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You Can’t Have Reconciliation Without Truth: the Harms of Residential School Denialism



On January 18, 2024, residential school denialist Frances Widdowson spoke at the University of Alberta. Giving such views a powerful platform and the legitimacy inherent in an academic setting perpetuates harm and anti-reconciliation sentiments. Here’s why:



University of Alberta speaking engagement


Widdowson was invited to speak at the University of Alberta on January 18, 2024 by anthropology professor Kathleen Lowrey on the topic of “Academic Freedom Under Threat.” [1] 


This talk arrives in Edmonton amidst  encampment evictions and already increased need for services and supports. For people to be forcibly removed from their homes one week, to find that a person who denies the experience of residential school survivors has been given a platform to speak at a respected academic setting the next, is a heavy load to bear.


The Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association and the Indigenous Students’ Union at the university partnered to host an alternative talk to be held at the same time as Widdowson’s. This talk by professor Sean Carleton, entitled “Truth Before Reconciliation: How to Identify and Confront Residential School Denialism,” occurred from 2-5 pm on Thursday January 18, 2024. [2] This event, co-hosted by the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association and the Indigenous Students’ Union, allowed University of Manitoba professor Sean Carleton space to discuss an analogous situation of residential school denialist and former Canadian senator Lynn Beyak. Meanwhile, across campus, Widdowson speaking engagement was interrupted by a mass walkout amongst shouts of “every child matters,” though it appears that the talk continued following the walkout. [3]



Who is Frances Widdowson and what are her views?


Frances Widdowson is a former Mount Royal University (MRU) professor who was dismissed from her role as a professor in December 2021. [4]


Widdowson has been critical of Canadian universities regarding free speech and academic freedom. She has publicly rejected the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s conclusion that the residential school system was genocidal, has been quoted as saying the Black Lives Matter movement “destroyed MRU,”  and has attempted to organize speaking engagements that have made transgender students feel unsafe. [5]


As part of my research for this post, I reviewed Frances Widdowson’s X (formerly Twitter) account (or, more specifically, her “satirical character” Frances McGrath [6]) and the account of related website “WokeAcademy.Info.” What I found there was troubling indeed.


Through her Frances McGrath character, Widdowson attempts to ridicule the views of those that oppose her. Through these tactics, she attempts to undermine academic thought [7], people’s connection to the children who did not return from residential school [8] and Indigenous ways of knowing [9]. 







Beyond her social media presence, Widdowson opines in a more academic manner on the principle of parallelism from the Two Row Wampum treaty in her book Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency. [10]. Her work is highly critical of parallelism: a concept Alan Cairns defines as two groups traveling in parallel and staying out of each other’s way. [11] This concept dates back to the Two-Row Wampum treaty between the Haudenosaunee and early settlers. [12] Widdowson posits first that parallelism has created “unrealistic expectations within the indigenous [sic] population” and second that parallelism’s “denial of the developmental gap [between Indigenous and Settler culture] has made it impossible to address indigenous [sic] dependency and its associated social pathologies.” [13] 


Widdowson’s disregard for the legitimacy of the Two Row Wampum treaty is problematic.  The Two Row Wampum treaty predates the numbered treaties and, by showing such blatant disregard for an early treaty promoting peace and friendship, Widdowson seeks to disregard the sovereignty of Indigenous nations, instead painting them as fully dependent on the Canadian state.


Further, her discussion of the cultural “developmental gap” does not recognize the existence of current Indigenous culture, instead focusing solely on traditional Indigenous culture (which, ironically, is what she states that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report, of which she is critical, was doing).


Widdowson has stated that “not being able to discuss controversial ideas at a university is not just a threat to academic institutions, it also means that democracy will suffer.” [14] However, the views that Widdowson aims to discuss are not merely controversial, they are incorrect and harmful.


Why are these views harmful?


The harms of residential schools were discussed at length in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. [15] The Government of Canada has implemented the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. [16] Widdowson’s so-called “open and honest debate of ideas” seeks to question and cast doubt on the experiences of residential school survivors. Widdowson is asking people to value her view as a settler the same or equal to the lived experiences of residential school survivors. The personal experiences of these survivors are not up for debate by an academic who was not there. Fulsome academic research may consider alternative views of the causes of historical events or put forth theories of the world, but should never discount the lived experience of the people these events happened to. These views cause harm by denying the lived experiences of residential school survivors, potentially re-traumatizing residential school and intergenerational trauma survivors, and by intentionally disseminating and perpetuating harmful disinformation.


