Tough critique or hate speech?

A Calgary prof’s paper on the ‘Aboriginal industry’ starts a war

Tough critique or hate speech?

It’s not often a barroom-calibre brawl breaks out in the life of a political scientist. But a serious battle has erupted over a presentation given last June by professor Frances Widdowson, and it could jeopardize her career and help define the limits of free speech in Canadian academia.

Speaking at the 2008 meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA), Widdowson, a policy studies professor at Mount Royal College in Calgary, argued our Aboriginal reserve system isn’t working. It encourages unemployment and alcoholism, since there are few jobs on reserves, she said. Policies that encourage First Nations to live separate lives merely prop up a broken system; the best way to help natives achieve health and prosperity is assimilation. Her paper also criticized Aboriginal traditional knowledge, arguing that some claims didn’t hold up to scientific analysis, and discussed a “development gap” between natives and settlers, implying the Europeans were more advanced.

The presentation got heated. Some of the political scientists started shouting at Widdowson. One asked if she’d “like to take it outside,” Widdowson said. “I thought that she was threatening me.” There have been accusations the slur “squaw” was used, although the Calgary professor says this never happened. The fight didn’t end there. Some members said her presentation was “hate speech,” and called for her to be investigated under the criminal code. A few wanted McGill-Queen’s University Press to be censured for publishing Widdowson’s recent book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: the Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. Others wanted the chair of the lecture censured for hosting a presentation where such ideas were voiced.

“Everyone’s against the promotion of hatred,” says Widdowson, a Marxist. And she’s no exception. But she’s angered Canadian academics. She implied Aboriginals were “a backwards people wandering aimlessly through the woods,” says Kiera Ladner, Canada Research Chair in indigenous politics and governance at the University of Manitoba. Ladner says Widdowson perpetuates a “fantasy of the master race,” where the “civilized” ruled over “savages”—a view that’s “decades, possibly centuries,” out of date. What’s at stake is more important than merely the right to say contentious things, argues Barbara Arneil, a prof at the University of British Columbia. Voicing offensive ideas may discourage First Nations from pursuing academic careers, she says, and recruiting from diverse backgrounds is integral to the profession. The right to free speech, she says, isn’t about the right to say “anything,” but the right to say what’s respectful. In other words, it’s okay to speak your mind in academia, if what you say doesn’t offend anyone.

The incident has given momentum to a U.S. petition arguing that the right to free speech is threatened in Canada. The petition refers obliquely to this case and two others: the human rights commission complaints against Mark Steyn/Maclean’s, and the Christian pastor Stephen Boissoin, whose homophobic letters ran in a local paper. Its 60 signatories include some of the world’s most respected political scientists. In all three cases, says signatory Harvey Mansfield, a professor at Harvard Canada failed to give sufficient protection to people with opinions that differ from the status quo.

Academic freedom and freedom of the press should mean unassailable rights, the petition argues—the same ones afforded by the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. In the absence of such rights, the petition calls for written assurance from the Ontario and Canadian human rights commissions that they will “not interfere with legitimate academic discourse” during the American Political Science Association meeting in Toronto this September. The handling of these incidents is evidence of “political correctness running wild,” says Bradley C.S. Watson, of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn. Academics should be able to explore politically uncomfortable truths without fear of reprisal, he says. Widdowson raises important questions, says Mansfield, and her arguments are “perfectly reasonable.”

Many Canadian academics have come to Widdowson’s defence. Janet Ajzenstat, a professor emeritus at McMaster University, published details of the case on her blog The Idea File and notified U.S. academics. Widdowson and her husband, Albert Howard, who co-wrote the book, have received phone calls of support. Many people agree with her, says Tom Flanagan, a political science prof at the University of Calgary, and are thankful she has dared to tackle this topic.

The CPSA is investigating the matter, and a committee will be formed to look at hate speech and “ethics in research” later this year. While it’s unlikely Widdowson will be dragged before a human rights commission, this committee will influence questions such as which papers are published and who gives presentations, Widdowson says. By defining hate speech broadly—and using it as a label for anything that causes offence—the CPSA could sideline her. And that, Watson says, would be a tragedy for academia and free speech, never mind Widdowson’s career.