University of Lethbridge says speech from controversial professor moved off campus

U of L says a speech by a controversial former Mount Royal University professor who was fired in late 2021 won't be allowed space on campus. But Frances Widdowson says they'll have to 'haul' her away to stop her.

'They will have to call security and forcibly haul me away to stop me,' professor says

A building is shown on the left side of a collage, while a photo of a woman looking at the camera is shown on the right.
At left, a file photo of the University of Lethbridge campus. At right, a photo of former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson. On Monday, the University of Lethbridge said it won't provide a space for her planned lecture to take place on campus. (Michael Warf, Facebook)

The University of Lethbridge says a speech by a former Mount Royal University professor who was fired in 2021 amid an uproar over her controversial comments on residential schools won't be allowed space on campus.

But the academic says she still intends to show up and give her talk entitled, "How 'Woke-ism Threatens Academic Freedom.'"

"They will have to call security and forcibly haul me away to stop me," Frances Widdowson wrote to CBC News in an email on Monday.

Widdowson had been scheduled this week to provide a lecture Wednesday night on the U of L campus.

Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the university, wrote in a statement Monday that the U of L had sought guidance over the past few days upon learning of the planned lecture involving Widdowson. 

That was a turnaround from a Thursday statement from the U of L. In that statement, Mahon wrote that Widdowson's views were in conflict with those held by the university, including its stated commitment to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

However, it added the lecture would be allowed to proceed, citing its policies on free expression.

On Monday, Mahon said that the U of L had received "considerable input" from both internal and external communities.

"This input confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada's residential school system are harmful," Mahon wrote.

Days of pushback

Mahon was responding to days of protest from students and some faculty.

Widdowson had been invited to speak on campus by faculty member Paul Viminitz, who works in the philosophy department at the university. Viminitz declined a request for an interview.

Two petitions had received more than 2,500 signatures demanding the speech be cancelled, as of publication time.

"The atrocities that occurred within the Indian residential school system are 100 per cent accurate and true, and I strongly feel that Frances Widdowson's attendance on our campus devalues the opinions and shared histories of the many survivors who attended this colonial system," reads one of the petitions.

Mike Mahon, a grey-haired man with classes in a business suit, stands in front of a college building surrounded by trees.
Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the university, wrote in a statement on Monday that the U of L would not provide space for a public lecture by Frances Widdowson, a controversial former professor at MRU in Calgary. (Submitted by University of Lethbridge)

Prior to being fired, Widdowson had been a tenured professor at MRU in the department of economics, justice and policy studies. She made headlines in 2020 after saying the Black Lives Matter movement had destroyed the university and that there had been an educational benefit to residential schools. 

That prompted more than 6,000 people to call for her firing via a petition. She was dismissed from the Calgary institution in late 2021. At the time, she attributed her firing to her criticizing "woke ideas" and suggested that "identity politics" had prevented people from discussing ideas at the university.

Since then, she's made such subjects a regular part of her public appearances.

"The open exchange of ideas and the ability to debate a wide range of topics are under threat in universities today," Widdowson wrote on an online fundraising page she said would fund legal services and research assistance.

"Promoting critical thinking has been gradually overtaken by identity politics that has become totalitarian, which is the focus of the de-Enlightenment agenda of 'woke-ism.'"

That page had raised more than $39,000 as of Jan. 30. She wrote that the school's faculty association was taking her case to arbitration this month.

Widdowson has been cheered by some as an example of the alleged erosion of academic freedom on university campuses. But her comments have also drawn heavy criticism, with others suggesting they amount to harmful historical falsities.

Nathan Crow, a full-time student at the U of L and the Indigenous student representative on the University of Lethbridge student's union council, said the spreading of false narratives can be harmful.

"Obviously, I support the notion of freedom of expression, but not when it specifically discriminates a certain demographic within our institution," he said, adding he was proud to see the pushback from the university's non-Indigenous allies.


Ose Irete

VJ - Lethbridge Bureau

Ose Irete is a Video Journalist with the CBC Lethbridge bureau. He has covered migration, sports, and music. He hopes to one day eat junk food in every country in the world.