Saturday, December 2, 2023

University of Lethbridge cancels public guest lecture after pushback

The University of Lethbridge has backtracked on its commitment to let a controversial guest speaker go ahead, despite concerns from students and the community. Former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson was set to speak at a public lecture on Feb. 1. She was fired from her job at MRU in 2021, after concerns were raised over her views on residential schools and the Black lives matter movement.

U of L president Mike Mahon issued a statement on Jan. 26, in which he said she would be allowed to speak, but issued an update on Jan. 30 to say the talk was canceled. 

“In that statement, I addressed the value and necessity of freedom of expression and our strong commitment to it. But importantly, I highlighted there are limits to freedom of expression. In assessing these limits the university must be attentive to the safety of our diverse community,” reads the Jan. 30 statement. “Over the past few days, and upon learning of this lecture, we have sought guidance from those with considerable cultural, scholarly, sectoral and legal expertise, including continuing guidance from the vice-provost, Indigenous relations and others. We have also received considerable input from the communities we serve — internal and external. This input confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful.”

The Widdowson was originally invited by a faculty in the philosophy department and the announcement was met with calls from many within the community to cancel the guest speaker, including from Lethbridge Métis.

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“Education through the Residential School system was the primary method of forced assimilation, and we believe that education should be the means of repairing the legacy of Residential Schools,” reads a statement from the Métis local. “We stand in support of our Métis students, our Niitsitapi neighbours, Indigenous students from near and far, staff and faculty members, and the larger Métis community in condemning the hosting of Widdowson at the University of Lethbridge.”

An online petition to have the lecture canceled gained just over 1,500 signatures and protests were planned for Wednesday when she was set to speak.

Mahon said in his second statement that it was clear the harm associated with the talk was an impediment to meaningful reconciliation and the university will not provide space for it. 

Though the public lecture is cancelled, the university says it professors have academic freedom and the in-class guest lectures with Widdowson are still permitted.

*This story has been updated to to clarify only the public guest lecture is cancelled and in-class lectures remain permitted. 

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