Throughout 2020, the university where I work – Mount Royal University (MRU) – went through some fundamental changes with respect to promoting academic freedom and open inquiry. Since the killing of George Floyd, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become increasingly difficult to rationally discuss matters pertaining to “BIPOC” (black, indigenous, and people of colour) issues.
Academic discussion has become particularly fraught with respect to the historical nature of the indigenous residential schools system. It has been decided that the “correct” view is that the schools were “genocidal”. As a result, on September 11, 2020, General Faculties Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of the following motion:
“THAT Mount Royal University acknowledges the genocide done to Indigenous peoples by colonization and the trauma inflicted by the residential school system, and supports the ongoing work of reconciliation, including the objectives set out in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This acknowledgement brings a responsibility to provide a culturally-safe learning and work environment in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings and MRU’s Indigenous Strategic Plan. MRU is committed to strengthening our commitment to decolonization, as stated in the five goals of our Indigenous Strategic Plan. We will: 1) Cultivate respectful and welcoming environments that prevail over the legacy of colonization; 2) Foster respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge production to increase capacity for Indigenous scholarship; 3) Build strong connections by forging mutually supportive and productive partnerships with all stakeholders in Indigenous education; 4) Work with our communities to enhance the academic, personal and cultural experience of Indigenous learners; 5) Promote culturally responsible and respectful curricula that integrates [sic] Indigenous pedagogies and ways of knowing”.
At about the same time that this motion was put forward, a petition was circulating demanding that I be fired. One of the reasons given for starting the petition was that I did an interview with the Western Standard, where I argued that, while the residential schools had serious problems, they provided an education that would not be otherwise available. This led a number of students to make comments that MRU had no place for a professor who spread “dangerous information” such as this. The claims of a number of MRU professors were even more strident, asserting that my arguments constituted “racism”, “hate”, “genocide denialism”, and “epistemic violence”.
The relationship between the petition and the motion at General Faculties Council can never be known, but the two share an assumption. It is that whether the residential schools were genocidal is not a matter that can scrutinized in academic discussion and debate; that they were has become dogma at MRU. It is an article of faith that cannot be challenged, even by those who have evidence that contradicts it.
This was not always the case. I have been challenging the “genocide” narrative about the residential schools for several years, but it was not until 2020 that orthodoxy was demanded. In fact, my co-author, Albert Howard, and I had stated in 2008 that calling the residential schools genocidal constituted a “hysterical” claim (Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, p. 26). I decided to re-enter debates about the subject in 2017, after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. Because the discussion was becoming increasingly one-sided as ideological pressure to conform intensified, I presented a paper on the subject at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association. While the presentation was controversial, and required security guards because of the reaction generated by Barbara Kay’s column in the National Post discussing its arguments, no protest materialized and an informative academic discussion took place.
Although the conference presentation went well, my paper sparked some hostile responses at MRU. Kay’s coverage resulted in the President of the Students’ Association and three professors claiming that I should be “called out” for my hateful racist views, and that MRU deserved better educators. This, however, was not the dominant position at my university. Most people saw the attacks from my colleagues as inappropriate, and I was confident that my academic freedom would be protected, as it had been in the past, both by the Mount Royal Faculty Association and by MRU administrators.
In 2020, however, I am no longer so self-assured. It is now extremely difficult to challenge the “genocide” narrative at MRU without serious consequences. This is because MRU’s slogan “You Belong Here” is used to buttress the claim that my arguments make the university “unsafe” for indigenous faculty and students. “Mount Royal University” has declared that everyone has a “responsibility to provide a culturally-safe learning and work environment in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings and MRU’s Indigenous Strategic Plan”. What professor in their right mind would question the “genocide” narrative when doing so results in the professor being mobbed, with the tacit support of their university for not “provid[ing] a culturally-safe learning and work environment”?
How did MRU, which once protected me when I put forward controversial positions, become a place where academic discussions about historical facts now result in demands for sanctions? The story is complicated, but largely involves the increasing prominence of applied postmodernism (colloquially referred to as “wokeism”) throughout the university. With the widespread acceptance of this reactionary ideology, it is believed that the voices of those perceived to be oppressed must be amplified to create a highly contentious vision of “Social Justice”. This has led to growing support for the suppression of views that are believed to be contrary to indigenous aspirations.
While MRU’s original acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Calls to Action” was seen as a way of supporting indigenous people, the most recent motion to affirm them shows the negative impact that this is having on academic freedom and open inquiry. From the very beginning, I never understood why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was being used as the rationale to develop various policies at universities. As many professors (and faculty associations) would state in almost any other context, university autonomy requires that academic decisions be made by those with expertise in the area. While we might want to adopt some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, shouldn’t this be done only after it was demonstrated that they were justified academically?
The most ironic aspect of all of this is that the title of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report implies that truth is necessary in order for reconciliation to occur. The pursuit of truth with respect to the nature of the residential schools is not possible at MRU, however, because we are told that “reconciliation” requires “[f]oster[ing] respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge production…” and “[p]romot[ing] culturally responsible and respectful curricula that integrates [sic] Indigenous pedagogies and ways of knowing”. In other words, MRU is demanding that critical thought be abandoned. And while lip service is paid to the fact MRU’s Collective Agreement protects dissent in its academic freedom provisions, this does not consider the hostile climate that has been created for open inquiry regarding this subject. By taking a position on an academic matter, the university is sending a signal to faculty members and students that prescribed doctrine should determine how they think. With one vote, MRU has gone from an academic university to a religious institution that issues commandments.