An hour before a controversial former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson was planning to speak at the University of Lethbridge, students could be seen filling the U Hall atrium.
But it was clear many weren’t interested in hearing her speak. They were preparing to send a message.
Widdowson has sparked some controversy in recent years, making headlines with her comments about residential schools.
It was confirmed last year she was fired from MRU in Calgary for allegations of workplace harassment and intimidation. Her case is in arbitration and MRU told Global News that the case remains confidential.
She was fired amid controversy over comments she made lauding the educational benefits of Canada’s residential school system while questioning whether abuses at the schools against Indigenous children equated to “cultural genocide,” as described in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Widdowson was invited then disinvited to speak on campus this week about her concerns that a mob mentality and “woke policies” increasingly threaten academic freedom.
About 2,500 students signed a petition pushing back on the university for hosting the speech.
Earlier this week, the university rescinded space for Widdowson to speak after immense backlash, but she announced on Facebook she planned to attend regardless, stating she would have to be hauled away by security to be stopped.
Her presentation: “How ‘Woke-Ism’ Threatens Academic Freedom.”
Kairvee Bhatt, president of the U of L Students’ Union, said students decided to rent the space on Wednesday for their own “celebration.”
“We’re here to really amplify Black voices, trans voices, Indigenous voices,” she said. “This is really a show of support for our entire community here on campus given some difficult times that we’re facing.”
The atrium was adorned with “Every Child Matters” posters, and one individual was handing out a flyers with the words “racism is not free speech.”
Students, staff, faculty, and members of the community, including members of the Metis Nation of Alberta, were in attendance.
“This talk is not going to be happening here,” Bhatt told media before the event.
“She was given notice that the talk is cancelled on campus. If she wants to come by here she’s welcome to join in on our round dance, she’s welcomed to join in on the festivities, she’s welcomed to play a game of ping pong with us — but that’s all that’s going to be happening here.”
Widdowson arrived around 4:30 p.m., and observed and applauded the drumming and dancing. But it quickly became clear she wouldn’t be able to give her lecture there, and tried to move to a different location.
She was followed and said she ultimately left the building around 5 p.m. with the help of security.
“I wasn’t afraid or anything,” Widdowson told Global News after the fact. “I wasn’t threatened by it.
“I was just sort of disappointed that I wasn’t able to speak.”
Mike Mahon, president of vice-chancellor of the U of L, released a statement regarding the peaceful protest.
“Earlier tonight, over 700 students, staff, faculty and community supporters engaged in a protest of a controversial speaker, and another large group attended a lecture on the importance of truth before reconciliation,” Mahon’s statement read.
“Tonight’s events were a coming together of our community to show support for each other and a reflection of the values of the University of Lethbridge.
“I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.”
Widdowson added she gave a successful talk to a class of philosophy students on Tuesday, at the invitation of a professor.
“It was an excellent class,” she said.
“I was really, very very heartened by the students. They didn’t agree with me. They had very important questions that they wanted to ask.”
Widdowson said she gave the planned lecture that didn’t happen in-person through on Zoom Wednesday at 7 p.m.
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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