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Alberta to investigate police crackdown on pro-Palestinian campus protests

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her government will ask the province’s police watchdog to investigate how officers forcibly cleared out two pro-Palestinian protests on university campuses.

Smith said reports of potential injuries prompted the move to ask the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team to make sure there was no unreasonable use of force.

But Smith stressed that public safety remains paramount.

“I support the right of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to ensure a safe environment for all of their students,” Smith told the house Monday during question period.

“There is a way to peacefully protest, and you have to protest in compliance with the law.

“We have watched as protests have gotten out of control at UCLA, at Columbia (University in New York), where the universities were trashed and vandalized and Jewish students were made to feel unwelcome and fearful.

“These are the kinds of things that they have to make sure that they are on guard for, so that it doesn’t get out of control.”

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis told reporters the government supports everyone’s right to lawful protest, but law enforcement agencies and universities are independent of government.

“I respect their concerns. They made the choice to contact law enforcement,” he said.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley called for an investigation into those decisions, saying the removal of protesters and tents appeared over the top compared with the perceived threat.

“I was very deeply troubled by the spectre of seeing young Albertans peppered with rubber bullets, and people marching in with batons,” she told reporters.

“It was an incredibly disproportionate response.”

Late last week and over the weekend, the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the University of Calgary called in police to clear protest encampments within hours of tents going up.

The universities issued statements saying they respect free speech but that the encampments violated trespassing rules and risked escalating into violence.

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.

University of Alberta President Bill Flanagan, in a weekend statement, said protesters had collected wooden pallets — a fire hazard “known to be used to make barricades.”

Protest organizers said the pallets were there to support tents in case of heavy rain and were removed hours before police took action.

The Calgary encampment was cleared out late Thursday, with videos and news footage showing flashbang explosives and police clashing with a few remaining protesters.

The next day, Smith applauded the Calgary removal and said she hoped the University of Alberta would take heed. The Edmonton encampment was dismantled in similar fashion less than 24 hours later, as the sun rose early Saturday.

Over the weekend, the University of Alberta cited police saying there were no injuries — a claim disputed by protest organizers.

On Monday, Edmonton police spokesman Scott Pattison declined to estimate how many people, if any, were injured during the clearing of the camp.

He told The Canadian Press that police welcome a police watchdog review, given the public interest.

The protests are among several recent demonstrations on academic campuses in Canada and the United States in response to Israel’s offensive in the West Bank and Gaza.

Many have demanded institutions make clear if their investments are helping fund Israel and its military in the conflict. They want any investments halted.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2024.

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