The Crossroads Between Hate Speech and Academic Freedom: Frances Widdowson and the University of Lethbridge
Reported by Daly Unger
Former associate professor of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University, Dr. Frances Widdowson, visited the University of Lethbridge campus for a public guest lecture hosted by University of Lethbridge philosophy professor Dr. Paul Vimnitz. On January 13th, 2023, Widdowson announced publicly on Facebook that she would be visiting the campus to give a series of lectures focused on addressing and dismantling what she calls “woke-ism,” which she believes has destroyed the ability of universities to facilitate academic freedom. By January 26th, petitions had formed on campus to bar Widdowson from visiting, and a peaceful protest opposing her had begun to organize. Addressing student action, the University of Lethbridge President, Dr. Mike Mahon, released a statement on the 26th saying, “Members of the University community have the right to criticize and question views expressed on campus, but they may not obstruct or interfere with others’ freedom of expression” (Mahon, 2023). A substantial portion of the student body felt Dr. Mahon should be taking more drastic action against Widdowson’s visit. Just four days later, on January 30th, Mahon retracted his earlier statement and wrote, “To ensure our community is safe, in the context of this planned lecture, the University will not provide space for this public lecture to occur on campus” (Mahon, 2023). Officially, Widdowson’s lecture was not sanctioned by the University. Nevertheless, she assured her followers and the student protestors that her talk would still happen on February 1st, regardless of revoking her classroom booking. Instead, she vowed to move the lecture to the public portion of the University Hall atrium.
Back in January of 2022, Mount Royal University ended Widdowson’s thirteen years of employment, denouncing her campaign against “Woke-ism” after the professor endorsed her view that Residential Schools had beneficial aspects and proposed a series of controversial opinions to her students and fellow faculty members (CBC News, 2022). Widdowson’s statements led to action by the administration and complaints from her department. A petition by Mount Royal students garnered over six thousand signatures and other allegations against her brought the end of her tenure.
Widdowson is no longer affiliated with any post-secondary institution. Yet, she continues to develop and advertise her opinions regarding the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Most notably, Widdowson maintains the stance that ended her academic career by initiating her next book. She said she would attempt to refute the legitimacy of two hundred and fifteen unmarked graves found in 2021 at the Kamloops Residential School, BC.
On January 25th, 2023, the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge released a public statement condemning Frances Widowson and the decision to give her a platform. In the department’s statement, they noted “the facts of the Residential School system and the experiences of Indigenous children within that system were rigorously established through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (Department of Indigenous Studies, 2023).
The Residential School system existed in Canada for over a hundred years, with the last school closing in 1996. Residential schools were boarding schools, often funded and operated by Catholic churches. They existed to “forcibly remove all vestiges of their original identities, cultures, and languages” (Department of Indigenous Studies, 2023). Between 1870 and 1996, at least 150,000 children were inducted into Residential Schools. In the decades since closing the last residential school, historians, archaeologists, and Indigenous rights activists have worked tirelessly to uncover the truth behind the closed doors of these institutions.
The Department of Indigenous Studies also noted that “these policies, which are a matter of historical record within Canada, clearly meet the United Nations definition of genocide, as listed in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (Department of Indigenous Studies, 2023).
As of 2023, the identities and remains of approximately 4,130 Indigenous children have been recovered from Residential School land, giving the world a glimpse of the true toll this initiative had on the Indigenous population of Canada (University of Manitoba, 2023).
INTERVIEW WITH FRANCES WIDDOWSON: January 29th, 2023
I met with Widdowson in the home of her host, Dr. Paul Vimnitz, three days before her scheduled public appearance on campus. In the guest study she has been occupying since coming to Lethbridge, stacks of books are piled on every available surface, and several manuscripts cover the desk where we sat. When she explained her next book to me, there was no doubt that the backlash she has received at Mount Royal and the University of Lethbridge has only encouraged her to fight for her point harder. Widdowson told me,“[Lethbridge] is a good place for me to be at this stage,” continuing that “some ideas cannot be examined within the university, cannot be critically analyzed, no questions can be asked about those ideas and that is what we’re seeing in Lethbridge.”
In an effort to subvert the second and third-hand sources that people may be reading, Widdowson outlined her position to me clearly, stating that “Woke-ism is an anti-enlightenment position, it is reactionary, and it argues that there are no objective standards for trying to evaluate claims that are being made about the world.” She stressed that this “Woke” direction that academic institutions are going down is limiting the freedom faculty have to express new ideas and question the existing understanding of old ideas. In reference to her earlier claims about the beneficial aspects of Residential School education and her stance against the indigenization of Canadian universities Widdowson emphasised, “indigenization, obviously, I have my specific opinions about that … we are a university, and we should be able to have discussions about this. We should be able to critically analyze these ideas, and that is not allowed at universities.”
When addressing the protesters opposing her, Widdowson said, “In order to improve society for everyone, we need to be able to state the truth, and that is what I am trying to do.” Widdowson continued, “University administrators need to be academics and need to encourage open inquiry to occur… This does not have anything to do with anti-Indigenous sentiments. It’s got to do with how to understand things better so that we can actually improve circumstances for all people in society, including Indigenous people.”
INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN CROW, ULSU INDIGENOUS STUDENT REPRESENTATIVE: January 30th, 2023
I met Nathan Crow, the Students’ Union Indigenous Student Representative, on campus two days before Widdowson was scheduled to speak. Only two hours before we met, the U of L president announced that the University of Lethbridge would “not provide space for this public lecture to occur on campus” (Mahon, 2023). It looked at that moment like Widdowson’s exercise in academic freedom was at an end. As we walked through the campus and talked, several students who had opposed Widdowson’s visit stopped to shake Crow’s hand and give him a high five as we passed, expressing their gratitude for his effort and their joy in what they saw as a little victory. “I feel like this is concrete evidence that advocacy works,” Crow told me, “when word got out that [Frances Widdowson] was coming to campus, it was a wide range of emotions. Some people came to me upset, some angry, some sad, and some felt defeated to the point where they literally broke down in front of me. It was very disheartening.”
Crow was overjoyed with the student support that the Indigenous community on campus received. Though he had initial concerns about how the student’s strong reaction might help Widdowson, he said, “I felt as though us reacting would play right into her narrative.” Crow later decided that even though ignoring her was an option, action had to be taken. “I found out the actual seriousness of the situation, and then I realized no, it’s actually necessary for us to step in and say something. Because if we don’t, it opens the floodgates or opens the possibility of this happening again in the future.”
“I support the freedom of expression,” Crow stressed, “but not when it discriminates against a certain demographic of our students and causes them harm.” This was the main point that Crow wanted to make clear to the readers and me, that he feels Widdowson is not exercising her academic freedom but is instead threatening the Indigenous student body with her ideas. His official statement, posted on Saturday, argued that Widdowson’s public lecture would be the, “first time [some students] will be learning about the Indian Residential School system, and I strongly feel that we, as an institution, have a duty to these students to provide accurate and true information on this important piece of Canadian history” (Crow, 2023).
The announcement by President Mahon was a victory for Nathan Crow and to many students on campus who aligned with his mission to prevent Widdowson from speaking publicly to the University of Lethbridge students. To Widdowson, this was merely another roadblock she would have to overcome. After the President’s message was released, Widdowson posted on her Facebook page stating, “You will have to haul me away by security to stop me.” Widdowson was determined to proceed with a public discussion, regardless of the administration and student body’s permission.
CLASSROOM GUEST LECTURE: January 31st, 2023
Students from all three of Dr. Vimnitz’s philosophy classes crowded into a University Hall room on Tuesday evening to hear the first of Widdowson’s lectures. This private lecture occurred during the scheduled time for Philosophy 2002: Belief, Truth, and Paradox and was optional for any of Dr. Vimnitz’s students to attend. She was joined by Albert Howard, the co-author of her books and articles on “Indigenous ways of knowing.” Tensions were high before the class began, as students discussed the atmosphere Dr. Widdowson’s presence has created on campus and gave their opinions about the nature of her upcoming lecture.
She outlined a half-hour lecture titled, “Should Universities Foster Respect for Indigenous Ways of Knowing? No!” followed by an hour long question and answer period, but the lecture hardly lasted half of its allotted time before students refused to hold back their questions and arguments. Dr. Widdowson seemed happy to indulge the students and to discuss any questions they had. “Nothing is off limits,” She instructed the class, “you should say what you think is true, even if you think it might be offensive to me or anyone else.”
The core statement of her lecture was her opinion that Indigenous ways of knowing held no legitimacy on a University campus or in any academic setting and that the further study of Indigenous knowledge and history would not be of benefit to society. Though Dr. Widdowson lectured self-confidently, the majority of students in attendance did not share or tolerate her lecture. “Students were prepared to be critical of her ideas,” Skye Nottebrock, a student of Dr. Vimnitz told me in a post-lecture interview, “There were, however, visibly at least a few students who were adamantly listening and taking notes throughout her presentation … I do think the majority [of the students] were there not solely to listen to her, but instead to analyze in an unbiased fashion. There were definitely those who supported her in some way or another present.”
At the end of the protest on February 1, 2023, Widdowson spoke to media personnel and discussed her perspectives on how the lecture went, stating, “Those students yesterday in that class, they were amazing. They weren’t in agreement with me at all, they had questions, they used their intellect to challenge me, and they even made me think and change my mind on some things I hadn’t thought about before.”
STUDENT PROTEST: February 1st, 2023, 3:30 pm
People began gathering for the protest an hour before Widdowson was scheduled to arrive. Representation from media, local businesses, students, and faculty was present, culminating in over 700 attendees (Mahon, 2023). The voices, a drum band, chanting of songs, and the constant click of cameras were deafening. Frances Widdowson was present for her public lecture, although it never happened, and the campus will never know what the whole message she wished to convey at that moment was. The energy present at the protest was powerful, and there were more moments than can be conveyed in a single article.
As the drums played, the counter-protesters who accompanied Widdowson and Albert Howard shouted, “Viva la free speech!” Although they called for her to speak, Widdowson was drowned out by the protest. Talking with me before Widdowson’s arrival, Assistant Professor Don McIntyre (Indigenous Studies and Business) told me, “This speech is anything but free. Look at the cost that it has placed on you, on me, and on everyone here at the University.”
