EDMONTON — The Alberta government says changes are coming to further protect free speech on campuses as a former professor speaking out on so-called “woke” policies prepares for a showdown with the University of Lethbridge.
Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says he plans to announce the changes in the coming days but did not give details.
He was responding to the case of Frances Widdowson, a former tenured professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, who was invited then disinvited to speak on campus this week about her concerns that a mob mentality and “woke policies” increasingly threaten academic freedom.
Widdowson has previously come under fire for her comments on residential schools.
“I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial,” Nicolaides said in a statement Tuesday.
“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.”
Widdowson, asked about Nicolaides' comment, said in an interview: “I think that’s great.
“I think we need a public inquiry about what’s happening at universities.
“The universities are being run by woke activists who are completely opposed to the open and honest discussion of ideas on campus.”
Widdowson was fired from Mount Royal in late 2021 amid controversy over comments she made lauding the educational benefits of Canada’s residential school system while questioning whether abuses at the schools against Indigenous children equated to “cultural genocide,” as described in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Widdowson was invited by a professor to speak Wednesday and the University of Lethbridge granted space for the event.
About 2,500 students signed a petition pushing back on the university for hosting the speech.
University president Mike Mahon, as late as last Thursday, defended the decision to host Widdowson, citing free speech even if the university did not agree with her views.
However, on Monday, Mahon said after further consultation the offer of space was revoked because Widdowson’s views would not advance the residential schools discussion and would cause harm by minimizing the pain and suffering inflicted on First Nations children and families.
“It is clear that the harm associated with this talk is an impediment to meaningful reconciliation,” said Mahon in a statement.
Widdowson said she plans to deliver her speech in a public atrium on the campus Wednesday afternoon and has challenged school security to toss her out.
“I’ve never denied the harm of the residential schools,” she told The Canadian Press.
“People are distorting what I’m saying about it. My issue is residential schools were not genocidal. (They) were a misguided effort which often had serious problems.”
“I’ve been branded as some kind of hate monger," she added. “I’m just arguing if we want to create a better world for everyone, a more co-operative world, we have to be able to speak truthfully about issues that matter.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Nicolaides is being distressingly tone-deaf and needs to reconsider his statements.
“The idea of having someone come and speak at the university … to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools is deeply troubling to me,” Notley told reporters.
“That the (United Conservative Party government) doesn’t understand how incredibly hurtful those ideas are to huge swaths of the Alberta population reveals their lack of understanding about the real experiences and traumas that treaty people in Alberta have been subjected to.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press