible while at the same time reinforcing our commitment to freedom of expression and lawful protest. This is what we had to do yesterday. The vast majority of the occupants of the camp left peacefully. A small minority refused to leave, and the Edmonton Police Services took the measures necessary to remove them. Three people were charged. The charges included assaulting a peace officer, obstruction and trespassing. No university community member was charged. The university has not banned any members of the U of A community from campus who were involved in the encampment and no students were suspended or have faced academic sanctions.

As we all watch the ongoing acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the loss of so many innocent lives in this brutal conflict, I fully understand the deep concern and outrage many in our community may feel. We all know that this conflict is complex and deeply rooted in history. As a university community, we must do all we can to facilitate dialogue, debate and understanding. This includes public protests. As I stated yesterday, peaceful protests are welcome on our university campuses — but they must also proceed in accordance with the university’s policies. They cannot violate the law or public safety regulations or pose unacceptable risks to campus safety and security.

Our commitment to the safety of our community must remain our top priority. Yesterday’s encampment posed a clear and imminent threat to campus safety and security. We took reasonable measures to end the encampment while at the same time reaffirming our foundational commitment to freedom of expression. Yesterday, approximately 500 people peacefully gathered in the Quad to protest the ongoing conflict in Gaza and demand a ceasefire. They were welcomed on our campus and all peaceful protesters who comply with university policies will continue to be welcomed.

Our primary concern – and primary responsibility – is the safety and well-being of our students and other university community members. We will continue to do all we can in the days ahead to continue to balance as best we can our duty of care to university community members alongside our fundamental commitment to freedom of expression.

Bill Flanagan
President and Vice-Chancellor 

Note: This message was updated on May 12, 2024 at 6:30p.m. to clarify "syringes" were the type of needles found.

University of Alberta community members do not have to navigate difficult situations by themselves. Resources are available to support your safety, health and well-being.