University of Lethbridge students protest guest speaker, claiming 'racism is not free speech'

A U of L faculty member previously invited Frances Widdowson to speak on academic freedom. 'I was very, very heartened by the students,' she says. 'They disagreed with me [but] they had important questions they wanted to ask.'

University of Lethbridge students protest guest speaker, claiming 'racism is not free speech'
Graham Ruttan / Unsplash
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Alberta's advanced education minister is set to announce new steps to "strengthen free speech" on post-secondary campuses following the cancellation of a speaking engagement by controversial academic Frances Widdowson.

The University of Lethbridge said last week that they rescinded a space previously offered to the former Mount Royal University (MRU) professor, who made headlines in 2020 for comments suggesting there had been an educational benefit to residential schools.

The decision said that though the university did not agree with Widdowson, it would allow her speech to proceed in line with its policy on free expression.

A U of L faculty member invited Widdowson to deliver a separate lecture Tuesday called "How 'Woke-ism' Threatens Academic Freedom.'

"It was an excellent class," she said.

"I was very, very heartened by the students. They disagreed with me. They had very important questions that they wanted to ask."

Mike Mahon, president of the vice-chancellor of the U of L, said they changed course after receiving "considerable feedback" from students and faculty.

By Monday, two petitions emerged with more than 2,500 signatures demanding the university cancel the speech.

"This input confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful," said Mahon.

"It is clear that the harm associated with this talk impedes meaningful reconciliation."

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said he learned of the U of L's decision on Monday.

"I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial, but I believe it is important for our universities and colleges to foster a strong culture of free speech and diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are deemed controversial, or even offensive, barring speech intended to incite hatred or violence of course," said Nicolaides in a statement to the CBC.

"I will be announcing new steps to strengthen free speech on Alberta's post-secondary campuses in the near future. It should be for students, not university administrators, to decide whether to listen to a speech."

A Nicolaides spokesperson said the Alberta government would announce its next steps to strengthen free speech in the next week or two.

Nicolaides clarified his comments should not be construed as agreement with any past statements made by Widdowson. However, Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley said Tuesday that the position taken by the minister "troubles" her, given the previous comments by the controversial academic.

"As far as I'm concerned, the idea of having someone come and speak at the university, particularly in Lethbridge, to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools is deeply troubling to me," said Notley. "That is deeply hurtful communication."

Widdowson made headlines in 2020 after claiming the Black Lives Matter movement destroyed MRU and that there was an educational benefit to residential schools. More than 6,000 people petitioned for her firing.

Widdowson has frequently suggested that she has been punished for criticizing "woke ideas" and that the open exchange of ideas is under threat in universities today.

Widdowson said she still planned to show up for her lecture at the university on Wednesday. "You will have to haul me away by security to stop me," she wrote.

An hour before she intended to speak at the U of L, hundreds of students, faculty, and members of the Métis Nation of Alberta protested the lecture at the U Hall atrium, adorned with "Every Child Matters" posters.

Kairvee Bhatt, president of the U of L Students’ Union, told the press that students decided to rent the space on Wednesday for their own "celebration." Bhatt informed the press that she would not let the speaking engagement happen

"We’re here to amplify Black voices, trans voices, Indigenous voices," she said. "This is a show of support for our entire community here on campus, given some difficult times that we’re facing."

One individual handed out flyers at the atrium, stating, "racism [is] not free speech" in protest to Widdowson.

Widdowson arrived around 4:30 pm and observed and applauded the drumming and dancing from Indigenous attendees. But around 5 pm, she left the building with the help of security after it became clear she would not be able to speak.

"I wasn’t afraid or anything," Widdowson told Global News after the fact. "I wasn’t threatened by it."

She expressed her disappointment in not being able to speak. But the academic gave the planned lecture through Zoom Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Mahon thanked the protest attendees for advocating the "importance of truth before reconciliation" and "reflecting the values of the University of Lethbridge."

"I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner," said Mahon.

Under then-Premier Jason Kenney, the province instructed its 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions to either endorse free speech guidelines known as the Chicago principles — released in 2014 — or develop a separate, consistent policy. All institutions complied with the UCP government's deadline of December 15, 2019.

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  • By Ezra Levant

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