The final exam of the Fall 2021 term proved quite a bit more final than Professor Frances Widdowson was expecting. At 5:15 pm on December 20, her students at Calgary’s Mount Royal University (MRU) had just finished writing their three-hour Political Science 1101 exam and Widdowson was packing up the exam booklets and chatting with a few remaining students. As she turned out the lights and closed the door to Room B101 in the school’s main building, she heard a voice from down the hall. “Dr. Widdowson! Dr. Widdowson!” She turned to see Mike Quinn, the school’s associate vice-president of academic affairs, waving to her. Since she had met Quinn at a committee meeting earlier that day, she assumed he wanted to talk about some outstanding faculty business.
Quinn motioned Widdowson into an adjacent room. “Can you step in here for a moment?” he asked. As Widdowson entered, she found a human resources staffer and outplacement consultant lying in wait. It was instantly apparent this was not a collegial meeting. It was an ambush. “As soon as I saw who was in that room, I knew what was up,” Widdowson recalls. Quinn then attempted to give Widdowson a letter stating: “You are hereby immediately dismissed from your position as Associate Professor of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University for just, sufficient and reasonable cause.”
Further workplace drama ensued. Widdowson loudly demanded her ambushers schedule a proper meeting if they intended to fire her, as procedure and good grace dictate. Then, she says, Quinn tried to physically prevent her from leaving the room. After storming past him, she headed to her office where a small crowd of administrators and security guards soon followed. Widdowson responded by calling the police, claiming she felt threatened. Chaos reigned.
Despite the school’s clumsy and abortive first attempt at firing her, however, the letter was ultimately delivered by courier the next day and her position officially terminated. She was also ordered to hand over those final exams for another professor to mark. “Mount Royal University can confirm that Frances Widdowson is no longer a faculty member and we will not be providing specific details on this personnel matter,” is all the school will say about the issue.
If the university’s statement proves correct and Widdowson has been permanently dismissed – the matter is headed to an arbitrator who will have the power to reinstate her – it marks the end of a tumultuous 13-year career at MRU throughout which she has used her position and scholarship to challenge the entirety of contemporary Indigenous policy in Canada, as well as raise numerous other important issues regarding free speech and academic freedom. Because of this outspokenness, many critics on campus and off have repeatedly demanded that she be removed from her post. Now, it seems, they have succeeded. And it is for this reason that Widdowson’s fate holds significance far beyond her own research agenda and reputation. At stake is the very role of the academy in an era of enforced conformity of thought. Is it possible for independent-minded academics to push against the tide of popular opinion and political orthodoxy and still keep their jobs?
Widdowson has been a lightning rod for controversy from the start of her academic career. Upon arriving at MRU as a freshly-minted PhD in 2008, she immediately grabbed headlines with her book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, co-written with her husband Albert Howard. In it, the pair provocatively argued that the economic and social progress of Canada’s native community was being actively hindered by a superstructure of lawyers, advisors and consultants who profited from a perpetuation of the yawning gap between native communities and the rest of Canada. It was a stance heavily influenced by her time working for the Northwest Territories government on Indigenous policy – a position from which she was suspended without pay and her contract not renewed because of her penchant for speaking her mind publicly. The book, however, was shortlisted for the prestigious Donner Prize in recognition of its contribution to an important national debate on native policy.
She followed this auspicious debut with numerous articles, commentary and other work challenging the gamut of conventional wisdom on native policy in Canada. Her position, encapsulated in her recent book Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency, is that the current concept of a “nation-to-nation” relationship between First Nations and mainstream Canada is ill-founded and ultimately deleterious to the success of Indigenous communities. Rather, she believes native tribal culture must evolve in order to meet the expanding requirements of modern society and economic progress.
Widdowson’s provocative argument that Indigenous culture must evolve to succeed is laid out in her 2008 book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (co-authored with her husband Albert Howard) and 2019’s Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency.
From this basis Widdowson (who characterizes her political perspective as “historical materialism,” an off-shoot of Marxism) criticizes the current fashion of land acknowledgements as empty gestures, disputes the notion that “Indigenous science” is a valid form of scientific inquiry and disputes claims that Canada’s residential school system amounted to genocide. Along the way, she’s also found time to critique Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and numerous other hot-button topics. Never one to shrink from a fight, her preferred term for proponents of the new woke ideology on campus is “race-hustler.”
Having packed several lifetimes worth of controversy onto her résumé, Widdowson unsurprisingly found herself the focus of intense ire from a long list of academics, students and activists who disagreed with her views. In 2020 some of her colleagues staged a boycott of her work and refused to collaborate with publishers who supported her. Another launched a complaint about her “national anti-Indigenous reputation” and “racist” behaviour. Prior to her dismissal, an MRU student petition calling for her to be fired had over 6,000 signatures. MRU’s student association executive also voted unanimously to condemn her.
The sheer volume of complaints appears to have played a significant factor in her termination. In his December 20 dismissal letter to Widdowson, MRU president Tim Rahilly lists 12 reasons why her continued employment at the school is “non-viable.” Among this dozen are (#1) “students have raised numerous complaints and concerns regarding your conduct”; (#2) “Mount Royal has received an abundance of complaints from external parties”; (#6) “an inordinate amount of resources have (sic) been spent investigating and administrating complaints filed by you or about you since the summer of 2020”; and (#8) “a number of your former colleagues have indicated they have departed the University as a result of or influenced by you and your actions.” There is, in other words, no question that a lot of people don’t like what Widdowson has to say or how she says it.
Throughout all this opprobrium, however, Widdowson’s job at the school had until now been protected by tenure, a form of job security peculiar to universities that allows academics to delve into controversial or unpopular topics without fear of reprisal from administration. “I wouldn’t be here if tenure didn’t exist,” she admitted in a 2020 interview with C2C Journal. “Tenure gets to the foundation of the university.” Two years later, that foundation has clearly shifted.
A Problematic Professor from Another Era
Widdowson is not the first problematic professor to raise the hackles of critics or create headaches for university presidents. Consider the case of Frank Underhill, an accomplished professor of history at the University of Toronto in the 1930s. Like Widdowson, he too found it impossible to avoid speaking out about his scholarly passions, which ran to pacifism, Fabian socialism and free speech. And for this, he often found his job security threatened.
Throughout the 1930s Underhill, who was a First World War veteran, argued that Canada should shift its foreign policy allegiances from Great Britain to the United States to avoid being drawn into a second European war. “We must make it clear to the world, and especially to Great Britain, that the poppies blooming in Flanders fields have no further interest for us,” he declared. At a time when conventional wisdom held that Canada’s fate was intimately and permanently tied to the British Empire, such a statement was considered heretical. Given the veneration shown Canada’s war dead, his reference to poppies added further fuel to the fire.
Alongside a heated media outcry, Underhill’s views also attracted intense political scrutiny. In 1939, Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP (and future premier) George Drew declared “the time has come to stop…permanently” Underhill’s public commentary. Ontario’s Liberal Premier Mitch Hepburn seemed to agree, hinting vaguely in the legislature that the university’s provincial funding could at risk if it did not cut ties with the unpopular professor. Underhill continued undeterred. “If professors at Toronto must keep their mouths shut in order to preserve the autonomy of the University,” he once wrote, “then that autonomy is already lost.”
Complaints about Underhill reached a crescendo in August 1940. As the Battle of Britain was raging, he provocatively told a conference that Canada “can no longer put all our eggs in the British basket.” Newspaper editorials exploded in fury and the university was inundated with letters demanding that the outspoken professor be fired as “a menace to truth and patriotism,” as one correspondent put it. Former Prime Minister Arthur Meighen privately urged the federal government to arrest Underhill. “Whether he goes or stays there will be trouble of some kind,” mused University of Toronto president Henry John Cody, who alone had the power to fire Underhill. After initially deciding to dismiss Underhill because of the threat he posed to the school’s reputation – and despite the school’s Board of Governors voting 7-4 in favour of doing so – Cody eventually recanted and allowed Underhill to keep his job.
Cody’s decision to protect Underhill’s right to offend his critics in the face of deafening demands for his head is often held up as a signal moment in the development of tenure in Canada. That Underhill was eventually proven largely correct in his assessment of Canada’s future foreign policy trajectory adds extra poignancy to his tale. But it should not distract from the core lesson: the ability to criticize widely-held beliefs or prevailing political dogma without fear of career-ending reprisal is an essential component of the academic mission. Perhaps the most important one.
Mark Mercer is president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and chair of philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In an interview, he calls the Underhill saga “an important case in the protection of academic freedoms in Canada.” And while there is a clear parallel between Underhill and modern-day dissidents like Widdowson, what is different today is the apparent lack of commitment shown for the once-sacred goal of unfettered academic inquiry and debate. “That freedom, unfortunately, is now eroding very quickly,” worries Mercer.
