Although she only ranks herself at number ten on her list of controversial professors and their topics, Frances Widdowson still generates plenty of controversy all on her own. A professor in the department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, Widdowson has made a name for herself (and been called plenty of other names) by Saying Things That Cannot Be Said. She’s decried everything from Aboriginal policy to systemic racism to trans-activism to the tyranny of the new “woke” culture on campus. And in doing so, she’s proven herself a fearless defender of academic freedom and free speech rights on campus and beyond.
Widdowson first upended academia in 2008 with her Donner Prize-nominated Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (co-written with her partner Albert Howard). The two argued that the economic progress of Canada’s Indigenous community has been actively hindered by a remora-like class of lawyers, advisors, academics and consultants who profit from the perpetuation of the lamentable status quo. Additional fuel was hurled onto the fire by her preference for non-politically correct terminology – like “savagery”, “barbarism” and “Neolithic” − to describe the past cultural development of all societies, Indigenous peoples included. Such an approach tends to invite objections, to put it politely. During a heated presentation of her work at a normally sedate Canadian Political Science Association meeting that year, someone yelled from the audience that she “hated Aboriginal people” and wondered if she’d “like to take it outside.”
Last year Widdowson unleashed another broadside against Indigenous orthodoxy with Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency. In her new book she renews her focus on the cultural/political/economic gap between native and non-native communities and points to the folly of creating a “nation-to-nation” relationship between mainstream capitalist Canada and native groups that retain remnants of their hunting and gathering culture.
Her determination to engage bluntly in difficult conversations means her opponents now casually refer to her as a “racist professor.” (This despite the fact she self-identifies as a historical materialist, an off-shoot of Marxism.) Some of her peers have attempted to boycott her work by refusing to cite it or do peer reviews for those who publish her books. Her rejection of the conventional wisdom that Canada’s colonial-era residential school system was “genocidal” has prompted further threats against her professional career.
More recently, Widdowson has been making news for writing unprintable words on social media and engaging in heated Twitter combat with colleagues at Mount Royal and elsewhere. Two petitions targeting her are circulating at her school. One seeks her outright dismissal; the other calls for mandatory anti-racism training at the school, presumably assuming Widdowson would be unable to comply.
Recently C2C Journal senior features editor Peter Shawn Taylor caught up with the busy Widdowson – beyond her prodigious writing output she is also a board member of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and founder of the Calgary-based Rational Space Network – for a lengthy discussion of her scholarship, professional standing and public persona as an academic provocateur.
C2C: As someone who has always seemed to court controversy, how have you seen the academic atmosphere evolve throughout your career?
Frances Widdowson: I guess I’m a case study in how the situation has changed on campus. I was hired by Mount Royal in 2008 because of my views. The school was just transitioning from a college to a university and it was really a great time to be an academic. Later that year Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry came out and there was a huge uproar on campus. The thinking then was about how to turn this into an opportunity for discussion. The administration wasn’t necessarily in agreement with me − some were quite critical of my work − but they understood what a university is supposed to be about, and so they organized a forum. They brought in critics to discuss the work by Albert Howard and me, and it was a packed house. I thought that was great − exactly what should happen in a university.
A few years later Mount Royal was discussing the creation of an Indigenous Studies program and I was on the committee. Even through I wasn’t in the majority, I was definitely tolerated. Some people actually said it was good that I was there, because even if they didn’t agree with me, I brought a contrary or diverse viewpoint to the discussion.
But after I returned to campus following a sabbatical in 2014, I noticed the institution just wasn’t the same. I’m not sure how it happened, or why. Several other academics and writers have also pointed to 2015 as a significant year in this regard. But by 2019 it was no longer even possible for me to sit down with people who have different points of view and have a discussion. They can no longer disagree without being disagreeable. I don’t even recognize the campus anymore. It’s been taken over by wokeism.
C2C: So what is life like on campus in this time of wokeism?
FW: I am currently engaged in the dust-up to end all dust-ups. After the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year, a couple of anonymous Twitter accounts started asking if I truly belonged at Mount Royal because of my supposedly transphobic and anti-Indigenous views. Then the Wendy Mesley situation began to unfold. Here was a prominent CBC journalist punished, and possibly fired, for allegedly saying the word “n—–” in a private meeting when she was simply referring to the title of Pierre Vallières’ [1971 FLQ tract] White N—— of America. Such a response completely misunderstands the meaning of the word in this context. Vallières was using the word to point to the oppression of Québécois people and class inequality, not to denigrate black people. [Editor’s note: Widdowson used the full word in the interview.]
