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Staff, students want independent investigation into police removal of U of A protesters

University of Alberta staff and student associations are calling for an independent investigation into the forceful removal of pro-Palestinian protesters in mid-May.

Representatives of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and various staff associations said they met with university leaders Wednesday and demanded a third-party investigation into decisions that led to the Edmonton Police Service being called on May 11 to remove protesters from campus. 

“There continue to be discrepancies between senior leadership and the protesters’ account of what happened on May 11,” Kristine Smitka, vice-president of the Academic Staff Association at the U of A, told reporters Wednesday. 

“And it’s really a third-party, independent investigation [that] will allow this community to start to move forward and heal from the events which transpired.”

On May 9, more than 100 students, staff and supporters gathered at the school’s main quad to show support for Gaza while calling on the university to disclose and divest from investments with Israeli institutions.

Smitka said Wednesday’s meeting was with U of A president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan and other senior leaders, including Verna Yui, Todd Gilchrist and Melissa Padfield.

Smitka said a thorough investigation could be lengthy but said the process was necessary to gather testimonies from all stakeholders, including protesters and senior leadership. 

In a public statement issued May 12, Flanagan said there were “serious and potentially life-threatening risks associated with the encampment.” He said protesters did not act on a request to remove wood pallets and that 17 were found within 150 metres of the encampment, which a fire inspector declared was a fire hazard.

Demonstrators have said pallets had been removed and there was no violent behaviour in the encampment. Videos taken by demonstrators on May 11 and posted to social media showed officers using batons. At one point, gas started forming during the sweep.

Police have said they were in contact with the university for several days about safety concerns before being called in to clear the camp. Officers used pepper balls — non-lethal ammunition filled with pepper spray, similar to a paintball — and a muzzle blast containing pepper spray.

Screenshot of encampment video
Videos taken by demonstrators on May 11, which were posted to social media, showed officers using batons and, at one point, gas started forming during the sweep. (Instagram/University4Palestine.YEG)

Three men were arrested and police said no serious injuries were reported. The demonstrators have said four students were injured, including one who was sent to hospital. 

“I think that our group would like to better understand what evidence was used to make this decision that the protest was an unsafe protest,” Smitka said. 

“What de-escalation techniques were used? One thing of great concern to us is that no senior leadership official walked into the quad to engage in dialogue with the protesters.”  

‘Erasing history’ not an option

Students’ union president Lisa Glock said the union is working toward creating a mechanism for students’ demands to be heard. 

“Erasing history isn’t something that we’re interested in,” Glock said when asked by media about the lasting impact on the university community. 

“We want to analyze it, see why things happened and learn from it.”

A woman stands by a mic
Students’ union president Lisa Glock said the union is working toward creating a mechanism for students’ demands to be heard. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

CBC has requested comment from the U of A regarding the investigation request and the presence of leadership during the encampment. 

Smitka said another meeting with leadership is scheduled in two weeks. 

“We want to think through what can be improved, especially any de-escalation techniques that can be further embedded within university policy to address protests on campus to ensure that something like this never happens at the U of A again.” 

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