When Tenure and Respect Collide
It should be noted that MRU claims to support the concept of tenure even as it tosses Widdowson overboard. The school’s official statement on Widdowson’s termination includes the boilerplate line that, “The university unequivocally supports academic freedom and will always defend the rights of faculty related to academic freedom.” Yet this “unequivocal support” comes with a caveat. “Academic freedom does not justify harassment or discrimination,” it adds.
Where the notion of tenure was still under development in Underhill’s day (and wouldn’t become fully formed until the late 1950s), Widdowson faces a distinctly new and modern obstacle. Tenure is no longer the pre-eminent concept on campus regarding the conduct of academics. Today it must share the stage with rapidly-evolving “codes of conduct” meant to keep universities free from ostensible harassment and discrimination. Such codes are often vague, highly subjective and easily weaponizable.
They also serve a purpose exactly contrary to tenure by limiting rather than protecting what people can say. MRU’s anti-harassment policy, for example, requires employees to “maintain an environment in which the dignity and worth of all members of the Mount Royal community are respected.” In many cases, the mere fact Widdowson holds opinions others find offensive can trigger allegations of harassment and discrimination.
“To get around the protections of tenure, the concept of harassment has been expanded far beyond its traditional meaning by policies that call for ‘safe and respectful conduct’,” observes Mercer, who sent a letter to Rahilly objecting to Widdowson’s firing. “Now the concept of respect entails a requirement to hold other people’s ways of thinking in esteem, or to celebrate their identity.” The danger for heterodox thinkers such as Widdowson, says Mercer, is that “to articulate a critical view of something that is taken as being an essential component of someone’s identity is now considered harassment and can be grounds for discipline or firing.” But this naturally precludes critical examination of many important and contestable concepts, especially when it comes to identity. Mercer adds, with noticeable unease, “Administrators now seem to take it as their job to make sure certain things don’t get said on campus.”
Let a Thousand Complaints Bloom
Recall that Reason #8 in Rahilly’s December 20 dismissal letter refers to a claim that several faculty members say they fled the school because of Widdowson’s activities. One apparent case involves Indigenous Studies professor Ranae Watchman, who moved from MRU to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in 2021 after delivering a fiery 25-page complaint to MRU administrators explaining why she was unable to abide the presence of Widdowson. Among her many picayune reasons is the fact Widdowson prefers to spell the acronym for the school’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policy as “DIE” instead of “EDI.” Another problem: Widdowson “refuses to capitalize the word Indigenous.” Watchman claims this reflects a worrisome lack of respect for native issues. (Curiously, the school’s academic vice-president of indigenization and decolonization, dr. linda manyguns, also refuses to capitalize her own name.)
Beyond objecting to Widdowson’s spelling habits, many of Watchman’s other complaints fixate on her own feelings, rather than matters of credible academic scholarship or the proper role of the university as a forum for debate. “F. Widdowson did not acknowledge my presence at MRU for the first two years of my employment. To ignore someone is to make them invisible,” Watchman gripes.
Another complaint the school was obligated to investigate concerned a public talk Widdowson attended at the University of Calgary in 2019 given by American Indigenous academic Gregory Cajete, who is an expert on traditional “star knowledge.” Following the event, Widdowson was accused of making remarks that were “racist and discriminatory.” Only after a lengthy investigation was it revealed that Widdowson – who records all her own public statements for precisely this reason – had merely asked Cajete how an Indigenous body of knowledge that predates the telescope could be incorporated into a modern astronomy curriculum.
Widdowson’s question at Cajete’s talk was a serious and necessary matter. When confronted with the actual transcript of the event, Widdowson’s accuser later admitted she couldn’t remember “word for word” what had been said. Rather she said the question felt “disrespectful” because she perceived its goal was to “invalidate Indigenous knowledge, science and technologies.”
While the investigator dismissed this particular complaint, the incident speaks less to harassment by Widdowson than of harassment directed at her. Her mere presence so infuriates her critics that almost anything she says or does, regardless of how relevant it may be to academic inquiry, can trigger a complaint. Consider it the “kitchen sink” approach to de-platforming a tenured professor. Even if an individual complaint is eventually dismissed, it nevertheless adds to the number of investigations and general sense of outrage, bolstering Rahilly’s claim that her continued presence on campus is untenable precisely because so many people want her gone.