I felt I had to speak out. It is shocking that the CBC and Mesley’s colleagues have been silent on this. So I took to Twitter to say this was ridiculous and that she should not be punished for simply repeating the name of a book title. I included screen shots of the book and the Wikipedia reference, which still uses the full word, but I intentionally avoided mentioning the word, because I knew that if I did, I’d get into trouble.
Then one of the trolls asked me, “If the word is so benign, why do you refuse to say it?” I knew I was being set up, but I also knew that it is right to stand up for Mesley and not to pander to the race-hustlers. So I quoted it. I also called myself a “c—” for good measure. [Editor’s note: Widdowson used the full word in the interview.] And now after a Western Standard interview, where I discussed this and my opposition to using the word “genocide” to describe the residential schools, there are two petitions circulating on campus. One to fire me outright; the other to impose mandatory anti-racism training for everyone at Mount Royal.
EXCERPTS FROM TWO PETITIONS CIRCULATING AT MOUNT ROYAL
Recent events on our campus have shown us just how invested this institution is in white supremacy and the lengths it will go to in order to deflect responsibility for harm doing (sic) and stock-taking in its possessive investment in whiteness…Racism is first and foremost a white problem that needs to be addressed by white people.
C2C: Maybe we need to define wokeism?
FW: It’s unfortunate we don’t have a better academic term to describe what is currently going on. But it is clearly different from its predecessor belief, political correctness. So I guess we are stuck with wokeism.
I see it as an applied form of post-modernism − an irrational, anti-science philosophy obsessed with what it believes to be social justice. Wokeism is entirely relativistic in that it seeks to manage conflicts in society by using intersectionality to determine a hierarchy of oppression. Proponents imagine this stack of people, with the most oppressed on the bottom and the biggest oppressors on the top. The people on the bottom are thus judged to have the greatest right to speak, because they’ve been silenced the most, historically speaking.
By doing this, wokeism submerges the working class as just one identity among many. Race, indigeneity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity are seen as being much more significant than class. I got a crash course in this hierarchy through transgender activism and its conflict with feminist philosophy. Because the trans identity is judged to have been more oppressed over time than the female identity, those who identify as female − or to be clear, who have XX chromosomes – now have to shut up.
Wokeism is very inconsistent in that the sands are constantly shifting. If you are an oppressed group today, then you can tell everyone else what to do. But if you are successful in being heard, you might end up being labelled an oppressor tomorrow and have to shut up. And anyone who attempts to say something in opposition to all this is quickly labelled as being complicit in a white-supremacist-hetero-cis-patriarchal system. So it has this totalitarian character to it that is also really troubling.
And keep in mind that I am not a classical liberal. I am a historical materialist coming out of the Marxist tradition, or what would traditionally be considered a left-winger. But with the appearance of wokeism, I now get called a fascist all the time. It is rather troubling.
C2C: The catch-all accusation of wokeism these days is systemic racism. Either you agree it is all-encompassing and responsible for all manner of outcomes, or face the consequences of being called a racist. What’s your take?
FW: I have a lot of difficulties with the term. It combines the attitudinal position of racism with broader social conditions. And the solution is always mandatory anti-racism training for individuals. But I thought this was about the system? “Race-hustler” has become my preferred term for people who insert themselves into these situations and then suggest a self-serving solution that involves giving them contracts to teach everyone else about systemic racism.
My concern is that woke totalitarians are pushing Canadian nationalists towards white identity politics, as we have already seen in the United States. That really scares me. If that happens, we will no longer be looking for common ground. We’ll just be a collection of warring tribal entities.
C2C: How does one respond to wokeism?
FW: I’m not a big fan of Twitter because it’s such a toxic environment, but I have discovered it is a great means of satire. British comedian Andrew Doyle created a satirical Twitter feed for his character, Titania McGrath, a “radical intersectionalist poet committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest.”
So I renamed my Twitter account “Frances McGrath (NOT Frances Widdowson)”. I now pose as a denouncer of myself. When the anonymous “student initiative” MRU Racial Advocacy tweeted, “Can we start asking for extensions because we are busy fighting our University?” – and then some professors liked the tweet – Frances McGrath responded that everyone should not only get an extension but also an A+.
Some of my supportive colleagues tell me to stop, that I am making my critics crazier. But they’re already crazy. I’m just exposing them. Others say I am losing credibility by engaging in this way. But let’s be clear, some of the academics who oppose me are going to my publishers and warning them that they’ll refuse to do peer reviews for them because my work is “racist nonsense”. So there is a very strong attempt to make my life as difficult as possible, and potentially to end my career. Satire is about all I have left.
C2C: Did you set out to be an academic provocateur?
FW: The trouble with that label is it sounds like I am going out there deliberately trying to upset people. In fact I am upsetting people because they don’t like what I am saying.
