TORONTO – Canadian intellectuals are in the thick of a global movement to protest the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump by boycotting academic conferences hosted on American soil.
Hundreds of professors at universities across the country have joined more than 6,200 academics around the world pledging to stay away from international conferences held in the United States.
Some Canadian groups have gone further, either rescheduling previously booked conferences or breaking ranks with counterparts in the U.S. who discourage such boycotts.
Most academics say their decisions were prompted by Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
They say the executive order, which has been temporarily stayed by U.S. courts, puts intellectual freedom at risk by silencing the voices of those who cannot enter the country.
They also argue that excluding some Muslim colleagues compromises the intellectual integrity of academic discourse, adding that the order helps entrench racism.
The issue has triggered some passionate debate in academic circles, with one striking example playing out between a major American association and its Canadian chapter.
The International Studies Association, an interdisciplinary organization focused on global affairs that purports to have 7,000 members worldwide, is holding its annual convention in Baltimore later this month.
The association has expressed sympathy for those affected by Trump’s executive order, but also urged people to attend in the interest of allowing academic research and discourse to continue without restrictions.
The ISA’s position drew a sharp rebuke from its Canadian chapter, which not only urged members to boycott the Baltimore meeting but is arranging an alternate time for people who choose not to attend the main conference to present their research in Canada.
“I won’t lie, I thought it was embarrassing,” Colleen Bell, president of ISA Canada, said of the ISA statement. “We took a strong stand because…the subject matter that we all share in common is relations between people across nations. We’re in a unique position to actually be able to speak up about the effect of the executive order on people’s rights.”
Bell concedes that boycotts are not feasible for all, and acknowledges that many junior scholars and graduate students depend on major conferences to present papers that could advance their careers or build their professional networks.
Intellectual integrity also lies at the heart of many arguments against academic boycotts, she said, citing the ISA’s original statement encouraging attendance at the upcoming convention.
In that statement, the association “strongly” encouraged everyone who could to attend the conference in Baltimore.
“That way, we will have the opportunity to discuss how to move forward as an association in this changed reality.” it said. “Otherwise, we allow further suppression of our scholarly interactions.”
ISA Canada called on its parent organization to condemn the travel ban outright, provide teleconferencing options so people can take part in the Baltimore convention without travelling there, and commit to holding future conferences outside of the United States.
Another Canadian organization, the Western Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers, went a step further and rescheduled a conference that had originally been booked at a university in Washington state.
A tweet by the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., said the March conference will now take place on their campus “in solidarity with those affected by current discriminatory U.S. border laws.” The Canadian Association of Geographers did not respond to a request for comment.
The widespread resistance to the Trump policies, however, is not a co-ordinated effort and stems from individuals feeling the need to speak up.
Nicole Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, said she signed the global petition to show solidarity with targets of the travel ban and stand up for diversity in academic discourse.
“If policy in the U.S. proceeds in this divisive and exclusionary direction, then these sorts of decisions will become increasingly significant in terms of whether we (academics) decide to challenge the practice of privilege or enable it through our silence,” Marshall said in an email. “In this, I see signing the boycott as an issue in solidarity, honesty, and professional inclusion.”
Josh Neufeld, a biology professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, said his decision to institute a personal and professional travel boycott to the U.S. predated the executive order.
Trump’s hawkish inauguration address prompted him to cancel a planned appearance at an American-hosted conference, he said, adding he also plans to forego promoting a recently completed book at U.S. venues regardless of potential financial consequences.
Neufeld plans to take part in conferences remotely when possible, but said he sees opposing the Trump administration and its various policies as a duty.
“I can make these decisions without the types of repercussions to one’s career and family that perhaps others cannot,” he said. “So I’ll do that, and I’ll do that on behalf of others who perhaps cannot.”