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Free speech does not give you the right to deny facts and cause injury

Statement by Bobby-Joe Borodey, Chair AUPE’s Human Rights Committee

Feb 01, 2023

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Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to deny the truth or cause harm to others. 

The Human Rights Committee of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) supports the decision of the University of Lethbridge to move a lecture from a controversial speaker to a site off campus. 

Frances Widdowson, a former professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, was invited to give a guest lecture on the Lethbridge campus. Widdowson has publicly rejected the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the residential school system was “genocidal.” She has argued in favour of assimilating Indigenous people. 

She has also said that the Black Lives Matter movement “destroyed” Mount Royal University. 

The damage done to generations of Indigenous children at residential schools in Canada is fact. It is not a matter for debate. Providing a space on campus for a guest lecturer to engage in denialism of those facts is harmful, especially to Indigenous students or staff on campus. 

Last week, Albertans heard the news that hundreds of Indigenous children died at the former Blue Quills Indian Residential School in Alberta. 

On Friday, the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today, (Wed., Feb. 1) marks the beginning of Black History Month.  

The issues of race are real and continue to affect us. That’s why we are called to remember the truth and to reject denials. Failure to do so leaves us at risk of future genocides. It’s not enough to just say “never again.” Those words must be accompanied by actions.    

As the University of Lethbridge Faculty Associations says in its statement, the principle of academic freedom does not give an “an unfettered right to say whatever you want,” but a contractual right to engage in scholarly activity. Academic freedom includes protecting “those who are harmed by careless and dehumanizing speech,” says ULFA. 

AUPE is grateful that, after much public pressure and consulting with internal and external groups, the University of Lethbridge decided to move Widdowson’s lecture today off campus.  

University president Mike Mahon said in a statement: “This input confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful.”  

However, AUPE is concerned that the immediate reaction of the Government or Alberta was that it would take new steps to "strengthen free speech" on post-secondary campuses.  

We remind the government and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides that free speech does not and should not include the freedom to deny the truth and cause harm to others. Any attempts to change that will be resisted.  

It is imperative that Alberta and all of Canada engage in real efforts towards Truth and Reconciliation. Allowing and supporting those who deny the truth, and cause real harm to others, undermines those efforts. 

We encourage all Albertans to find out more about Truth and Reconciliation from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.  

Talking about these issues is difficult and can cause mental-health injuries. Help is available. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of his or her Residential school experience. AUPE members and their immediate families have access to free crisis counselling 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call AUPE’s Crisis Support Service line at 1-844-744-7026

Some employers also offer counselling services. Check your collective agreement or contact you employer to find out if they offer support. 

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