A Totalitarian Mindset
Another potentially crucial factor in Widdowson’s travails at MRU involves the university’s indigenization process. One of the “Calls to Action” arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, indigenization is a term without any agreed upon definition or end point. It may actually impede the pursuit of Western-style empirical knowledge by elevating “different ways of knowing” to an equivalent level. Regardless, most Canadian universities have eagerly declared their commitment to the concept; MRU is at the forefront of this parade, boasting of a plan that will eventually require all graduates to earn at least three credits in Indigenous course work. Widdowson’s repeated and trenchant critiques of indigenization presumably pose a significant threat to the school’s brand identity and marketing efforts.
Significantly, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a national body that once styled itself as a defender of academic freedom, is also deeply involved in promoting the indigenization of Canadian universities. CAUT declined repeated requests from C2C Journal to comment on the implications for tenure and academic inquiry arising from Widdowson’s firing. Other than her union and SAFS, she appears to be largely alone in this fight.
“My situation gives the public a sense of how the academic mission of universities has been completely corroded by identity politics and the adoption of a totalitarian mindset,” says Widdowson in a lengthy interview a few weeks after her dismissal. “It is making it impossible for people like me to exist at a university.” Despite the obstacles, however, she says she plans to fight to get her old job back. “I want to be fully reinstated,” she states firmly, staking her hopes on the upcoming arbitration process, expected to begin within the year. “If this doesn’t get overturned by an arbitrator, there is something seriously wrong with the system.”
The stakes are extremely high for post-secondary institutions throughout Canada. “If the university succeeds with its case, it will essentially be the end of tenure as we know it,” says Howard Levitt, one of Canada’s best-known employment lawyers, in an interview. While the Toronto-based lawyer is not involved directly in the case, he points out that tenure is a specific legal shield offered to all academics in recognition of the vital part they play in society.
“The whole point of a university is to encourage students to develop intellectually by being exposed to a diversity of opinions,” Levitt says. “With tenure, professors are provided a higher level of protection than what is offered to any corporate executive in recognition of this important role. Unless her opinions have violated the Criminal Code or breached human rights statutes, [Widdowson] is entitled to have her opinions.” Adds Levitt, “The fact people feel disrespected is simply part of the process.”
Despite the best efforts of her many critics, however, Widdowson is often her own worst enemy when it comes to her public reputation. While tenure offers specific protections for academics in the course of their scholarly work, she frequently takes the fight “outside,” so to speak, by engaging with her foes in the battlefield-cum-cesspool of social media. The musings of her satirical Twitter persona “francXs mcgrath,” whom she presents as her own fiercest critic and uses to “attack” herself in overblown fashion, could prove to be her biggest liability in the upcoming arbitration hearing. This determination to engage with her adversaries in provocative ways leaves her dangerously exposed to the strictures of her school’s code of conduct, which applies to all identifiable members of MRU wherever they may be.
One instance among many is a satirical document she posted under her own name in July 2020 responding to an earlier public letter demanding mandatory anti-racism training at MRU. With tongue in cheek, Widdowson declared the original proposal didn’t go nearly far enough. Rather, she said, a wholesale purge of the entire “white supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchal” hierarchy was called for.
“Really edgy”: Widdowson uses her Twitter persona francXs mcgrath to engage in satire and discourse on social media, often at the peril of offending MRU’s code of conduct.
To accomplish this, she unveiled an “Oppression Points System” of her own design. Males received one point. Whites one point. Cis-gendered one point, and so on. She then applied this calculation to all the signatories of the public letter, making only a modest attempt at obscuring their names, and declaring that anyone scoring 3.5 or more should resign immediately. A humourless MRU investigation into the matter concluded her “attempts to ‘satirize’…degenerates into ridicule and [is] demeaning of others.” Since this was found to violate the school’s anti-harassment policy, she was suspended without pay for 12 days in early 2021.
More recently, she sought to mock the Canadian Historical Society’s claim that it is a proven fact Canada committed genocide against its Indigenous population by having “francXs mcgrath” post a picture of the Canadian flag with a swastika superimposed on the maple leaf and making the claim that celebrating Canada Day was equivalent to celebrating Hitler’s birthday. Not everyone got the joke. Widdowson admits her comedic tendencies are “really edgy,” but claims it is a necessary tool. Since her critics refuse debate with her on substantive matters, “I’m trying to speak truth through satire. It’s about all I have left.”
