Ontario universities are wrestling with the fallout from another weekend of rowdy street parties that attracted thousands of revellers, damaged cars and drew rebukes from school leaders and police officials.
On Saturday, at least 2,000 people gathered in Ottawa after the annual Panda Game football contest between the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 others partied near McMaster University in Hamilton after the school’s first home football game of the season, even though the school chose not to hold homecoming events connected to the game.
A car was overturned at each of the parties and Hamilton police reported that officers had bottles and cans thrown at them, and charged two people with liquor licence violations as well as five others with breaching the peace, while further charges are still possible.
Police in Ottawa said Sunday they have not yet laid charges, but have assigned investigators to review information including video and social media posts from the event. Charges could still be brought under a number of laws, including the Reopening Ontario Act that limits the size of large gatherings to protect public health.
The street parties revived concerns about alcohol-fuelled mass gatherings that universities and police have struggled to stamp out for years. The gatherings appear to be making a comeback this fall, in spite of universities’ persistent warnings against attending them, as many students return to campuses fully vaccinated and looking to let loose after months spent living under restrictive lockdown measures.
“It’s a real problem: For cities, police forces, universities, it’s a thorny one for us to try to get a handle on,” said Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president (students and learning) and dean of students at McMaster, in an interview.
In addition to typical safety risks, there are concerns that close contact at the parties could spread COVID-19. A week earlier, street parties in Halifax prompted Dalhousie University to urge students who attended the gatherings not to go to class or campus events for a full week, and to get tested for COVID-19.
That same day, a few thousand people in London, Ont., attended homecoming parties at Western University that were more subdued than usual. The school is still reeling from the death of a student as well as sexual assault complaints, including allegations on social media that a number of students were drugged and sexually assaulted during orientation week.
High vaccination rates on campuses – supported by rules introduced at many major universities – may contribute to a sense of invulnerability among some students and a “willingness to take greater risks,” said McMaster’s Mr. Van Koughnett. Add to that a weekend of good weather in southern Ontario and anecdotal evidence that the size of the parties swells as people outside the university join in, and “all those factors just kind of made it a perfect storm.”
McMaster, uOttawa and Western University do not have plans to add any new health measures on campus in response to the parties, but are encouraging students showing symptoms to get tested. Mr. Van Koughnett said high vaccination rates on campus, testing for students with and without symptoms, and the outdoor settings for the parties should help mitigate the public health risk, but university officials will watch for any sign of an uptick in testing numbers or positive cases in the coming weeks.
McMaster president David Farrar called the Hamilton party “completely unacceptable” and his counterpart at uOttawa, Jacques Frémont, called the Ottawa party “highly dangerous and disruptive,” in written statements. Both university leaders apologized to residents in the communities where the parties were held.
McMaster doubled the number of off-duty officers it hired to help police the event, and Ottawa police had a significant presence to curb partying before the annual Panda Game. After those measures failed to curb the partying, however, McMaster’s Mr. Farrar intends to tap the school’s committee on community relations for new ideas on “additional actions that can be taken in future.”
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