By Jeremy Appel
(ANNews) – Hundreds of University of Lethbridge students protested a scheduled talk from a former Mount Royal University (MRU) professor who has engaged in residential school denialism. The talk was cancelled as a result of the protest.
Frances Widdowson, who has said residential school survivors received an education “normally they wouldn’t have received” and that the Black Lives Matter movement “destroyed” MRU’s campus was fired from her role as an economics, justice and policy studies professor last year.
While Widdowson claimed she was disciplined for “criticizing ‘woke’ ideas,” the university issued a statement saying academic freedom “does not justify harassment or discrimination.”
The protests against Widdowson’s appearance at U of L were led by Indigenous students and faculty, with allies joining them in support.
Some protestors surrounded Widdowson and shouted her down while others chanted and played guitar. A drumming circle also formed, with community members dancing in the hall.
“Every time Widdowson was forced to move further away from the atrium, loud applause and cheering erupted in the crowd,” Stephen Hunt reported for CTV News, adding that a “handful of people” were there to support her.
She was ultimately whisked away from campus by security and was scheduled to deliver her talk over Zoom.
Keely Wadsworth, a fourth year Aboriginal Health student, told CTV she “100 per cent support[s] cancelling” Widdowson’s lecture.
Wadsworth spent last summer researching and detailing incidents that took place on six residential schools on the Blood Reserve.
“I know every single incident, I know every single death that happened,” she said,” How do you take all that knowledge and think that it’s positive?”
Brittany Lee, a councillor with Lethbridge Metis Local 2003 said she was there to support the more than 2,000 Metis people who live in the Lethbridge area.
“We believe that education should be the means to repairing the damage that was done to our peoples via the residential school system, and not a means to rehash some of the tragic events that have happened in the past. So we’re here to rebuild that relationship and make sure that everybody’s feeling supported in that way,” she said.
After the event’s cancellation, U of L president Mike Mahon issued a statement expressing his “sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.”
In an interview with the Lethbridge Herald, Widdowson said she places blame “squarely at the feet of the university’s president for not cultivating an environment for intellectual discussion, open inquiry and academic freedom.”
The Widdowson incident highlighted tension between U of L’s commitment to academic freedom and its stated commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
The university originally said it would provide space with her lecture in line with its free expression policy, but then backtracked based on its TRC commitments. Widdowson still showed up.
The cancellation of Widdowson’s lecture produced a backlash from the provincial government. Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides announced that universities will now be required to submit annual reports on their efforts to “protect free speech” on campus, and threatened further measures.
“It is abundantly clear that more needs to be done to ensure our institutions are adequately protecting free speech,” Nicolaides wrote.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers initially said the cancellation of Widdowson’s lecture raised ““serious concerns about the University of Lethbridge’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
But after the government announced its apparent reprisal, the association emphasized that the state “cannot and should not dictate how universities run their internal academic affairs.”
In response to the government’s announcement, the University of Calgary Students’ Union issued a statement in support of the U of L community “strongly standing against hate on their campus.”
“U of L students stood up, held firm, and made it clear that they had no interest in hearing a lecture that denies the genocidal nature of residential schools and the lasting harm these institutions have done to Indigenous peoples,” it said. “That decision should be respected.”
Former premier Jason Kenney forced all post-secondary institutions, except for Lacombe’s religious Burman University, to adopt free speech policies by December 2019 based on the so-called “Chicago principles,” which state community members “may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.
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