Frances Widdowson stands directly opposed to reconciliation. By minimizing the experiences of residential school survivors and ridiculing Indigenous ways of knowing, she knowingly and deliberately causes harm under the flimsy guise of free speech and academic freedom.


While Widdowson has said that universities should encourage open and honest debate of ideas [17], in both her X posts and her academic writing, she does not approach these issues with good faith or in a good way.


Another more localized harm occurred as a result of her former position as an academic professor. In academia, professors are expected to research and publish, but also teach and guide students. As Widdowson became more outspoken about her problematic views, her teaching assessments began to reflect the discomfort felt by students. Some of these comments from Widdowson’s teaching assessments included:

  • “many of us do not feel comfortable in Frances’ class” 

  • “[k]nowing Frances values free speech and making a fuss on campus against things that are important to me makes me reluctant to ask her for assistance outside class” 

  • “I find the idea of going to her for this assistance incredibly unappealing (in fact, I find it kind of frustrating that the courses she teach [sic] are both program requirements AND only offered in one session, because even being in her class is difficult for me emotionally)” 

  • “Francis has complete disregard for her students.” [18] 

Widdowson has since been terminated from her academic position at MRU, so while this specific harm is no longer occurring, it is important to recognize the harm done to former students.


University of Lethbridge speaking engagement (and related backlash)


In February 2023, after she had been removed from MRU, Widdowson was scheduled to speak at the University of Lethbridge on the topic of “How Woke-ism Threatens Academic Freedom.” In the week before the scheduled talk, in response to student backlash, the University rescinded space for her to speak. [19] Widdowson’s commitment to exercise her free speech was undeterred; she arrived on campus as scheduled. However, an overwhelming number of students exercised their right to free speech, with signs and orange shirts and with drumming and dancing, peacefully preventing her from being heard. [20] 


 Widdowson, a professor and a student, are seeking judicial review of the decision to cancel her talk. This application alleges an infringement of her section (2)(b) rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. She is seeking a declaration of this alleged breach and an injunction requiring the University of Lethbridge permit the speaking engagement to proceed on a future date. [21] Section (2b) of the Charter protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” from government infringement.  [22]


However, there are two important caveats to this protection. First, it only protects individuals for state power, meaning that it does not protect individuals from other individuals or organizations that are not sufficiently governmental in nature. Widdowson’s originating application alleges that the University of Lethbridge is an inherently governmental entity, or alternatively, implements government programs and policies. Whether or not the Charter applies to universities is an unsettled issue and would have to be determined by the courts in this situation. [23] 


Second, the Charter only offers protection within “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” [24] If the government can meet the test outlined in R v Oakes, showing that the infringement was pressing and substantial, and there was proportionality between the infringement and government’s goal. [25] In other words, the government (and by extension University) can limit the right to freedom of expression to achieve a pressing and substantial objective. Whether courts will recognize reconciliation and the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action as a pressing and substantial objective remains to be seen. A decision on this issue, no matter the outcome, would reveal what the courts really think about reconciliation.



You can’t have reconciliation without truth. So what can we do? 



 


  1. “Press Release about Frances Widdowson’s Talk at the University of Alberta”, online: WokeAcademy.Info <https://wokeacademy.info/press-release-about-frances-widdowsons-talk-at-the-university-of-alberta/>.

  2. Katie Teeling “Frances Widdowson to speak on campus, IGSA plans counter-event”, The Gateway (17 January 2024) online: <https://thegatewayonline.ca/2024/01/frances-widdowson-to-speak-on-campus-igsa-plans-counter-event/

  3. Freetogetheryeg, “During and after the walkout, Widdowson’s supporters hurled Islamophobic, Anti-black, [sic] Anti-Indigenous and anti-LGBTQ remarks at students who were protesting!!” (18 January 2024), online: Instagram <https://www.instagram.com/reel/C2QjgWcLrlf/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA⇒ 

  4. Dylan Short, “ Mount Royal professor who questioned Indigenization policies, BLM movement has been removed from school staff”, Calgary Herald (5 January 2022), online: <https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/mount-royal-professor-who-questioned-indigenization-policies-blm-movement-has-been-removed-from-school-staff>.