I guess this critical stance of mine began when I was working for the Northwest Territories government from 1995-1997 on its traditional knowledge policy. I soon realized I was going to find it hard to work in government because it is very difficult for me to say things that I know to be not true. I just can’t do it. Then Albert and I wrote an article about the problems with indigenization in [the academic journal] Policy Options. I thought I was writing as a Canadian citizen, but the NWT government didn’t see it that way. I was suspended without pay and my term was not renewed because I had embarrassed them. So I thought: the academic world is where I ought to be.
My PhD supervisor at York University, Leo Panitch, would often tell me not to be such a provocateur. He said I should think about my audience, but I think it is important to state the truth as I see it, even if that upsets people. I realize words like “primitive” and “savagery” inflame people. But those are accurate words to describe particular things. They have a history. Savagery, for example, is a stage of cultural evolution before animal domestication and plant cultivation that includes specific technology. It’s true that this word has a negative connotation for many people today, but when you try to use other words, those people still get upset. In the end it is not about words, it is about ideas. All this outrage over language is an attempt to stop people from talking and thinking.
I understand that my polemical style can turn people off, but I am just trying to state the situation as truthfully as possible. I now try to discuss things with people who have very diverse viewpoints, to hear the other side. But in the end I will act as I think I should. I want to take back the university and make it an academic space once again.
C2C: Much about life in academia seems foreign to the rest of the population. Tenure, for example, basically guarantees a professor can never be fired – a protection few people in the private sector enjoy. Why should people outside campus care about academic tenure and your situation at Mount Royal?
FW: I wouldn’t be here today if tenure didn’t exist. If we as a society accept that professors should be able to pursue the truth without political interference, then you need tenure to make that happen. In fact my case shows how important tenure can be. Tenure gets to the foundation of the university. Take trans-activism. These days you cannot even raise the issue. But university should be the one place where you can actually have a discussion about the ideas that inform trans activists even if it causes difficulties. A university should not have any forbidden zones.
C2C: What are today’s forbidden topics?
FW: I have compiled a list of the most contentious issues in university today and of academics who have been censured or fired for discussing them. To be honest, I don’t consider myself to be all that controversial – I’m in tenth spot. But all these areas are very dangerous to discuss in a university today. Just creating such a list makes me nervous as it could open me up to charges that I support these ideas. [Editor’s note: Even climate change makes the list, with noted polar bear expert Susan Crockford appearing at #9 on Widdowson’s list. The list is discussed more fully on this podcast at the 57 minute mark.]
At number one is Ricardo Duchesne [who recently retired early from the University of New Brunswick after being mobbed by his colleagues]. He was talking about white identity politics. And to be clear, I am opposed to all identity politics, white included. But that doesn’t mean we should shut Duchesne down and prevent him from speaking. Ideas and the policies necessary to implement those ideas are two completely different things. But they get conflated by a woke crowd that says if you discuss these things you are contributing to oppression. Having a discussion is a very different thing from saying I want to develop oppressive policies.
If something is labelled “not discussable,” that suggests to me there is an underlying problem that needs to be brought into the open. Whenever I hear, “Don’t say that,” I immediately ask “Why not?” But as soon as you say you want to have a discussion about what Duchesne is talking about, you’re accused of being a white supremacist.
Another case, and #3 on the list, involves Mark Hecht, an instructor at Mount Royal who wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun in 2019 claiming ethnic diversity undermined social trust. As a result, a number of professors at my school wrote a secret letter to the administration denouncing Hecht and presumably asking for him to be censured. Later Hecht was to teach a field school, but the school cancelled it. And when he tried to grieve that decision, the faculty association decided not to advance his case to arbitration. So you can see how difficult it can be to discuss questions of ethnic diversity at Mount Royal, and how anyone who might want to make a contribution on this topic would have second thoughts given the consequences. It is about a fear of reprisals. Your job could be lost.
C2C: Why is all this happening on our campuses?
FW: The university used to be one of the only places in society where you could say things without fear of reprisal. But it is becoming more and more difficult for professors to speak freely. I see three reasons for this problem. First is the corporatization of the university. Students are now customers, and the customer is always right. So if a professor’s work makes some students feel unwelcome, then that becomes a problem. This is particularly difficult for contract faculty, who are increasingly teaching more of the classes at universities in Canada and don’t have tenure.
The second issue is the politicization of faculty associations. These groups are supposed to stand up for faculty members, but they have become ideologically compromised by their own commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion policies. As a result they’re pursuing their own political agendas rather than speaking out on behalf of their members.
Finally, there is the problem of legislation that restricts speech, such as hate speech and human rights legislation and health and safety legislation. If you say something that a particular group doesn’t like, you can be accused of harassing them. Except for libel, slander and threats of violence, I don’t think there should be any restrictions on speech. Yet now I get accused of spewing hate just for saying residential schools were not genocidal.