Even outside of satire, however, it is becoming increasingly clear any comment perceived to diverge from a very narrow range of acceptable views is now forbidden on campuses across Canada. Last fall, for example, Daniel Page of the University of Regina’s computer science department posted “Yikes!” to a social media announcement that his school was creating two scholarships exclusively for LGBTQ2IA+ students. Despite clarifying that his one-word outburst was based on his belief that financial awards should be distributed on the basis of “affordability/accessibility/standards” rather than gender identity, he was accused of “espousing homophobia” and subsequently issued a sternly-worded “letter of expectation” by his dean.
After many complaints about her “Oppression Points” letter, Widdowson says she ceased social media posts that ridiculed identifiable opponents, opting instead for generic but inflammatory efforts such as her swastika flag gambit. Whether this was a wise move or not, the attacks against her – often anonymously posted – continue. “They can defame me and no one cares,” Widdowson laments. “But when I defend myself or launch my own complaints, it becomes harassment. As a free speech advocate, I don’t want to curtail what people can say on social media. In fact, I’m perfectly happy to co-exist with anyone.”
Her critics don’t seem prepared to take her up on her live-and-let-live offer. As Niigaan Sinclair, a prominent Indigenous studies professor at the University of Manitoba, put it in a Dec. 23 tweet, “News that Frances Widdowson has been removed … from Mount Royal University is the holiday present that gives and gives and gives and gives.”
Searching for a Marketplace of Ideas
Amid the toxic atmosphere of social media, it is necessary to remember that the schoolyard taunts dominating l’affaire Widdowson are mere distractions from the real and serious matter at hand. All the attacks, petitions, slurs, departures and ham-handed satirical rejoinders have as their root cause the body of Widdowson’s academic work. That complaints against her are framed as violations of the school’s harassment code masks an essential truth: her critics fundamentally disagree with her scholarly argument that native communities are at an earlier stage of development compared to modern society and must catch-up if they want to succeed. It was here that the case against Widdowson began. And it is from here that all subsequent conflict, however manifested, flows.
Widdowson’s stance that Indigenous culture is obligated to evolve may be detestable to many. It is, however, a position that can be challenged and debated in a civilized manner. Yet this is precisely what her opponents do not want to do. Rather than engage with her ideas, they prefer to smear her as a racist in order to undermine the protection of tenure via the school’s code of conduct and human rights policies. And in enabling this strategy, MRU is tacitly rejecting the academic mission at the core of any university.
“Imposing an ideology is not what universities are for,” Widdowson states, harkening to a Platonic ideal of the academy as a place where diverse viewpoints are allowed to grow and compete on their own merits. “Universities are supposed to be institutions where people can pursue the truth. Instead, people are trying to turn them into ideological training grounds.”
There are still a few lonely voices who share Widdowson’s concern, recognize the scope of the problem and are willing to take the risk of speaking out. John Richards is a professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Policy Studies whose work on Indigenous policy has been published widely in Canada, including by the influential C.D. Howe Institute. He is a supporter of expansive treaty rights and a liberal approach to reconciliation; in the early 1970s he sat as an independent socialist MLA in Saskatchewan. Richards says he is “not in Frances Widdowson’s camp” with respect to her views on native culture, and finds her work overly dogmatic and antiquated. But he is a rare mainstream scholar working on Indigenous issues who is prepared to publicly lament her ouster.
“You will not find anyone in an Indigenous studies program in this country who is doing what she is doing,” Richards says. “Her work is valuable and she raises legitimate concerns” regarding the cultural gap between native society and the rest of Canada, as well as the uncertain nature of Indigenous science. And whether or not Widdowson has a tendency to go “over the top” with her social media posts, Richards says, “her opinions are not inspired by racism – that is complete nonsense. She has a firm academic basis for her beliefs. And it is very unfair that she has been hounded in this way. If I was in a position of authority, I’d want her in my department.”
That Widdowson’s academic career now hangs on the decision of an arbitrator raises critical questions about the future of all universities as places for unfettered debate. “The majority position has become very intolerant in Canadian universities,” warns Richards. “The result is to lower the pursuit of knowledge to the level of advocacy.” For woke activists intent on cleansing their campuses, the playbook for removing problematic professors is now crystal clear: negate the protection of tenure via claims of harassment.
Widdowson stands as one of the most prominent victims of this malevolent process. Jordan Peterson, who recently left the University of Toronto after being hounded in similar fashion, is another. There have been many other less prominent although equally devastating cases. And there will be many more as Canadian universities continue their descent into ideological monocultures.
“You Belong Here” reads MRU’s marketing slogan. Based on the school’s recent actions, that motto seems incomplete. “But Not If We Disagree With You” properly completes the couplet. The search for truth has lost its way.
Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor of C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.