Frances Widdowson probably isn’t someone most Canadians recognize. I’m here to tell you why they should.
In terms of Canada’s intellectual culture, Frances Widdowson matters because she is a classic and prolific academic. In a time when demagoguery easily flourishes, Widdowson holds fast to the principle of open but substantiated argument. You can state what you want but you must justify your statement. This means everything is open to reasonable criticism. Widdowson is perhaps most well-known for her criticism of the ‘aboriginal industry’ where claims tend to go accepted without challenge and if challenged, the one questioning the claims is bound to receive a barrage of ad hominem condemnation or worse for even asking “how do you know what you say you know?”
Of her published works, Widdowson’s most widely read book is Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, which she co-authored with her husband, Albert Howard (2008, McGill-Queen’s University Press). Identifying an “ever-expanding, parasitical Aboriginal Industry” enriching itself through cultivating aboriginal victimhood,” she and Howard pointed out the bankruptcies of “’culturally sensitive’ … solutions to the aboriginal problems that … would continue to keep natives isolated and dependent, thus perpetuating existing social pathologies and, not incidentally, justifying demands for more funding and programs for the Aboriginal Industry.”
It matters if public money is spent on programs that don’t accomplish what they are supposed to and, worse, end up exacerbating the problems.
Since “Disrobing” culture–both its loss and specificity to Indigenous people–has become most prominently iterated in the experience of the Indian Residential Schools. The characterization of the schools as ‘cultural genocide’ by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has lately been rephrased as unqualified ‘genocide.’ The genocide narrative has become a tenet of Aboriginal Industry dogma and now features prominently in university policies of ‘indigenization’ and ‘decolonization.’ This is where Widdowson began to find herself in serious trouble at Mount Royal University (MRU).
Until December 2021, Widdowson had been a tenured professor at MRU. Then she was dismissed–an extraordinary thing for a tenured prof–on grounds of personal harassment towards fellow staff members. MRU adopted indigenization and decolonization policies and because she is a keen academic, Widdowson challenged those policies, in particular the incorporation of ‘Traditional Knowledge.’ She simply pointed out the epistemic problems of taking as true knowledge that was based on oral history, myths, and superstitions. One Indigenous colleague was particularly outraged and initiated what appears to be a vendetta against Widdowson that was subsequently taken up by a group of students. This resulted in a petition that demanded that MRU fire Widdowson but it was her pushback against an even more rarified strain of Wokeism that actually got her dismissed.
Appalled by how some Trans activists were seeking to forestall any criticism of Trans activism, Widdowson attempted to stage an event at MRU with Meghan Murphy on the worthy topic: “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?”
In the febrile world of Woke, you are responsible for how people feel about what you say. Her detractors were already primed for character assassination and a few professors handed out the deadliest bullet to the Woke guttersnipes: Transphobia.
Exasperated by the rainbow curtain at MRU, Widdowson resorted to satire on social media if only to find personal relief in her private life. MRU hired an investigator to scour her private social media accounts for incriminating remarks such as mocking the pronoun fad. MRU construed those private remarks as a threat to students and staff and suspended Widdowson. In a subsequent disciplinary meeting with the Provost, MRU determined that Widdowson violated the university’s code of conduct which didn’t actually mention private social media accounts. If the code of conduct isn’t knowable, there can’t reasonably be an expectation of compliance.
Given an opportunity to recant, Widdowson didn’t. Instead, she asked MRU a question that pertains to all universities: Is MRU an academic or an activist institution? Her pink slip was their reply.
An academic institute welcomes critical discourse, no matter how difficult the topic is because there is a mutual interest in finding the truth. An activist institute declares things to be true and demands agreement.
Frances Widdowson matters because she is personally fighting for our freedoms of expression and conscience as Canadians. If you cannot ask respectful questions about some things, then a diversity of opinion isn’t respected. If you must believe something is true because it is said to be true, then freedom of thought isn’t tolerated.
Donations to Frances’ legal fund can be made at http://www.fundrazr.com/wokeacademy.info.
Michael Melanson is a tradesperson and writer living in Winnipeg.