How the University of Toronto flunked the G20

Now that the guests of the Graduate Students Union (GSU) have been cleared of charges police laid against them during the G20 weekend (Globe and Mail, Nov4/10), I wonder if the Governing Council of the University of Toronto will apologize to the GSU for its lack of support and to the U of T community for its complicity in the disgraceful events during the weekend of June 26-7 in Toronto. I say disgraceful because I was downtown that weekend and witnessed the assault on our Constitution.

Students staying at the U of T Graduate Student Union were arrested without warrant June 27, 2010.

I was old enough to be a student at York University in 1970 during the October Crisis. From that bit of information, you can tell I’m not a black shirted anarchist (although I like to wear black). A day or two after Trudeau declared the War Measures Act, there was a rally in the main square of the campus. Students, administrators and professors, including historian Ramsay Cook, turned up to talk about the FLQ, their tactics and the government’s response. There was little agreement on anything but, as we all struggled with the questions begged by events, there was debate.

This summer I thought, OK, I’m a student at the University of Toronto and the G20 is coming to town. I was looking forward to the debates that would surely break out on campus. I walked around the city the week before and I saw the security fence go up and I saw busloads of police from all over Canada pull into town. I heard the so-called Black Block people tell the media that they were coming to Toronto to trash, as they always do during these events, symbols of the global economy: banks, clothing store chains and Starbucks. Now, I thought, now I’ll get to see how a “world-class university” (to quote from U of T’s website) handles a world-class event.

Nothing. No rallies in King’s College Circle. No debates in the Debating Room at Hart House. No special lectures. No debate anywhere. Where were the world-class administrators, and the world-class historians, and the world-class political scientists? Where was the Munk Centre?

Then the President of the world-class university said they were closing up the campus. What? I couldn’t believe it. Maybe the police received intelligence that the dreaded Black Block was going to infiltrate the university. I sent a worried email to the President’s office. Nope, the administration emailed back, there was no such threat. The University decided to close its doors voluntarily. Incredible – the university took itself out of play. It wasn’t a coup of academic responsibility; it was an abdication.

70 students, mostly from Montreal were arrested early in the morning. Charges were dropped. (TorStar)

When you close down a university in the face of current events – no matter how threatening, you close down critical thinking on those events. The debate then moves to the streets where there can be no discussion. And in fact, there was no rational debate during the G20 weekend. In fact, rational debate took a beating during the G20, literally.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that, had the university stayed open, there would be no demonstrators my daughter’s age getting the snot kicked out of them in Queen’s Park, or anarchists breaking windows on Yonge Street. But I am idealistic enough to think that the University of Toronto is part of the world at large and has something to say about what happens at its door step.

When constitutional rights are trashed – and they were during the G20, it is necessary to object. Our political leaders did not – they backed the actions of the security forces. Our national media did not – they simply reported on the mayhem. Our churches did not – they’ve lost their moral authority anyway. That leaves our universities. And the U of T said nothing even when police came on campus and conducted an illegal search of GSU offices and arrested a number of people who were staying there, including GSU staff. Some 70 people in all were held in excess of 48 hours, without access to counsel and, apparently, without access to basic amenities. What a fragile thing freedom is.

The raid on the GSU, early on Sunday morning, was a draconian police action and, without a warrant, illegal. It was a direct assault on freedoms guaranteed by Canada’s Constitution. But I cannot recall the U of T’s administration even raising its hand to object. Rather, they hauled the GSU leadership on the carpet.

At least the courts are saying something. Almost all of the charges laid during the G20 have been thrown out, including all charges against those arrested at the GSU.

Whether you like what the G20 does in the world or not is irrelevant here. Whether you agree with Black Block tactics or not is also irrelevant. What is relevant here is that the University of Toronto closed down rational debate at a crucial moment and tacitly, with its silence, approved of a fascistic response to legitimate dissent on campus.

November 4, 2010
© David McLaren

____________________
David McLaren is an alumnus of the University of Toronto and on campus during the G20.

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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