Merry Christmas and Happy Severance!

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 1/2

Welcome to 2022! If you read the end of last week’s newsletter, you know that there’s a new kid on the CounterCurrent block. After two years of faithful service, David Acevedo is shifting his focus to the National Association of Scholars’ sister publication, Minding the Campus. You’ll still hear from David periodically on the NAS website, but I’ll be taking over his beat here at CounterCurrent.

A bit about me before we dive into this week’s news: My name is Marina Ziemnick, and I started working as a Communications Associate for NAS a couple of months ago. Before that, I was the Conference and Speakers Program Manager for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where I had the opportunity to meet and work with undergraduate students and professors across the country (I suspect I unwittingly met some CounterCurrent readers!). I believe that the academy should be the home of meaningful dialogue centered around the pursuit of truth, and I’m excited to ring in the New Year by pushing back against educational decline and disarray in these pages.

With that, let’s get right to it. To kick off the New Year, we’re taking a trip up north to Canada. But if you’re expecting to see something new and exciting, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. As it turns out, the climate is much the same as it is here in the states, at least when it comes to campus politics. It appears that college administrators flying the Maple Leaf are just as dedicated to enforcing rigid ideological orthodoxy and silencing dissent as their American counterparts—just ask Frances Widdowson.

Dr. Widdowson began teaching as a professor at Mount Royal University (MRU) in Calgary back in 2008. That same year, she published (alongside Albert Howard) Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, a book which examined how the industry of indigenous activism has caused serious harm to aboriginal people in Canada. In her own words, the book caused a “huge uproar” on campus. Rather than shutting down the controversy, the university organized a forum and took the opportunity to facilitate open discussion. Widdowson said that the event was “exactly what should happen in a university.”

Over the next 13 years, Widdowson continued to publish widely, authoring a followup book titled Separate But Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency and editing volumes on Approaches to Aboriginal Education in Canada and Indigenizing the University. In the summer of 2021, Widdowson began a research project investigating high-profile claims about the alleged mass murder of indigenous children at Canadian residential schools. Her findings were controversial, but she hoped they would spark dialogue and counter the reigning “easy-to-grasp” narratives currently pervading Canadian society.

Instead of organizing another forum or otherwise encouraging discussion of Widdowson’s research, MRU responded by firing Dr. Widdowson only five days before Christmas 2021.

The tide had turned against Widdowson well before then. In 2016, MRU approved a five-year Indigenous Strategic Plan designed “to respect and embrace Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, to integrate Indigenous teachings and practices, to support Indigenous learners, and to honour Indigenous experiences and identities.” A few years into the fateful indigenization plan, a petition began to circulate calling for Widdowson’s removal. It should come as no surprise that the fifth year of the Indigenous Strategic Plan concluded with Widdowson’s termination.

NAS Board Member Bruce Gilley covered the story of Dr. Widdowson’s ouster in a recent article for Minding the Campus. Growing up in Calgary, he spent a lot of time on MRU’s campus, and he has watched over the years as it “crumbled into a fanatical cult that is so unable to think and act clearly in the face of the inevitable disagreements inherent in a liberal society that its only response is fear and anger.” But Gilley’s observations extend further than MRU:

What the Widdowson affair makes plain is that any university that embraces “indigenization” or “decolonization” or “racial justice” as part of its mission statement is by definition a university that has given up on science, debate, and truth-seeking. It cannot escape notice that the very things these activists charge the residential schools with—fostering and perpetrating an abusive environment, forced indoctrination and assimilation into intolerant norms, hostile and violent responses to dissenters—are exactly what these universities have done.

In a university committed to academic freedom and the pursuit of truth, the controversy surrounding Frances Widdowson’s research would be seen as an opportunity to encourage thoughtful dialogue among students and faculty alike. Mount Royal University once knew that too. Let’s hope that someday it remembers.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Kira auf der Heide, Public Domain

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