Rising Voices: Navigating Protests and Police Response

In Canada, everyone has the freedom of peaceful assembly; it is described as "speech in action".¹ A person’s right to protest is legal and protected under ss. 2(b) and 2(c) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.¹ Yet we are seeing an increasing crackdown on protests in Canada and across the globe, causing a growing concern for all activists.²

Photo from Canva

Members of council in the Toronto and York Region municipalities are pushing for limits on the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.² Councilors are using the prospect of harm to public safety and “critical infrastructure” to increase police force pressure on protests in the city.³ This Wednesday, May 22, Councillors James Pasternak and Brad Bradford have pushed a motion to City Council asking to introduce legislation to create “safety zones” to limit where protests are allowed.⁴ This motion will exacerbate the already serious issues around policing and limiting activism. Non-violent and unmalicious protests mustn't be restricted or limited but rather protected by government officials.

Photo by Koshu Kunii

Increasing protests and policing

Over the last several months there have been increasing protests around the escalating violence in Palestine.² Despite the protests and demonstrations being overwhelmingly peaceful², they have been met with elevated police monitoring, presence, and excessive force.⁵ Deputy Police Chief Lauren Pogue says since October 7 police have attended more than 500 demonstrations and spent almost $12 million.⁶ Participants and organizers have accused police of using excessive force after several individuals were arrested as protests made their way through the downtown core. 

Dalia Awwad with the Palestinian Youth Movement says these demonstrations have been over-policed from the start and that “The agitation is the Toronto police showing up with 300, 400 officers, with mounted officers, with riot gear, with rubber bullet guns to a community protest with families, elderly, children coming out to say we do not want our families to be killed in Gaza,”. The prejudiced increase in police presence and force highlights the ongoing and growing racism and xenophobia in Toronto, Canada, and worldwide.

Following a pro-Palestinian demonstration that was met with excessive force from police officers on March 30, a statement released by Toronto city councilors reiterated the importance of freedom to assembly.⁷ Despite pressures to condemn the statement, Major Olivia Chow showed support for Torontonians’ right to peaceful protest, stating, ”Whether they are councilors, a deputy mayor or ordinary citizens, they have the right, under the Charter of Freedoms, to assemble, to have their voice heard”.

This police crackdown is more recently directed at student protests happening worldwide as university students call on their schools to end investments in Israel.

List of university student protests and encampments in Canada and the USA:

  • University of Toronto
  • Toronto Metropolitan University
  • McMaster University
  • University of Ottawa
  • University of Victoria
  • University of Alberta (encampment removed, 3 arrested)⁹
  • University of Calgary (encampment removed, use of tear gas and flash bangs, 5 arrested, encampment replaced by students) ¹⁰
  • McGill University (seeking court injunction to remove encampment)¹¹
  • University of British Columbia's Point Grey
  • Vancouver Island University
  • Western University
  • University of Winnipeg
  • University of Quebec 
  • Ontario Tech University (agreement with institution made, encampment voluntarily dismantled)¹²
  • Indiana University (23 arrested, 36 detained, and encampment removed)¹³
  • University of North Carolina
  • Northeastern University (100 detained, those who refused to disclose their affiliation were arrested, encampment removed)¹³
  • University of Southern California (93 arrested, closed campus to prevent protests)¹³
  • California State Polytechnic University's Humboldt (closed campus to prevent protests)¹³
  • Yale University (60 arrested, encampment removed)¹³
  • University of Minnesota (9 arrested)¹³
  • University of Michigan (40 arrested)¹³
  • University of Pennsylvania (encampment removed, 33 arrested)¹⁴
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (encampment removed and 10 arrested)¹⁵
  • Arizona State University (69 arrested, tear gas utilized, encampment removed)¹⁵
  • Emerson College (108 arrested, encampment removed)¹³
  • Harvard University (encampment concluded, no demands met)¹⁶
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Los Angeles (almost 200 arrested, encampment removed, use of tear gas and flashbangs on protesters)¹⁷
  • University of Chicago Illinois (encampment removed)¹⁸
  • Ohio State University (36 arrested, encampment removed)¹³
  • Columbia University (over 400 arrested on April 30, and 200 arrested on May 7, encampment removed)¹³
  • New York University (130 students and faculty arrested, encampment removed, and new encampment set up)¹³
  • American University
  • University of Michigan (40 arrested)¹³
  • University of Texas at Austin (57 arrested, encampment removed)¹³
  • Brown University
  • George Washington University (33 arrested, encampment removed, use of pepper spray on protesters)¹⁹
  • City College of New York