As Widdowson attempted to leave the University hall atrium with a security escort, protesters and onlookers followed her every move. She stopped twice to attempt her prepared speech. In the hallway in front of Urban Market, she discussed her argument with an individual until the protest caught up with them and made it too loud to continue the discussion. The last statement I heard from the individual speaking with her was, “When you drown out her voice, you drown out our voice by not giving us a chance to speak.”
Halfway down University hall, Widdowson stood on a staircase and attempted to address the crowd again. Her dialogue with the crowd lasted until a Residential School survivor joined her on the staircase and began sharing his own story. However, the drums began again, and the crowd surged toward Widdowson. At that point, security became concerned for her safety, and Widdowson agreed not to continue her speech if the protestors would allow her to leave safely. The crowd parted for her, and campus security escorted Widdowson away.
Security and police barred students from following Widdowson as she left the building. Behind the wall of campus security and Lethbridge Police, the media was allowed a short interview with Widdowson before she left. When asked if she could understand the emotions shown by the protestors on campus that evening, Widdowson was explicit, “No. I have no sympathy. I think it’s terrible. This is what the university does now.” The emphasis of her short media exclusive was University President Mahon and his decision to not welcome her onto campus, “[Mike Mahon] is a panderer to activism, his university is going to be destroyed, and that’s really tragic … [the protestors] have no right to control campus, its fascist to be honest.” Following those statements, Widdowson left the University through the Science Common loading dock, concluding the day’s events.
As I met with the different voices featured in this article, the term “academic freedom” took a central place in my mind. It seemed that regardless of where I went and what I did, I could not stop thinking about academic freedom and what it really meant in this situation. Who are we freeing ourselves from? Who is the oppressor, and who is the oppressed? What do we stand to gain or lose from these differing definitions of academic freedom?
Frances Widdowson argued that academic freedom should allow her to say anything. Comparing her campaign against “Woke-ism” to the Enlightenment Period of the 17th and 18th centuries, Widdowson argued that by allowing all concepts and understandings to be questioned in a university, we would usher in new ideas and new ways of thinking that will be beneficial to society.
When I met with Nathan Crow, I experienced a very different approach to academic freedom and “Woke-ism.” Nathan certainly felt that academic freedom was important and had a crucial place on campus, though he questioned whether Widdowson’s message was about that at all. Nathan felt that her refusal to entertain Indigenous ways of knowing would leave her blind to parts of the Indigenous story that are not found under the microscope of the scientific method. “We are dealing with [the aftermath of the Residential Schools] on a daily basis through the impacts of intergenerational trauma. A lot of these things are intangible, so it’s not very easy to see unless you’re living them.”
The questions I was left with, which I would like to pose to all of the readers of The Meliorist, is this: Is there anything to be gained from this stance on the freedom of expression? If you feel there is, does the end of Widdowson’s mission justify her means?
The information presented in this article is based on available evidence and sources and has been reported to the best of our knowledge. For our students, resources are available, including Counselling Services, the Iikaisskini Indigenous Services, or connect with an Elder in Residence.
Crow, N. [nathan_4_indigenous_rep]. (2023, January 26). Nathan crow on Instagram: “Indigenous student representative public statement addressing Frances Widdowson’s public lecture at the University of Lethbridge”. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cn5LGdgy8-R/
Department of Indigenous Studies. (2023, January 30). Statement on Widdowson Lecture.
University of Lethbridge. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.ulethbridge.ca/sites/default/files/2023/01/departmental_statement_jan_2023_1.pdf
Jones, S. (2023, February 1). Hundreds protest controversial speaker Frances Widdowson at University of Lethbridge. Lethbridge News Now. https://lethbridgenewsnow.com/2023/02/01/hundreds-protest-controversial-speaker-frances-widdowson-at-university-of-lethbridge/
Mahon, M. (2023, February 2). President statement — Peaceful protest of controversial speaker | Notice board. Welcome to the University of Lethbridge | University of Lethbridge. https://www.ulethbridge.ca/notice/notices/president-statement-%E2%80%94-peaceful-protest-controversial-speaker#.Y9wHId9lDIU
Mahon, M. (2023, February 1). President Statement — Peaceful Protest of Controversial Speaker | Notice Board. University of Lethbridge. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.ulethbridge.ca/notice/notices/president-statement-%E2%80%94-peaceful-protest-controversial-speaker#.Y90w5HDMK2F
Mahon, M. (2023, January 30). Statement from the president — Controversial guest speaker appearance (UPDATE) | Notice board. University of Lethbridge. https://www.ulethbridge.ca/notice/notices/statement-president-%E2%80%94-controversial-guest-speaker-appearance-update#.Y9g0T63MJD8
Rieger, S., Kost, H., & Markus, J. (2022, January 5). MRU fires professor who espoused benefits of residential schools and criticized BLM movement. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/frances-widdowson-mount-royal-university-fired-1.6303734
The University of Manitoba. (2023). Memorial register. NCTR. https://nctr.ca/memorial/national-student-memorial/memorial-register/