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Frances Widdowson to speak on campus, IGSA plans counter-event

IGSA co-president says that Widdowson’s scheduled talk creates a “sense of nervousness” amongst students on campus. 

Frances Widdowson, a former Mount Royal University (MRU) professor, is giving a talk on academic freedom at the U of A on January 18. She has sparked controversy in the past for her comments on the residential school system.

After learning of Widdowson’s upcoming talk at the U of A, the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association (IGSA) began organizing a counter-event with the Indigenous Students’ Union (ISU). The event, called “Truth Before Reconciliation: How to Identify and Confront Residential School Denialism,” aims to “counter a narrative that has and continues to cause harm to Indigenous people,” Benjamin Kucher, co-president of the IGSA, said. 

A separate protest is also expected to occur on campus, organized by freetogetheryeg. The Gateway reached out to freetogetheryeg for comment, but didn’t hear back in time for publication. Kucher confirmed that the IGSA wasn’t involved with the planning of this protest.

After complaints about her conduct toward students and faculty were made, Widdowson was fired in 2022 from MRU. In 2020, the university began reviewing concerns made by students and faculty following comments Widdowson made about the Black Lives Matter movement and the residential school system. In February 2023, Widdowson was scheduled to give a talk at the University of Lethbridge. After backlash from students, U of L rescinded space for the event. Despite the cancellation, Widdowson arrived to give her talk, resulting in a protest

Widdowson’s presentation is titled “Academic Freedom Under Threat.” She was invited by Kathleen Lowrey, an associate professor in the department of anthropology. 

IGSA co-president felt “anger, frustration, and disappointment” upon learning of Widdowson’s talk 

The IGSA learned on December 20, 2023 that Widdowson would be giving a talk at the U of A, Kucher said. When he heard Widdowson was coming, Kucher felt “anger, frustration, and disappointment in the university for allowing [her]” to come speak on campus.

Kucher has worked supporting the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor, which works to uncover the missing children and unmarked graves at residential schools. Because he’s involved in this work, hearing that Widdowson was coming to speak was heartbreaking, Kucher said. 

From December 21 to 22, 2023, the IGSA emailed their contacts on campus about the event. On January 2, 2024, a press release on Widdowson’s talk was posted to the Woke Academy website. Woke Academy is a group that aims to “expose the corrosive impact of identity politics that has become totalitarian,” the website says.

Kucher said the IGSA had received questions on who had invited Widdowson, and where letters of opposition could be sent. However, Kucher said the IGSA “never solicited emails of opposition.” To Kucher’s knowledge, only two letters of opposition were sent to the university, he said. 

Kucher said that Widdowson being on campus created a “huge sense of nervousness” amongst students and community members. 

“While she is on campus, no one wants to be in a position where they can encounter her,” Kucher said.  

In a second email, sent on January 2, the IGSA said they were planning on organizing and gathering details on different counter-events and protests. These would be “similar to the one conducted when Widdowson was invited to the U of L,” the email said.

A screenshot of this email, the IGSA’s X profile, and a page about Kucher and Jillian Ames, the IGSA’s other co-president, were posted on the Woke Academy website. 

Kucher said that he didn’t want to call it doxxing, but it “kind of was.” Doxxing is the act of publishing or identifying someone’s private information publicly, especially as a form of “punishment or revenge.” 

“It’s the fact that now, anybody who may have a radical thought or action … knows where our space is,” Kucher said. “They can show up at any point, because our office hours are posted.” 

As a result, the IGSA was concerned about their safety, so they reached out to Carrie Smith, the vice-provost (equity, diversity, & inclusion). Smith said she would look into what the university could do, which Kucher said is still ongoing.

Widdowson told The Gateway that she finds it “ironic” for members of the IGSA to feel afraid or unsafe, “when they’re encouraging people to go after [her].” Their information is publicly available on their website, which is how she obtained it, she said.

“Once again, they are out there attacking me … which they’re entitled to do,” she said. “But, I would prefer that they do it as individuals and not hiding behind a particular organization.”

The IGSA has also been in contact with the department of anthropology, Kucher said. The department suggested that the IGSA put out a statement of values. This was posted to the IGSA’s Instagram on January 11. As well, the department said it would support any counter-event the IGSA organized.

Widdowson encourages Flanagan to release statement, IGSA wants university administration to attend their event

On January 9, 2024, Widdowson emailed a letter addressed to U of A President and Vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan, requesting he publish a statement about the event. Widdowson told The Gateway that the IGSA’s second email led her to sending this letter.

“The IGSA sent out an email saying that they would be liaising with the people at U of L to get their advice on how best to shut down the talk,” Widdowson said.

Kucher explained that because of what happened at U of L, the IGSA decided a protest was “not the best idea.” Kucher said the IGSA wasn’t trying to shut down Widdowson’s talk. Instead, it was aiming to organize a counter-event “for the Indigenous community on campus,” he said.

In the letter, Widdowson said that her talk was under threat of being suppressed, and that Flanagan had “the opportunity to set the tone for the event.”

An email addressed to Widdowson from Andrew Sharman, vice-president (facilities and operations), was posted to Woke Academy on January 12, 2024. In the email, Sharman said that the U of A is “committed to free expression in all forms of communication.” 

“The university will continue to take every reasonable measure to ensure your talk proceeds in a way that both respects the message you wish to convey and others’ ability to peacefully respond,” Sharman said. 

Kucher said that the IGSA isn’t trying to stop individuals from expressing their views through their event. Instead, their event is “counter to the narrative, not the individual.”

Kucher said he would like to see the U of A support the IGSA and ISU’s event by attending. If they did, this would show that university administration “stands behind the Indigenous community on campus.”

U of A commits to “free expression in all forms of communication” and the goals of Indigenous strategic plan

In a comment provided to The Gateway, the university quoted the Statement on Freedom of Expression at the U of A. It said that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided.”

As well, the comment confirmed that Widdowson’s talk was organized independently from the U of A. As well, that policy allows community members to “book and use university space for independent events.” 

“The university is committed to the goals of Braiding Past, Present, and Future: University of Alberta Indigenous Strategic Plan,” the comment continued. “Indigenization and decolonization are core commitments in the university’s strategic plan, Shape.”

UPDATE: This article was updated on January 23 at 8:58 a.m. to clarify that Frances Widdowson was fired following complaints about her conduct toward students and faculty at Mount Royal University.

Katie Teeling

Katie Teeling was the 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief and the 2022-23 Opinion Editor at The Gateway. She’s in her fifth year, studying anthropology and history. She is obsessed with all things horror, Adam Driver, and Lord of the Rings. When she isn’t crying in Tory about human evolution, Katie can be found drinking iced capps and reading romance novels.

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