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ASIRT may probe Edmonton, Calgary police response to university protest removals: Smith

Click to play video: 'ASIRT may probe Edmonton, Calgary police response to pro-Palestinian encampment removals'
ASIRT may probe Edmonton, Calgary police response to pro-Palestinian encampment removals
Days after police in Edmonton and Calgary dismantled pro-Palestinian encampments on university campuses, Premier Danielle Smith says the province is asking ASIRT to investigate in light of reports of injuries. Lisa MacGregor reports – May 13, 2024

Two days after Edmonton police showed up in the early morning hours to dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Alberta, some officials appear to be reluctant to address what happened even as the province says it’ll ask the provincial police watchdog to investigate.

The Edmonton encampment was one of several recent protests on academic campuses in Canada and the United States in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

The camp at the U of A began to form last Thursday, growing to about 40 tents by the next day as protesters called on the university to cut ties with businesses and investments that support Israel.

The group also demanded disclosure of those investments, a declaration of the right to protest and condemnation of Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip as a “genocide.”

The Edmonton Police Service said it repeatedly gave campus demonstrators notice that they were breaching university policy and provincial trespassing laws.

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Officers issued a final warning just after 4:30 a.m. Saturday and escorted demonstrators from the north campus quad following one last call to leave, said spokesman Scott Pattison.

What unfolded was an at-times chaotic daybreak scene, as police in a line advanced on protesters who refused to leave the pro-Palestinian encampment. Officers were seen using their batons on protesters and video on social media showed what appeared to be tear gas being deployed.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police remove pro-Palestinian encampment at U of A'
Edmonton police remove pro-Palestinian encampment at U of A

In Calgary two days earlier, police were also witnessed by journalists beating protesters with their batons and shields while breaking up a similar protest.

“I was very deeply troubled by the spectre of seeing young Albertans peppered with rubber bullets and people marching in with batons and then shooting them with tear gas,” said Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley.

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She said she places high value on freedom of speech, especially on university campuses, and feels the responses by police and the university was excessive compared with the perceived threat.

Notley is calling for an investigation into what went down.

“It was an incredibly disproportionate response and it reflects on the overall state of freedom of speech in our province.”

Both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary called in police to clear the encampments within hours of tents going up.

The actions in Calgary and Edmonton mirrored similar measures authorities have taken in recent days to crack down on campus protesters at sites across the country.

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Last Friday, Premier Danielle Smith was asked about the campus encampments and at the time, said universities can’t allow demonstrations to get out of control or allow hate speech.

Smith said she was going to watch how the University of Alberta responded over the weekend, adding the province was “on standby” if assistance was needed.

Click to play video: 'Important that we bring the temperature down: Minister responds to Calgary campus protest clashes'
Important that we bring the temperature down: Minister responds to Calgary campus protest clashes

On Monday afternoon, the premier’s tone had changed. Smith says reports of potential injuries prompted the government to ask the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team to get involved.

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“There were reports raised of potential injury, and so my minister of public safety and emergency services has committed that he will ask ASIRT to do an investigation just to make sure that there wasn’t any unreasonable use of force,” the premier said during question period at the legislature on Monday.

That comment came after a meeting took place between Justice Minister Mickey Amery, Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis, Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney and Edmonton and Calgary’s police chiefs, the universities and students, where it emerged people may have been injured during the camp dismantlements.

“If there are some injuries, that takes it to an entirely different level,” Ellis said on Monday.

“That may result in the independent police investigation. So these are things that I’m actually contemplating right now.”

Both Calgary and Edmonton police on Monday said it welcomed ASIRT’s oversight.

“Given the recent escalation of global events and public interest in how demonstrations are being managed by law enforcement, the EPS welcomes the oversight of ASIRT and will fully cooperate with their investigation,” said a statement from the Edmonton Police Service.

“As the number of protests in Edmonton grows significantly year over year, officers are increasingly called upon to police local manifestations of conflicts occurring around the world. However ASIRT chooses to proceed with their investigation, we look forward to providing clarity on the lawful actions of our members.”

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Ellis said the province wasn’t involved in the weekend’s decisions, saying the calls to dismantle the camps were made by the universities and respective police forces.

“What I can say is that from a provincial government perspective, is that we support everyone’s lawful right to protest and freedom of assembly, which is a constitutional right,” Ellis said.

Sawhney acknowledged the events happening in the Middle East since last fall have left many locally feeling divided and emotional.

“We absolutely uphold the right to protest — students are able to protest on campus, absolutely. And we know that this is a very live, sensitive issue at this moment,” she said.

Global News has attempted to speak with University of Alberta president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan several times in the days since, but the university has not made anyone available to answer questions.

Flanagan issued a statement on Saturday, citing fire hazards and the risk of escalation and violent clashes with counter-protesters among the reasons for police involvement. Flanagan said about a quarter of the 50 protesters were University of Alberta students, “to the best of our knowledge,” adding police reported no critical injuries.

Click to play video: 'Protesters return to University of Calgary campus after night of clashes'
Protesters return to University of Calgary campus after night of clashes

Protest organizers at the University of Alberta said the only threat of violence came from police, who were seen on social media videos advancing on demonstrators and swinging batons.

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On Monday at an unrelated University of Alberta event inside Edmonton City Hall, an organizer prevented Global News from questioning U of A executives about the encampment dismantling.

Edmonton city councillor Jo-Anne Wright, who is also on the Edmonton Police Commission, was unable to speak to most of the incident on Monday, saying she was not at the camp clearout and did not yet have all the information on what happened.

“We need to get some more details, I think, before passing judgement on anyone or anything about the process,” she said at city hall.

Councillor Anne Stevenson, who is also on the police commission, said she’s hearing a lot of questions and concerns about what happened on the weekend.

“The approach that was taken, recognizing that the protesters were peacefully protesting at that time, recognizing that there’s always the need for for order, but just understanding, you know, the policies and procedures in place to ensure that people’s freedom of protest and speech is protected within the broader community safety context,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson noted there’s been an increase in the frequency of protests over many different issues in recent years.

“As a commissioner, I think that part of our role of governance is to make sure that we’re mitigating and managing the risks associated with different protests, looking to people’s constitutional right to protest with safety concerns.”

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Neither city councillor was able to say if police acted appropriately during the dismantling of the camps.

Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek also noted universities have traditionally been safe spaces to express one’s opinion and question world events. She said she is looking forward to the next Calgary Police Commission meeting to get answers.

“I know there’s a lot of folks that want to understand why the response was, you know, the way that it did roll out. People are wondering if there was anything that provoked it,” she said on Monday.

Click to play video: 'Calgary police remove pro-Palestinian encampment on University of Calgary'
Calgary police remove pro-Palestinian encampment on University of Calgary

— With files from Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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