Seventeen months. Fourteen court appearances. Undetermined charges. No trial.

So when the Crown tried another delaying tactic Wednesday morning, pointing out that they needed more time to prepare their arguments, the judge only adjourned the proceedings until 2 pm.

This case has been dragging on so long that the accused, Oriel Varga and Chris Ramsaroop, can’t even remember the last time they appeared in court. They still haven’t received full disclosure from the Crown about the evidence against them, even though their trial date has been set for September 28 to October 2.

Varga and Ramsaroop, along with 12 other activists, were allegedly part of a sit-in at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) Simcoe Hall on March 20, 2008, that turned violent. That day, there was a demonstration outside the President’s office with respect to accessibility fees, housing fees, residence fees and a host of other issues governing students.

A little over a month later, all 14 students were notified by email to turn themselves in to police and were charged with numerous counts of forcible confinement, forcible detainer and mischief. Varga spent a night in jail because she felt the bail conditions violated her Charter Rights.

Since then, the other twelve activists either agreed to sign a peace bond or had their charges stayed or withdrawn. But it came with a price. Peace bonds work a lot like a restraining order. Those that accepted a peace bond have agreed to give notice in the future before they enter Simcoe Hall and not to participate in demonstrations within U of T buildings.

Former student governors and long time activists, Varga and Ramsaroop refused to sign.

They couldn’t accept the terms and felt the peace bonds and bail conditions violated their rights on campus. “We feel this process and what the university is doing needs to be exposed,” said Ramsaroop on the steps of Old City Hall in Toronto on Wednesday.  

“Basically, they asked us to waive our Charter Rights,” added Varga. “Essentially this is a criminalization of dissent. These are trumped up charges. There’s nothing to them.”

If Varga and Ramsaroop accept the peace bonds, the university has said they will also drop the code of conduct investigations that deal with the same issues that formed the basis of the criminal charges.

But Varga and Ramsaroop are still unprepared to do so, especially in light of the fact that the university has a policy (formed in 1999) in terms of occupation and protesting at the President’s office.

“This current administration seems to have forgotten that,” said lawyer Selwyn Pieters. “It’s permissible for students to occupy the President’s office if they have a beef, except that during the occupation there will be no negotiations with those students until they leave. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to that.”

On Wednesday, Varga and Ramsaroop were in court over the delay in coming to trial. Section 11b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that any person charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.

Given the amount of time since the alleged incident, Varga and Ramsaroop’s lawyer was hoping for a stay of proceedings today, a permanent tossing out of the charges under the Charter.

In the meantime, supporters gathered outside Old City Hall today to support Varga and Ramsaroop, affectionately known as the “Fight Fees 2”, while demonstrating against attempts, they said, by the University of Toronto to silence dissent.

An atmosphere of fear now exists at the University of Toronto amongst the activist community, who are afraid to speak out too loudly on important issues, fearing police persecution or being investigated under the university’s code of conduct.

“Twelve students were forced to sign away their rights just so they could attend classes,” said Murphy Browne of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students.

That’s a major infringement on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to speak out against never ending tuition fee increases, which is surprising considering there’s been a long history of protest and dissent at the U of T, going back at least 30 years.

“That has shaped the university in a variety of ways,” said Joeita Gupta, Vice President External, Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students. “But this is the first time that the university has colluded with the Toronto police to put forward these charges.”

And even though there were more than 14 students at the March 20 protest, most of those who were charged come from racialized communities, for whom post secondary education is becoming less and less affordable.

On top of the 40 per cent residence fee hikes in 2008 that brought students to occupy Simcoe Hall, in 2009 the university passed a 66 per cent fee increase for Arts and Science students when per-course tuition was replaced with a flat fee, charging students for five courses even if they take as few as three. 

“A largely unpopular move which brought outcry from students, faculty, alumni, parents and even the mainstream media,” said Angela Regnier, Executive Director University of Toronto Students’ Union. “So what did the university do when they held the final decision on this outrageous flat fee?”

They surrounded the meeting room of the governing council with Toronto police to block students from entering.

“This is actually in violation of the U of T Act, which allows students to participate in those meetings,” said Regnier. “Students cannot continue to be muzzled, silenced and criminalized whenever they oppose this privatization agenda while large corporate donors woo our administrators.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.