In the fall of 2017 Lindsay Shepherd was an unassuming 22-year-old graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. When school was over, she entertained thoughts of teaching English overseas, going into public relations with the Canadian Armed Forces, or maybe opening a used clothing store. She imagined a fulfilling but otherwise unremarkable life.
Yet Shepherd soon found herself front-page news – simultaneously hailed as a champion of free speech and denigrated as an “alt-right folk hero” promoting bigotry and hatred. In an astonishingly short time, she went from working part-time in a juice shop to appearing on national television and making speaking engagements across North America. This remarkable journey is the subject of Shepherd’s newly released memoir Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis that offers an intensely personal view of the pressure for ideological conformity at Canadian universities.
Readers may recall the blizzard of reports beginning in November 2017 after National Post columnist Christie Blatchford broke the story about a Laurier teaching assistant who’d been hauled before an academic inquisition for exposing her students to several minutes of an interview with University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Petersen. Amid all the media coverage – or perhaps because of it – many of the details were misrepresented or twisted. Shepherd says she’s often identified as “the TA who got fired for playing a Jordan Peterson video in class!” In fact, she didn’t get fired, and the video wasn’t by Peterson, but rather TVO, Ontario’s public broadcaster. In this concise and readable book, Shepherd explains what really happened and why.
As a graduate student in Communications Studies at Laurier, one of Shepherd’s responsibilities was to teach basic grammar to first-year undergraduates (surely a story in its own right). In an effort to make this mundane task more interesting and relevant for her students, Shepherd describes her efforts to find real-world instances where grammar is in the news. This led her to the once-benign topic of pronouns, which in English are typically gendered, as in he or she.
“I asked my students what they thought about using ‘they’ in the singular, and we discussed in what context we might already be using ‘they’ in the singular without realizing it, such as when we are referring to someone whose gender we don’t yet know,” she writes.
Pretty basic stuff. But then Shepherd made the fateful decision to air a portion of TVO’s 2016 Peterson interview in which he explained his concerns over Bill C-16, which added “gender expression” and “gender identity” as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson expressed his concern this legislation could be used to limit freedom of expression and force Canadians to use “the language of radical leftist ideology” – replacing the traditional he and she with new, officially sanctioned words such as “zie” or “zer”. It was a stance that would make him famous as a champion of free speech, but it would also mark him as an enemy of those radical leftists.
At the time, Shepherd recalls that she had no firm opinion about Peterson, and wasn’t much interested in politics or free speech. She just wanted to make her grammar class more entertaining.
Christie Blatchford’s November 10, 2017 column in the National Post launched Shepherd into the national spotlight.
“I had only vaguely heard of Jordan Peterson. When I was visiting my mom’s house one day, back as an undergraduate student, she had shown me an article in the newspaper about how a University of Toronto psychology professor was being shouted down at McMaster University by students who didn’t like his views on gender pronouns or compelled speech. The students were using air-horns to drown him out. ‘Isn’t that just so wrong?’ my mom asked, shaking her head. ‘It’s censorship!’ ‘I guess?’ I shrugged, turning back to whatever I had been doing before, and not giving it a second thought.”
But within days of her tutorial, Shepherd received an email calling her to a meeting with her academic supervisor, the head of her program and a representative of Laurier’s Diversity and Equity Office. It’s at this point her story diverges from what one supposes is the norm for such encounters with academic authority: a lowly teaching assistant meekly responding and obeying to her superiors. Unsettled by the summons, Shepherd decided to record the upcoming conversation.
“The vagueness of the email was just too suspicious,” she writes. “‘Concerns’ about ‘some of the content?’ ‘We need to discuss how to “move forward?’ And these alleged ‘concerns’ were such a serious matter that it required the intervention of my supervising professor, my graduate program coordinator and some sort of diversity enforcer? I called my mom and read her the email, asking for her opinion. ‘You should record the meeting,’ she said.” More good advice from mom.
At the lengthy meeting (the book contains a full transcript) her supervisor quickly made it clear that exposing tender, young students to Peterson’s ideas was problematic. “Just to give you some context about Jordan Peterson, he is a figure that is basically highly involved with the alt-right,” the supervisor said. He went on to suggest that using the video resulted in a complaint from one or more of Shepherd’s students. “It’s one or multiple students who have come forward saying that this is something that they were concerned about and that it made them uncomfortable.” Shepherd’s discussion of pronouns, she was told, apparently contravened Laurier’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and perhaps even Ontario’s human rights legislation. She was warned that some vague “informal process” might result in future disciplinary action. In the meantime, she was told to submit all subsequent lesson plans for prior approval. As she left the interview to go to her next class, something fundamental changed within Shepherd.
“By the time I entered the doorway to my class, I had already decided I would be contacting the media. I no longer cared about my personal reputation at Wilfrid Laurier, or whether or not I even continued at the university. What had transpired in that meeting was, in my mind, a matter of public interest. Universities are prestigious institutions of deep societal importance, and each one receives millions of dollars every year in taxpayer funds. Universities are shaping the minds of our citizens: alumni go on to occupy positions in government, policy-making, media, arts and culture, and everything in between. It wasn’t right to stifle discussion in an environment dedicated to open inquiry and the pursuit of truth, and it wasn’t right to tell a TA that taking a neutral position on a current debate in society was wrong. According to my university superiors, I had broken the provincial human rights code and the sexual assault code simply because I played a clip from public television in class and facilitated an open, nonjudgmental discussion about it. People needed to know this was happening. I wasn’t a fool who was going to let the multiple levels of university bureaucracy squash this issue and then be micro-managed until I graduated. If I even made it to graduation, that is.”