The number of people arrested in connection with protests on college campuses against the violence in Palestine has now topped 3,000 in Canada and the US.²⁰ Over 100 universities worldwide are seeing their students continue to join the protests.¹⁷

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, a national umbrella group that represents the interests of university faculty members, issued a statement condemning the actions of universities that have used police to clear and arrest protesters. “The forcible removal and heavy-handed arrests of peaceful student protesters who pose no demonstrable threat to campus safety are inimical to the mission of post-secondary institutions. There is no justification for police crackdowns on peaceful assemblies on campus.” the CAUT statement said.²¹

Photo by Chris Cherry

Importance of Protests in Change: Connection to Climate Action

Safeguarding people's, especially youths', right to peaceful protest, a charter-protected right, is vital in making change and spreading awareness about different pressing local and world issues. Students and youth are a key aspect of change and have historically been at the forefront of pushing for justice in social and environmental issues with non-violent action.²² We can see this in groups like Fridays for Our Future, Future Coalition, and SustainUS, as well as young climate action leaders like Mikaeel Mahmood, Greta Thunberg, Katie Eder, and many more.

The crackdown on pro-Palestinian protests has highlighted the widespread issue of increasing police force and growing restrictions on Canadian rights. This directly causes concern for climate action participants and groups. The violence in Gaza has direct ties to environmental destruction and injustice, and impacts climate activists as a humanitarian issue (see more about this here). It is also a pressing concern in our ability to protest and act on other climate issues. 

Photo by Ronan Furuta

For instance, in the last month alone there have been multiple instances of heightened police enforcement on climate action.

  • On April 9th, nine religious leaders were arrested by Toronto Police following a “pray-in” at a downtown RBC branch, the number one funder of fossil fuels in Canada.²³
  • On April 24, Angela Davidson (or Rainbow Eyes), a prominent protester and leader during the Fairy Creek old-growth logging protests, was sentenced to jail time in Nanaimo, B.C..²⁴ Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, stated that the sentence handed out was a disproportionate enforcement of justice and said "We're proud to stand in solidarity with Rainbow Eyes".²⁴
  • On April 14th in the US, six youth climate activists were arrested after they blocked an intersection near Vice President Kamala Harris’ Brentwood home protesting.²⁵ The crowd of around forty young activists had two demands for the vice president: convince President Biden to declare a climate emergency and end U.S. military aid to Israel.²⁵ 

The Connection is Clear:

Freedom of expression and assembly, especially for youth, is a necessary right that needs to be protected and respected by government officials and police forces for the well-being of people and the planet. As the climate crisis intensifies, so will people’s resistance. Protesting is a central part of that resistance and is a key aspect in inducing pressure for change.

It is vital to continue to utilize freedom of expression and assembly in social and environmental action. Here are some resources to learn more about your rights and how to exercise them safely:


Resources for Safety when Protesting:

More details on knowing your rights and how to prepare for attending protests


Speak Up, Speak Out, and Be Safe!

Ways to prevent limitations on our rights in Toronto:

Written by Chris Cherry




1: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/art2c.html 

2: https://socialistproject.ca/2024/04/protecting-the-right-to-protest-and-picket/ 


4: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/ask-city-council-to-refer-motion-seeking-limits-on-freedom-of-expression/ 
















20: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2024/us/pro-palestinian-college-protests-encampments.html 

21: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-university-of-alberta-president-defends-calling-in-edmonton-police-to/