  5. Ibid; “Trans Activism Documents”, online: WokeAcademy.Info  <https://wokeacademy.info/trans-activism-documents/> [WokeAcademy].

  6. Frances  Widdowson, “Guest article: Frances Widdowson explains how she was fired from Mount Royal University, beginning with hosting a panel on the transgender debate” (13 September 2022), online (blog): Critical Mass  <https://lawrencekrauss.substack.com/p/guest-article-frances-widdowson-explains>.

  7. francXs mcgrath (NOT frances widdowson), “[3x clapping hands emoji] @seancarleton! "debates" r no way 2 try 2 understand the residential "schools".  the Knowledge Keepers have spoken. deliberately disengenous reactionary skeptical violence makes the spirits of the murdered #215children weep. IT'S BEEN PROVEN BY GPR, FFS!!!!!!!! [crying, fist, fire + red heart emojis]” (3 January 2024 at 09:13), online: Twitter <https://twitter.com/FrancesWiddows1/status/1742579870931321201>.

  8.  francXs mcgrath (NOT frances widdowson), “STFU, @jonkay!  the Knowledge Keepers do not make "errors".  ur hateful skepticism is making the spirits of the murdered #215children weep! [crying emoji, praying hands emoji, crying emoji, praying hands emoji, crying emoji]” (25 September 2023 at 18:41), online Twitter  <https://twitter.com/FrancesWiddows1/status/1706469013835141494>.

  9. francXs mcgrath (NOT frances widdowson),  “YAASSSS!!!!! finally the cognitive imperialism of "objectivity", "logic" and "evidence" is being repaired. it is only by accepting the spiritual knowledge of Indigenous wisdom keepers that we can rekindle the sacred ancestral fires. denying this fuels cultural genocide. [praying hands emoji]” (31 December 2022 at 15:24) online: Twitter <https://twitter.com/FrancesWiddows1/status/1609314613488943104>.

  10. Frances Widdowson (2019) Separate but Unequal : How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency. [Ottawa, Ontario]: University of Ottawa Press (Politics and Public Policy). 

  11. Frances Widdowson, Separate but Unequal : How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press (Politics and Public Policy, 2019).

  12. “Two Row Wampum - Gaswéñdah”, online: Onondag Nation <https://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/two-row-wampum-belt-guswenta/>. 

  13. Widdowson, supra note 11 at 310.

  14. Jonathan Bradley, “Cancelled Mount Royal professor to hold talk at U of A”, Western Standard (3 January 2024) online: <https://www.westernstandard.news/alberta/cancelled-mount-royal-professor-to-hold-talk-at-u-of-a/51399>. 

  15. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa: TRC, 2015).

  16. “Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement” (9 June 2021), online:  Government of Canada <https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100015576/1571581687074

  17. Short, supra note 4.

  18. WokeAcademy, supra note 2.

  19. Eloise Therien “Hundreds of protesters drown out speaker Frances Widdowson at University of Lethbridge”, Global News (2 February 2023) online: <https://globalnews.ca/news/9453843/university-of-lethbridge-frances-widdowson-protest>.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Pickle v University of Lethbridge (26 July 2023), Calgary,Alta Ca 2301-09854 online: <https://www.jccf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/230726-Originating-Application-FILED_Redacted.pdf?mc_cid=e51a772797> (originating application for judicial review).

  22. The Constitution Act, 1982, Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11 s 2(b) [Charter]

  23. https://www.mondaq.com/canada/education/678606/an-update-on-freedom-of-expression--charter-application-to-universities#:~:text=APPLICATION%20OF%20THE%20CHARTER%20TO%20UNIVERSITIES,-Section%2032(1&text=There%20is%20still%20no%20universal,to%20universities%20as%20%22government%22

  24. Charter, supra note 22 s 1.

  25. R v Oakes, 1986 CanLII 46 (SCC).

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