It’s easy to see how her academic superiors under-estimated her. Up to this point, she’d appeared to be a typical student: hard-working and grateful for the opportunities provided to her. Not a troublemaker. But, as she says, she’s no fool. And when threatened in this way, she reveals herself to be a tough-minded and determined participant in a much bigger struggle. And she was ready to make the most of the public platform presented to her in the wake of the Blatchford column.
Cleverly, she even uses her new profile to further her own academic goals. “In addition to relaying the story of the Laurier affair at these speaking engagements, I would also speak about the importance of free expression, where the tendency to censor originates from, and the state of free speech on campus more generally. Because my MA research paper was on the topic of free speech on campus, I could write my paper and prepare my speaking notes in tandem.” Now that’s multitasking.
The book offers a fascinating and detailed look into the ferocious battle waged over the next several months at Laurier as Shepherd comes under intense pressure to conform. In fact, she does the precise opposite. With the support of other students and faculty, she founds the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, a program designed to bring what Shepherd calls “controversial speakers” to campus; the invitees run the gamut from libertarian open-borders advocate David Clement to the Marxist-feminist professor Frances Widdowson of Mount Royal University. All this drives her opponents into further frenzies. By this time it’s clear Shepherd has grown to relish the fight.
While Shepherd is the star of her own story, readers might find themselves feeling the slightest modicum of sympathy for the hapless Laurier administrators once news of the scandal breaks. Their actions (as distinct from the many campus activists arrayed against her) often appear more incompetent than malign. The first, instinctual reaction of the school was, naturally enough, to bury the controversy. After the initial blowback, Shepherd’s academic inquisitors quietly disappear for the remainder of the school year, on full pay of course. Later, the university responded with a Statement on Freedom of Expression designed to put to rest claims it was stifling free speech on campus. But this bland document, which embraces the curious concept of “inclusive freedom”, fails to satisfy either Shepherd and her supporters or the perpetually-enraged diversity activists.
A lengthy independent investigation into the allegations against Shepherd eventually found her blameless. It also revealed that there never was a student complaint against her in the first place! An official apology from the university followed. One particularly determined diversity activist was not quite done with Shepherd, however, launching a new complaint over her use of a printer and other alleged incidents of harassment; after another months-long investigation those allegations were dismissed as well.
As a personal memoir, Shepherd’s book does not aspire to a comprehensive political perspective on her own experiences. But it does contain interesting hints of the broader context. She explains, for example, that in her undergraduate days she was a member of the Green Party. Through the course of her struggles, however, she finds her own political identity changing. “At the start of the Laurier affair, I had been defensive about being called a conservative, and made sure to correct people that I most certainly wasn’t one. But a few months down the road, I stopped caring about what people labelled me, and it didn’t bother me when people called me conservative, even though it wasn’t a wholly accurate label.”
Readers are left with little doubt that Shepherd leans heavily towards traditional conservative values such as freedom of thought and speech. But like many of her age, she seems uncomfortable with the big C version of the movement, at least at the beginning of her ordeal. Perhaps federal leader Erin O’Toole needs to find a way to overcome that generational hesitancy.
Shepherd finally graduated from Laurier in the summer of 2018 with her coveted MA. She then married, had a son, and moved back to her native British Columbia. Her goal was to make a life for herself after university; she joined the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms and became a columnist. “I have always been the type to make the best of any situation I found myself in, and I believe I did exactly that in the case of the Laurier controversy,” she writes. “But it is undeniable that there are consequences to publicly identifying yourself as someone who is not willing to go along with the ideological tenets of diversity and inclusion.”
As for those consequences, in early 2020 Shepherd explains that she was offered a sessional instructor position at what she calls “a small college” teaching a course in media literacy. “A few days after showing my face at the online faculty orientation session, I was informed that a social justice-oriented faculty member figured out who I was, and my contract was swiftly cancelled.” The forces that tried and failed to silence her at Laurier are apparently still hard at work.
This continuing campaign against Shepherd based on a pursuit of ideological purity should be regarded as a dark stain on the entire academic community. Throughout the book it is clear that Shepherd’s love of teaching is what defines her commitment to “open inquiry and the pursuit of truth.” As such, that unnamed college missed an opportunity to hire a first-rate educator – not to mention a heck of a storyteller. Sadly, demonstrable ability and commitment are now less important on campus than political alignment. That said, given her obvious attributes of drive, character, intelligence and sense of opportunity, it seems highly unlikely we’ve seen or heard the last of Lindsay Shepherd. As her experiences at Laurier make plain, she has an awful lot to say. And she’s not afraid to say it.
Paul Stanway is a veteran columnist, editor and author of several books on Canadian history; from 2007 to 2010 he served as Communications Director for former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.