C2C: Beyond your satirical confrontations and university dust-ups, your academic career deals with some very serious issues with far-reaching political and economic consequences. In particular, your new book Separate but Unequal tackles the perpetually perplexing issue of Indigenous development. How do you frame this problem?
FW: We should start off by acknowledging common ground: we all want to see every human being thrive. And from this perspective, the situation in many Indigenous communities is very troubling. A large percentage of that population is living in simply terrible conditions. Why? And what is the solution? There are a number of propositions.
The dominant one today is parallelism – that Indigenous nations had their sovereignty and land stolen from them and are thus no longer self-determining. The solution proposed here is that Indigenous culture should be built up so that it can exist entirely separate from the rest of Canadian society, with a distinctive economy, political system and “ways of knowing.” This is also known as a “nation-to-nation” relationship and it has come to define current policy and thinking.
The dissident view is a neo-classical economic position that the Indian Act hinders market activity. If we could just allow the market to prevail, Indigenous people could take advantage of economic opportunities throughout Canadian society and become less dependent. It is essentially an integrationist view.
Although I am also an integrationist, I don’t accept either of these positions. Albert and I look at it from the position of labour. People who cannot participate in the labour process do not have any power. Many Indigenous people have been isolated from the labour market since the Fur Trade declined. The problem is the cultural gap that existed between hunting and gathering and horticulturalist cultures and those that made the leap from feudalism to capitalism. This made it difficult for Indigenous people to compete. And, of course, many of their communities are now so isolated and scattered that it is often impossible to participate in the broader economy. Good education is one of the obvious ways forward for Indigenous communities.
C2C: What concerns you most about the policy of parallelism?
FW: Parallelism entails giving up on common human development and the idea that we can all live together. No one thinks complete separation is a good solution in any other context, such as dealing with inequities experienced by immigrants, visible minorities or other disadvantaged groups. So why would we think it will work for the Indigenous situation? But if you push back against it, you’re told that you’re not respecting the Indigenous voice, or denying their humanity.
The complete implementation of a policy of parallelism would be absolutely horrible. The federal government would hand out billions of dollars to Indigenous communities. And some elites would do very well, like those in Osoyoos in B.C. or other Indigenous communities close to cities. But in the very marginalized areas, such as Attawapiskat and Kashechewan, people would starve to death because they would not have any resources.
A lot of these communities are simply not viable. We hear that this is their homeland and that therefore they shouldn’t have to move. There obviously should be no coercion in moving people, but it must be recognized that if people continue to live in an unviable area, these kinds of problems will fester. You can see a parallel with the closing of the outports of Newfoundland. It was generally recognized that it was better for the young people but it had a terrible cost on older people because they felt their lives as they knew them had ended. It is a very difficult situation that requires hard choices. But we should not avoid the honest discussions that need to take place about this.
C2C: The last line of Separate but Unequal quotes philosopher Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt from their book Higher Superstition: “Unthinking sentimentality is the great enemy of genuine compassion.” Why did you choose to end your book with that thought?
FW: Compassion means working to address whatever is causing suffering. We can feel badly about seeing a person or group suffering, but this is only useful if it motivates us to do something about it. Sentimentality is just revelling in the suffering by disguising it with romanticism. In effect, you are maintaining the conditions that contribute to the suffering. We should show compassion to those who need it the most, and this includes correctly identifying the causes of their deprivation and marginalization.
C2C: One final question: how secure do you feel at Mount Royal? On one hand you have the protection of tenure. On the other, there’s a concerted woke-driven effort to have you fired, or at the very least silenced.
FW: So far my university has done nothing wrong. I think the president [of Mount Royal, Dr. Tim Rahilly] is doing the best he can in a terrible situation. A year or two ago, I probably would have felt even more confident, because I would have known the faculty association had my back. Now, some of those members have become part of the mob.
In terms of practical implications, I can no longer get elected to any positions at the university and I am not able to sit on panels with other academics who discuss Indigenous issues at conferences. Some of my colleagues also have tried to sabotage my events by encouraging people not to participate. My interactions with students also used to be very positive, but now they are more strained. After I organized an event about trans activism, for example, a number of students claimed on their course evaluations that they didn’t feel comfortable in my class because I made “degrading comments”. And I certainly will think long and hard about whether to continue to show a clip about the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in my classes.
Going forward, I continue to try to discuss things with people with diverse perspectives. But I’m not going to give an inch and will continue to publicly criticize all efforts to take me down. I’m dug-in in a big way and will fight to the end for the university to become an academic space once more.
C2C: Thank you, and good luck.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.