Frances Widdowson, who sparked controversy while working as a senior policy analyst for the GNWT in the 1990s, had her Feb. 1 lecture on “wokeism” cancelled at the University of Lethbridge campus.
According to dictionary.com, wokeism is defined as “usually disparaging promotion of liberal progressive ideology and policy as an expression of sensitivity to systemic injustices and prejudice.”
Widdowson made news in 1997 when she lost her government job, blaming it on her refusal to accept the GNWT’s policy on traditional knowledge. She took her fight to the Supreme Court of the NWT. She was back in the news in 2020 when she claimed that residential schools had educational benefits.
She was invited to the university by one of the faculty members to give a lecture.
A Jan. 26 statement from University of Lethbridge president Mike Mahon made it clear that the institution does not align with Widdowson’s ideologies.
“We strongly disagree with assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system,” Mahon said in the statement.
Despite the differences in beliefs, Mahon’s intentions were to allow the lecture to proceed, citing the university’s statement on free expression, which supports “free and open scholarly discussion of issues.”
Four days after his initial statement, on Jan. 30, he released an update which stated, “Over the past few days, and upon learning of this lecture, we have sought guidance from those with considerable cultural, scholarly, sectoral and legal expertise, including continuing guidance from the (university’s) vice-provost, Indigenous relations and others.
“We have also received considerable input from the communities we serve — internal and external.
“This input confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful.
“To ensure our community is safe, in the context of this planned lecture, the university will not provide space for this public lecture to occur on campus.”
Widdowson, a former Mount Royal University professor, proceeded with her lecture on Zoom. She also gave an account of what occurred after the lecture at the University of Lethbridge was cancelled.
“Because of the president and his pandering to activists, this presentation was not allowed to go forward,” she said.
Even though her lecture at the university had been cancelled, she was not banned from being on campus grounds. She decided that she would spread the word in an undesignated area on campus.
“Instead, I decided that I would go to the university to try to give some aspects of my talk and about 1,000 people showed up, which was very surprising how many people were there, and they (university managers) basically decided that I was not going to be able allowed to speak.
She stated that she did not feel threatened by the students — some of whom reportedly attempted to shout her down — but security was getting nervous and suggested that she leave.
“In the end, it was all good,” she said. “I think more attention is being drawn to wokeism and the problems of wokeism, which we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have all this occur.”
Yellowknifer asked how her time as a policy analyst in the NWT shaped her ideas about Indigenous ways of knowing.
“Yes, that was where I got into this,” she said. “Albert Howard and I met in the Northwest Territories. He was a consultant for Indigenous groups and I was a policy analyst. That’s when I encountered what was then called traditional knowledge, which has the Indigenous ways of knowing.
“What was happening was a diamond mine was coming in, in the Northwest Territories, and they were having hearings on incorporating traditional knowledge into policy.
“We realized that there was a lot of what’s called ‘rent seeking’ going on, attempts to extract transfers for this traditional knowledge, which often was not very beneficial.”
She said that as she and Howard began to investigate these issue, her ideology began to take shape.
Trista Haugland, media and communications coordinator for the territorial government said they did not have a comment on Widdowson’s views.