Students barred from entering Michael Williams Building, labelled a “security threat” after Board of Governors meeting and protest

Campus Environmental News

Cassels addressed students, told them they’re “making a difference”

UVic President Jamie Cassels speaks to the seven students prevented from entering the Michael Williams Building. Photo by Emily Fagan, Editor-in-Chief

Shortly after a student rally calling for UVic’s divestment from fossil fuels at the Nov. 26 Board of Governors meeting, seven students walked to the Michael Williams Building to deliver letters from students to UVic president Jamie Cassels’s office. Instead, they found the doors to the administration building locked, with four Campus Security Officers inside preventing their entry.

“Our plan was to paste [the letters] around the building, to be as visible as possible,” said Juliet Watts, UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations and one of the students stopped outside the building. “They called us a security threat. [Campus Security] said later on that they had misspoke, that’s not what it was.”

The letters, written on orange paper cut in the shape of an “X,” were prepared by students earlier that day, prior to the Board of Governors meeting.

Watts and the other students — including several members of the UVSS Board — were uncertain why Campus Security had already locked down the building prior to their arrival. Despite asking on several occasions, the students were not told by whom or how this decision had been made. 

After asking if two students could enter the building to deliver the letters, the students were informed that UVic President Jamie Cassels would come down shortly to engage with them.

Cassels addressed questions from the seven students outside of the building for about 10 minutes, while personnel from Campus Security and Media Relations looked on.

Video by Shay lynn Sampson, UVSS Director of Events

In talking to the students, Cassels said that be believes the “constructive engagement” shown by students so far has made an impact. Jason Hemmerling, one of the students, noted that the change students have been asking for has not occurred.

“You haven’t got what exactly what you want, but you’ve been apart of prompting a really great conversation about the importance of looking at these issues — you’re making a difference,” Cassels said.

Watts asked Cassels why the Board delayed their vote on whether to change UVic’s short-term investment strategy to include options for divestment from fossil fuels from today to January, particularly in light of Concordia University and the University of British Columbia both committing to divestment this month.

“It’s a very complicated issue, and the board members feel they need the right kind of information to make the best decision,” said Cassels.

In response, Watts said, “It’s incredibly disheartening to watch UVic get left behind in this movement.”

Ultimately, the students chose not to give Cassels the letters, aside from several which had been taped to the door of the Michael Williams Building. Instead, they taped these letters around the main floor of the Student Union Building.

Later, in discussion with the Martlet, Cassels said he feels the Board of Governors meeting went well, and the closed Board sessions prior were host to a constructive discussion.

“I do understand that climate change — it’s the issue of our day, and people feel really passionately about it. Sometimes passion can carry you away a little bit,” said Cassels. 

During the Board of Governors meeting early that day, the Board had been met with about 100 student protesters.

The meeting was short, with only one major motion that concerned solidifying Board policy on emergency meeting adjournment. Board members spoke on their consideration of the potential options for divestment that will be put to a vote in January, with the notable exception of negative screening — the only policy supported by the UVSS, as it is full divestment.

In regards to the personal comments made by several students in the gallery towards him during the meeting, Cassels took an understanding tone.

“I understand how passionate people are — sometimes passion can make you say the wrong things,” he said. “I like to think that, especially at a university, we can take issues like this — absolutely critical issues of public policy — and have really good dialogue about it. Yeah, personal remarks can sometimes get in the way of good dialogue, but my commitment is always to treat everyone with respect and to try to encourage good exchange.”

Patrick Seward, Campus Security Manager of Parking and Transportation, was asked by the Martlet at what point these students were identified as potentially disruptive.

“We recognized some of them from the Board of Governors meeting, where some of them were disruptive, I don’t know if it was those ones [at the Michael Williams Building] or not,” Seward said. “Then we made a decision, because we knew what they were coming to do — to deliver material to the president — and we wanted to make sure that there was not going to be a disruption to occupants of the building.”

Watts said she and the other students said to Campus Security that no threat or disruption to people in the building if they were to enter.

“[We’re] super disappointed to see these actions being taken so unjustly against us trying to be so peaceful,” she said.

According to Seward, the Michael Williams Building is a publicly accessible building, typically open to students. Following the departure of the students, he anticipated the building would once again be opened within the hour.