Offended by Offence

University protests and freedom of speech

On November 12, 2010 a group of protesters, largely from the group Anti-Racist Action, prevented Christie Blatchford from speaking at the University of Waterloo.  The university bookstore had invited Blatchford to discuss her book Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, How the Law Failed All of Us.  The protesters occupied the stage, chaining themselves together with bicycle locks, and chanted “racist, racist, racist”.  The university, which wanted to avoid politically damaging images of “security dragging three people off the stage”, chose to cancel Blatchford’s talk.

This incident raises a number of troubling questions regarding freedom of speech at universities.  These questions were faced by Mount Royal University – the institution at which I teach – in May 2010, but they were dealt with much more satisfactorily than at the University of Waterloo.  In May of this year I organized a second “New Directions in Aboriginal Policy” forum at the university, where Gary McHale and Mark Vandermaas (both featured in Blatchford’s book) were invited to give their perspective on the Caledonia conflict.  When this became known, a number of academics across the country signed a petition “condemning” their presence.  These academics maintained that allowing McHale and Vandermaas to speak would “give these anti-Native agitators an academic stage to parade their false allegations and half-truths” and would “serve to normalize racism, aggression, appropriation, and citizen-led militias as tools to solve localized conflicts over Indigenous lands”.  What was needed, in their view, was “a recognition of Indigenous land rights, nation to nation negotiations and the peaceful settlement of land claims”.

Although Mount Royal was pressured, even by some of its own faculty, to “reconsider this travesty”, the university acted in a manner that was consistent with its mandate to promote public debate and freedom of expression.  Instead of bowing to the demands for censorship, a representative from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, Wes Elliott, was provided with funding to come to the event from Ontario and challenge the views of McHale and Vandermaas (I had tried for many months to have an academic from Alberta do this but these efforts were in vain).  Security also was on high alert in case there were attempts to prevent people from presenting their views.

Fortunately, coercion was not necessary. All the discussions took place in a constructive fashion, and I even witnessed Wes Elliott and Gary McHale having a civil conversation in the Faculty Centre after the event.  Strangely, Kate Milley, a “white settler academic” associated with the organization that initiated the petition, actually attended the forum “to see for [herself] what was going on”.  So, after counseling a boycott of the event, Milley then went about publicizing her own, highly selective, interpretation of the proceedings.

Although I must admit that I was relieved that no one had to be forcibly removed from the venue, universities should recognize that this must be the course of action if we are to protect the free exchange of ideas on our campuses.  It is now becoming standard practice to make unsubstantiated accusations about racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy, etc. to silence disliked, and possibly true, opinions. Christie Blatchford is the latest target of such smear tactics, and this will almost certainly happen again.  Solidaritists watching the Blatchford affair will be emboldened by the University of Waterloo’s impotence; if these censors are not opposed, we will be effectively asking students to vet who is allowed to speak.  This does not mean that protests should be prohibited; they just should be prevented from stifling the viewpoints of opponents.

It is a cruel irony that the student movement, which used to fight for the right to express controversial opinions, is now shutting them down.  They are doing this because they have become religious, as opposed to scientific, in their outlook.  They believe that they know the truth, and, like a preacher at a pulpit, refuse to listen to the blasphemy of “the Devil”.  They have become “defenders of the faith”, and believe, like kindly inquisitors, that those holding views deemed harmful for society should be punished.

This attitude is shown by the claims made about Blatchford and McHale and Vandermaas.  Dan Kellar, one of the protesters opposing Blatchford, for example, maintains that Blatchford should not be allowed to speak because she is “tak[ing] things out of context” and “ignoring history”.  But how do we know if this is the case if Blatchford is not able to present her views and respond to criticisms?  In the case of McHale and Vandermaas, what are their “false allegations and half truths”, and how can it be shown that their views “serve to normalize racism”?  What evidence supports the view of  indigenous solidarity groups that a “recognition of Indigenous land rights, nation to nation negotiations and the peaceful settlement of land claims” would resolve the conflicts existing in Caledonia and the rest of the country?

There is no doubt that the resolution of aboriginal-non-aboriginal conflicts in Canada will be difficult.  The quagmire that is Caledonia is very difficult to understand, and no one, at this point, has access to all the necessary information.  But the greater the complexity of the issue, the more that vigorous debate is necessary.  Stifling freedom of speech by making wild accusations of racism, and even comparing individuals to Nazi war criminals, only makes it more likely that knowledgeable people will remain silent, and unrealistic and harmful policy decisions will be made.   All people, regardless of their culture and ancestry, must learn to speak openly and honestly in public forums, since this is the only way that we will learn how to live with one another.