The Emptiness of Compelled Speech

April 2021

Back in the GDR, when I started grade 11 our “art-education” teacher asked us to paint a picture of a summer memory. I had spent part of this summer near a lake and fallen in love for the first time. So I submitted a romantic picture of a couple in a canoe in the middle of a lake in the woods. My teacher complimented me on the composition and colour choice. But, she said, “your work is entirely apolitical. If you want to get it in ‘the exhibition’ [display at the walls of our high-school] you need to add something showing that we’re living in a time of global class struggle” (our term for the cold war). Exasperated I said: “But it was in the middle of the woods, there was nothing…”. She thought for a moment and then suggested: “How about you add two NVA soldiers. They are always close by and they always protect us”. The idea that some soldiers had watched us while we were making out on the lake seemed rather creepy. But, reluctantly, I added the requested soldiers to my picture. The picture “made it” into the exhibition and was displayed for the rest of the school year. I do not know what those who saw it thought about the soldiers. But I do know that they were not able to tell the difference between the voluntary and compelled aspects of my picture.

The increase of compelled speech or compelled action in Canadian universities reminds me of this episode. In addition to traditional requirements for new employees (like familiarizing themselves with the overarching set of policies and procedures and the Employee Code of Conduct), more and more Canadian universities require that new employees complete mandatory modules that cover topics like “Respect in the Workplace”, “Workplace Violence Prevention”, “Sexual Assault Prevention”, “Diversity Training”, “Anti-BiasTraining” or “Indigenous Awareness”. The goal of this increasing “course-load” of mandatory sensitivity training is to create a safe and inclusive workplace.

Dalhousie University expresses the expectations in their mission statement: “The collective talents of students, faculty and staff at Dalhousie are maximized in communities and environments that are welcoming and inclusive, where our differences provide dynamism and vibrancy to and enrich the life and work of the university, and where everyone feels a sense of belonging and is empowered to both fully contribute and achieve their best.”

Students also have to take mandatory courses that fall under the ever increasing “Diversity and Inclusion” umbrella and are not directly or indirectly related to the degree they study for. Interestingly, not just educators or university administrators call for such mandatory courses, but some students literally request them. For example, Emily Ernst argues that “an intro to Indigenous studies course should be mandatory for all university students – especially those that are studying the social sciences.” They express hope that if we implement such mandatory indigenous education “we will see the stigma surrounding such an important part of Canadian society begin to decline” (Ernst, 2020). Similarly, Kasia Proce argues “that Indigenous education should be a mandatory first-year course in all Canadian universities”. They believe this is important because “the future of reconciliation and peace is in the hands of our youth” (Proce, 2020).

Some might argue that implementing mandatory courses interferes with academic freedom. But if mandatory sensitivity and inclusion training results in safer and more diverse workplaces, then compromising academic freedom might be justified. So, the question is: are university campuses safer and more inclusive because of mandatory sensitivity training? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: NO.

According to Statistics Canada “A majority (71%) of students at Canadian postsecondary schools witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting in 2019—either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school. Among students, 45% of those who identified as women and 32% of those who identified as men personally experienced at least one such behaviour in the context of their postsecondary studies” (Burczycka, 2020).

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, it was alleged that students in particular are exposed to “systemic racism across Canadian universities. Examples include discriminatory treatment during adjudication proceedings and professors cavalierly using racial slurs in their lectures” (Deckard et al. 2021). The Fifth Estate reported that “[s]tudents, staff and faculty at some of Canada’s largest universities say they have experienced anti-Black racism on campus, and that they were targeted if they spoke out about their treatment” (Tomlinson et al. 2021).

Over the last decade the number of mandatory sensitivity and inclusion courses has continuously increased. Virtually all employees and many students have attended those courses and earned an impressive number of completion certificates. But our campuses do not seem to be safer and more inclusive now than they were 10 years ago. How can this be?

I suggest part of the problem is the mandatory nature of the sensitivity and inclusion courses. Lindsay Shepherd describes with refreshing honesty how students can excel in mandatory courses, even when they do not think they learn anything worthwhile: “…as long as the root argument of your papers was ‘colonialism = bad’ and ‘patriarchy = bad,’ you could ace all of your assignments … All you had to do was namedrop the right scholars in your presentations and write your ‘reading reflection papers’ with contemporary academic jargon” (Shepherd, 2021, p.19). Her citing all the right authors and using all the right phrases had the same effect as my including soldiers in my painting: we both convinced our audience that we believed in what was expected of us.

What is true for a course required to complete a degree is certainly true for a course required to keep one’s job. Employees can go through the motions, complete the mandatory assignments, and obtain their certificates. University administrators can show impressive completion rates and convince themselves that they have done everything in their power to improve safety and inclusivity on campus. Yet, “research suggests that [mandatory diversity] training inspires unrealistic confidence in anti-discrimination programs” (Dobbin & Kalev, 2018).

Furthermore, some Indigenous scholars and educators have expressed concerns that mandatory courses could be “counterproductive and backfiring, especially on Indigenous students and faculty” (Kuokkanen, 2016). Instead of generating a genuine interest in and appreciation of Indigenous worldviews and philosophies such courses become “a quick-fix solution or an item on a list, which once checked, needs no further consideration or attention” (Kuokkanen, 2016).

Given this situation, I suggest that instead of increasing the number of mandatory courses we ought to think about meaningful ways of engaging employees and students. Ironically, another student advocating for mandatory indigenous studies courses, Michelle Gaudet, writes: “In my first year of university, I took two elective courses: First Nations Literature and Anthropology of BC First Nations. While I chose the courses out of personal interest and in no way needed for them for my degree, they undoubtedly have influenced the way I engage with the news and cultural events” (Gaudet, 2016).

Being actually interested in the topic seems to be the key to successful inclusivity and diversity education. Gaudet chose the courses because she was interested in them and, presumably, they were delivered in an engaging manner. How then can we get more employees and students interested in taking anti-discrimination or Indigenous studies courses? Perhaps by offering employees and students a choice to participate in such “training” and an opportunity to participate in the design of the courses? Once we move away from meaningless compelled action we might actually progress towards genuine mutual understanding and respect. Not that it hasn’t been suggested before: “The antidiscrimination measures that work best are those that engage decision makers in solving the problem themselves” (Dobbin & Kalev, 2018).


Burczycka, Martha (2020). Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces, 2019.

Deckard, Natalie Delia; Akram, Ayesha Mian & Ku, Jane. (2021). Canadian universities: 10 years of anti-racist reports but little action.

Dobbin, Frank & Kalev, Alexandra (2018). Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? Anthropology Now, 10 (2), 48-55

Ernst, Emily (2019). Mandatory Indigenous studies classes.

Gaudet, Michelle (2016). Implement mandatory Indigenous studies the right way.

Kuokkanen Rauna (2016). Mandatory Indigenous Studies courses aren’t Reconciliation, they’re an easy way out.

Proce, Kasia (2020). Indigenous education should be made mandatory in university.

Shepherd, Lindsay (2021). Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis. Magna Carta Records.

Tomlinson, Asha; Mayor, Lisa & Baksh, Nazim (2021). Being Black on campus: Why students, staff and faculty say universities are failing them.