Calls for U of A lecturer to be fired for denying Holodomor

Several groups are calling for the dismissal of lecturer Dougal MacDonald after images emerged of Facebook posts in which he called the Holodomor, or Ukrainian genocide, a myth.

University says it is monitoring situation

Lianna Makuch has a deep personal connection to the events of Holodomor, so she was appalled when Facebook posts surfaced this week in which a University of Alberta lecturer denied its existence. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Lianna Makuch's grandmother was a Holodomor survivor. Before she died this summer, the 96-year-old shared horror stories from a time when the Soviet Union starved millions of Ukrainians through a man-made famine from 1932 to 1933.

Anna Maryn survived because her father, risking execution, dug up horses buried by Soviet forces and boiled their meat for food. It wasn't enough to save her younger brother.

Holodomor was imposed by Joseph Stalin's regime on Soviet Ukraine. As many as eight million people died. 

Makuch has a deep personal connection to the events of Holodomor, so she was appalled when Facebook posts surfaced this week in which a University of Alberta lecturer denied its existence.

"For somebody to deny this experience is extremely painful for my family," said Makuch, a U of A alumnus. "It dishonours [my grandmother's] memory, her lived experience."

Images, first shared online by the Ukrainian Canadian Students' Union, show a post by Dougal MacDonald with the title "The Myth of the Holodomor," which claims the event was a Nazi fabrication.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the Ukrainian Canadian Students' Union and the local Ukrainian Students' Society are calling for MacDonald to be terminated from the university.

A statement posted to the Jewish Federation of Edmonton Facebook page calls it "irresponsible and deeply dishonest" to deny the existence of Holodomor. Premier Jason Kenney responded through Twitter, saying it was "deeply disturbing to see a university professor of elementary education and former Communist candidate engaged in genocide denial."

MacDonald is listed as an assistant lecturer within the department of elementary education in the faculty of education. In the 2019 federal election, he was a candidate for the Marxist-Leninist Party in Edmonton Strathcona.

University responds

MacDonald's views do not represent those of the university, Deputy Provost Wendy Rodgers said in an email statement.

"As a private citizen, Mr. MacDonald has the right to express his opinion, and others have the right to critique or debate that opinion," she said. "It is our understanding that he has not expressed these views in the context of his employment relationship with the university.

"The university is carefully monitoring this matter, balancing many interests and obligations."

Megan Brownlee, president of the U of A Ukrainian Students' Society, said even if he hasn't been making these comments in the classroom, they are concerned it gives him a platform to do so.

"It's the fact that he does have the ability to if he wants to," she said. "So we're just concerned for the students in his class."

MacDonald's Facebook is private. CBC News could not independently verify the posts, although MacDonald responded to a request for comment. 

In an email statement, he wrote that the controversy is an issue of freedom of speech.

"It is both a human right and a charter right," he said. "I have investigated a historical issue for a number of years and have presented my position on it."

Megan Brownlee is president of the University of Alberta Ukrainian Students' Society, one of several groups calling for the firing of university lecturer Dougal MacDonald. (Raffy Boudjikanian/CBC)

He said insults and calls for his termination are not within the rights of critics, especially since his teaching position "has absolutely nothing to do with this topic."

Reminiscent of 'Soviet propaganda'

Bohdan Klid, the director of research at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, based out of the University of Alberta, said MacDonald's comments reminded him of the Cold War.

"These are the sorts of arguments that one could expect to read in Soviet propaganda from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and early '80s."

Klid said the broad consensus among scholars is that the event was a state-induced famine for which the Soviets were responsible.

"No one today would deny that a famine had taken place," he said. "It's frankly ridiculous."

Holodomor is recognized as a genocide by 16 United Nations countries, including Canada. Alberta commemorated Holodomor Memorial Day on Nov. 23.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian