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Protest disrupts U of A honorary degree ceremony for Nestle chair

Demonstrators outside the Timms Centre. Photo: Paula Kirman (raisemyvoice.org)

Despite weeks of sustained outcry from University of Alberta faculty, alumni and students, as well as opposition from over 70 organizations from more than 25 countries, the University of Alberta proceeded yesterday with conferring its highest honour on Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the former CEO and current chair of Nestle, the largest food and water corporation in the world.

About 150 protesters braved chilling temperatures at a demonstration outside the U of A’s Timms Centre, where the ceremony honouring Brabeck-Letmathe was held. Inside the Timms Centre, around two dozen protesters disrupted the portion of the program in which Brabeck-Letmathe was honoured (watch the CTV footage of the disruption). (The presentation of two other honorary degrees, to U of A Professor Emeritus Steve Hrudey and Director General of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, were met with standing ovations by the assembled crowd.)

Despite moving ahead with the honorary degree for Brabeck-Letmathe, the University of Alberta and its president, Indira Samarasekera, continue to come under fire for honouring Brabeck-Letmathe and Nestle’s appalling corporate record. Yesterday, the 600,000-strong Canadian Federation of Students added its voice in decrying the award and international signatories continue to add their names to the open letter sent to the president and U of A Chancellor Linda Hughes.

Initiatives at the University — which included two screenings of the new film Bottled Life, which focuses on Brabeck-Letmathe and Nestle’s business with water, and a faculty-organized teach-in on Nestle, which collectively engaged hundreds of members of the university community in the days leading up to the ceremony — continue, including two websites (here and here) which are collecting messages of opposition to President Samarasekera and her dismissive and bullying reaction to opponents, which included the ludicrous claim that “as far as I’m concerned there is one group that is upset and that’s the Council of Canadians.”

The Council of Canadians and organizations around the world will continue to monitor the establishment by the university of a new Water Initiative, which the Council of Canadians revealed earlier this week may include Brabeck-Letmathe and a who’s who of corporate heads and pro-water privatization advocates. The formation of the initiative comes at a critical time for water policy in Alberta, with the provincial government promising long-delayed public consultations in 2012 on plans to expand to the entire province an allocation system based on a water market, which Brabeck-Letmathe has boasted about meeting with the Alberta government to promote.