Frances Widdowson was not Miss Popularity at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Over 6,000 people signed a petition calling for her firing. They wanted her gone. And gone she was.
The tenured PhD was fired in 2021 after 13 years of teaching and shit disturbing. Her outrages against political correctness were legion. She accused Black Lives Matter of “destroying” the university and claimed the residential school system had not been genocide. In a recent book she argued that the concept of a “nation-to-nation” relationship between First Nations and Canada is ill-founded and harmful to Indigenous communities. And, oh yes, she refuses to capitalize “Indigenous.”
More recently, the University of Lethbridge refused to allow her to make a presentation on campus. Her talk is entitled, “How ‘Woke-ism Threatens Academic Freedom.” The university was responding to protests from students and faculty (including two petitions with over 2,500 signatures).
Widdowson does have her supporters. John Richards of Simon Fraser University’s School of Policy Studies says, “She has a firm academic basis for her beliefs. If I was in a position of authority, I’d want her in my department. Her work is valuable and she raises legitimate concerns.” He insists that her work is not motivated by racism. He adds, “The majority position has become very intolerant in Canadian universities. The result is to lower the pursuit of knowledge to the level of advocacy.”
And then there are those who simply support free speech. Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship states, “Now the concept of respect entails a requirement to hold other people’s ways of thinking in esteem, or to celebrate their identity.” The danger for thinkers such as Widdowson, he says, is that “to articulate a critical view of something that is taken as being an essential component of someone’s identity is now considered harassment and can be grounds for discipline or firing.”
Mount Royal’s faculty association is taking Widdowson’s case to arbitration. She seeks full reinstatement.
Employment lawyer Howard Levitt says the stakes are high. “If the university succeeds with its case, it will essentially be the end of tenure as we know it,” he says. He believes that unless Widdowson’s opinions violate the Criminal Code or breach human rights statutes, she is entitled to them. “The fact people feel disrespected is simply part of the process.” I would agree. A university should not be a place for people to feel safe in their beliefs—quite the contrary.
At a time when book-banning and history-suppression is rampant in our great neighbour to the south, led by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, we don’t elements of it up here. And while I disagree with and find disagreeable many of Widdowson’s opinions and manners, I do sympathize with her position that the self-righteousness of identity politics does occasionally corrode freedom of expression.
Under former Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, all 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions were instructed to either endorse the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression or develop a policy consistent with them. The principles state that universities must promote freedom of debate and protect it from restrictions.
Both Mount Royal and the University of Lethbridge complied, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Consequently, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says new steps to “strengthen free speech” on post-secondary campuses will be announced in the near future.
When Kenney announced his free speech edict back in 2019, I was sceptical. I thought it redundant. I’ve changed my mind. How perverse that conservatives have to lecture progressives and even pass laws to protect free speech against progressive intolerance. When Widdowson has her arbitration hearing, I’ll be in her corner.