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Students walk at the Western University campus in London, Ont. on Wednesday, September 15, 2021.Nicole OSBORNE/The Canadian Press

A protest against Western University’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate drew hundreds of people to the southwestern Ontario campus on Saturday for what an event organizer called the beginning of the push to overturn the controversial policy.

Demonstrators marched around campus and listened to speakers denounce the London, Ont., university’s decision to mandate at least three vaccine doses for staff, students and some visitors.

Organizer Kendra Hancock said she hoped the demonstration would lead to public negotiations and further student consultation over the university’s rules, which also include mandatory masking in classrooms.

“I think when they consult students they’ll find people want choice back and people want to remove all the mandates,” said Hancock.

Speakers at the demonstration included a medical student, a former Huron University College professor who said she refused to comply with the school’s previous vaccine mandate, and the Haldimand-Norfolk health unit’s acting chief medical officer of health who has been an outspoken critic of COVID-19 mandates.

Corrina Courtney, a fifth-year undergraduate business student at Western, said she opposed the university’s mandate despite having a booster shot herself, adding the decision to get vaccinated “should just be a choice.”

“I think that should be something that’s universal and not under anybody’s judgment. Western shouldn’t have the authority to make that decision for people,” she said as she looked on at the demonstration.

But Courtney said she is even more frustrated by the university’s reinstated mask mandate than by the latest vaccine requirements.

“I think it kind of impacts the way you connect with your peers,” she said.

Most Ontario universities have not imposed vaccine or mask mandates for the fall semester, and the province has lifted proof-of-vaccination rules in public spaces.

Western is the only university in Canada to mandate booster shots for all staff and students on campus.

The University of Toronto and Trent University are requiring those living in residence to have three and two doses, respectively, and urging all others on campus to keep their vaccinations up-to-date.

“While we can’t predict when the next wave of COVID-19 might come, we believe these measures will help us protect the in-person experience that Western is known for,” provost Florentine Strzelczyk said in a statement announcing the updated policy earlier this week.

James Donalds said he was ready to join his fellow first-year nursing students on campus next month, but said Saturday he would sit out this academic year if the vaccine policy stands.

Donalds criticized what he called a lack of transparency around the university’s decision. He also questioned the timing of the announcement, which came after some students had already paid the first tuition installment.

He said he felt “coerced” to get two doses earlier in the pandemic when proof of vaccination rules were in place. Now, he said, after “waking up to the situation”, he does not want a third shot.

Students carrying a banner reading “Enough is Enough” led the march around the university grounds as campus security looked on. Posters denouncing “medical coercion” and others reading “I call my own shots” were common in the crowd, alongside Canadian flags.

Just as the march neared its end, some demonstrators split from the organizers and briefly took over one lane of traffic for a block along Western Road before dispersing.

The university said in a statement Saturday it respected “students’ rights to peacefully protest on campus.”

The statement also said the university was “concerned” the event might be used by groups “not associated with our campus community” for “reasons other than what our students have planned”, though it did not specify any particular groups.

In social media posts ahead of Saturday’s demonstration, organizers said they had been informed of “developing safety concerns from campus police”. Organizers thanked outside community supporters, but asked only for students, parents, alumni, staff and speakers to attend.

Hancock, the organizer, declined to provide details Saturday about the reported security concerns.

Hancock said she was kicked out of Western-affiliated Huron University College last academic year after her request for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate was denied. She said she finished her undergraduate degree online through Athabasca University and was set to begin a Masters of Media In Journalism and Communication at Western this fall.

After Western announced the updated vaccine policy on Monday, Hancock said she started organizing Saturday’s demonstration with the help of her parents and undergraduate music student Hannah Salamon-Vegh.

As of Saturday, the “Enough is Enough Western” Instagram page run by Hancock had garnered more than 6,000 followers in five days.