Law conference speakers on the defensive after accusations of racism

Duo says there should have been no surprises with what was presented

Two speakers invited to TRU’s student-run law conference found themselves at the centre of a controversy over their chosen subject matter, with some calling their material racist and anti-aboriginal.

“Everyone knew about our book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry,” said Frances Widdowson, a faculty member at Mount Royal University. “We took the wording that we used in discussions out of the book. So it’s really not very credible for the organizers to be claiming that there was this huge surprise as to what we were talking about.”

Widdowson and her partner, Albert Howard, were originally scheduled to take part in a panel discussion on Feb. 4, but were given a slot to themselves when there were scheduling issues.

The pair had been invited to speak on what they call “the aboriginal industry” – made up of professionals (many of whom are lawyers) who they claim siphon money from services in aboriginal communities to fund claim negotiations. Widdowson also argued that, “often the legal profession, in its pursuit of aboriginal rights, promotes various aboriginal traditions that are not suited to satisfying aboriginal needs today.”

James Wegener, Society of Law Students vice-president external, says the society regrets asking the two to present. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

James Wegener, Society of Law Students vice-president external, says the society regrets asking the two to present. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

According to James Wegener, TRU Society of Law Students (SLS) vice-president external, the two had, in fact, been asked to speak on “the aboriginal industry,” but the talk shifted into the pair’s personal views of aboriginal people in general.

“This, all of a sudden, took it out of even an academic context,” Wegener said. “It was their own personal views. They didn’t have any research on it and they said some things that people were really hurt about.”

Wegener called the pair’s comments “ignorant to aboriginal people” and said they included how rape culture was ingrained in aboriginal culture as well as general comments on aboriginal traditions.

Widdowson confirmed that at one point she referred to traditional aboriginal medicine as “quackery.”

She later defended her words, saying “I use the word ‘quackery’ to refer to any practice pretending to be a medical treatment which is, in fact, not helpful to the patient and is unscientific.”

Widdowson used the recent case of Makayla Sault as an example. The 11-year-old from Ontario died in January after choosing to pursue traditional medicine rather than chemotherapy to combat her leukemia.

She also insisted that the comments made by Howard in regards to rape culture were not his own views, but quotes from a Northwest Territories judge used to highlight attitudes prevalent in the legal profession.

She denied that the pair used the talk to promote personal views.

History repeats

Last week was not the first time that Widdowson and Howard have been at the centre of controversy.

In 2008, Widdowson’s talk on the reserve system for the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) led to a heated argument. One audience member even asked Widdowson if she’d like to “take it outside,” according to a Maclean’s article the following year. Critics labelled the talk “hate speech” and the incident led to an investigation by the CPSA into the creation of a complaints process, Maclean’s reported.

Wegener said several people voiced concern about Widdowson and Howard speaking at TRU prior to the event, but TRU SLS decided to keep the two on the schedule since the topic had value to law students.

“I think we made a mistake bringing them in,” he said. “I think that’s what we feel in hindsight. I think we put faith in them that maybe we shouldn’t have, given what other people have said.”

Academic Freedom

Since returning from TRU, Widdowson and Howard have contacted the Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship to protest what they feel is censorship on the part of the university.

In response to a CBC interview in which TRU dean of law Brad Morse expressed concern over student discomfort during Widdowson and Howard’s presentation, Mark Mercer, a board of directors for the Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship, said students who cannot discuss uncomfortable subjects are not yet “competent intellectuals.”

“Our job as educators is to help students to acquire the ability to hear and discuss ideas and proposals they intensely dislike and to acquire the ability to engage in discussion with people who endorse ideas or proposals they intensely dislike,” Mercer wrote. “We’re not to be concerned with their feelings of comfort, but indeed to help them to engage in intellectual pursuits especially when they are uncomfortable.”

Widdowson also said she is drafting a letter to TRU president Alan Shaver over the incident.

Wegener said he is not sure how TRU SLS has censored Widdowson and Howard, given that no move was made to interfere with their talk.

“We let them speak,” he said. “We had questions. It played out like a normal speaker period, it was just more uncomfortable.”

Not banned

While early media reports claimed the two presenters were not welcome back at TRU, university administration has since called those reports false.

According to Wegener, the reports stemmed from a misinterpreted comment made by one of the society’s co-chairs during an interview by CBC.

“He was one of the people that was really upset and, for him, he was like ‘I just want to let people know that this wasn’t what I thought they were going to talk about and what they said wasn’t my beliefs,’” Wegener said.

Widdowson said she would like to return to TRU, but would not participate in another event run by the law school.

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