By Lethbridge Herald on February 2, 2023.
Alejandra Pulido-Guzman – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – email@example.com
Hundreds gathered at the University of Lethbridge atrium Wednesday afternoon to oppose the presence of controversial speaker Frances Widdowson.
The former Mount Royal University professor had been univited by the university earlier in the week for a public speaking engagement following outcry over her controversial views on the residential school system.
When Widdowson entered the atrium, she was received by loud boos of disapproval. Many people were wearing orange shirts, holding signs and shouting.
At times when Widdowson tried to speak, people gathered around her and started to shout.
She slowly made her way out of the atrium, and into the cafeteria area and was able to hold a conversation with an Indigenous man.
He asked her what her stance was on residential schools and she clarified that she did not argue that there was no harm done in residential schools.
“I think there was a lot of harm that was done. There was no sensitivity to the existing situation, they had a very coercive approach to education and they separated children away from their parents, so these were huge problems that residential schools caused,” said Widdowson.
The indigenous man, who did not provide his name to the Herald, said he disagreed with her on them being educated at residential schools, saying they were assimilated and Widdowson agreed with him.
“I agree with you. The assimilation process was very coercive and destructive for indigenous people, and it was largely rooted in capitalism,” said Widdowson.
They had a civilized, calmed discussion of opposing views while others around them shouted. At the end, Widdowson tried to shake his hand but he politely declined her request.
The conversation partially ended because they could no longer hear themselves speak, as an electric guitar could be heard through speakers to drown her voice.
She slowly made her way out of the cafeteria area and into the hall, where she was able to stand in a seating area with security by her side.
A drumming circle had formed and many were dancing in the hall, while others shouted “No room for hate.”
It was then when Chief Safety Officer Doug Mackie announced to those in attendance that Widdowson had agree to leave, as long as they made room for her to walk away.
“This is a dangerous situation. I want everyone to relax, we are going to get her out with a contingence,” said Mackie.
To this many people in the crowd started to shout “you should not defend her.”
She was led to a remote area in the Science Commons building for her safety.
A few Lethbridge Police Service officers were present to make sure things did not get out of hand, in collaboration with multiple members of campus security.
Widdowson, speaking to reporters, said she was very disappointed that she was unable to speak and was surprised by the amount of people that were in attendance.
“I kinda underestimated the situation. I also thought that once I allowed people to blow some steam that we would be able to enter into a more rational discussion,” said Widdowson.
She said that the problem was the impossibility of having academic discussion at the university.
“The president of the university of Lethbridge has created an absolutely terrible situation for academic discussion on campus. You can see that by the emotional tone of everything that has happened, when things like the residential schools are very important issues that need to be discussed as they have real world consequences,” said Widdowson.
She said the negative impact of churches being burned and anger are the result of not being able to discuss those issues.
“I put that squarely at the feet of the university’s president for not cultivating an environment for intellectual discussion, open inquiry and academic freedom,” said Widdowson.
Members of the Metis community were in attendance to show support for university students, faculty and staff.
Council member of the Lethbridge Metis Local 2003, Brittany Lee, said they were in attendance to show support to the over 2000 Metis people that call Lethbridge home.
“We believe that education should be the means to repairing the damage that was done to our peoples via the residential school system, and not a means to rehash some of the tragic events that have happened in the past. So we’re here to rebuild that relationship and make sure that everybody’s feeling supported in that way,” said Lee.
After Widdowson left, many gathered in the Science Commons to dance around Indigenous drummers. One of them was president of the University of Lethbridge Student Union, Kairvee Bhatt who said that the gathering was student led and they came together to showcase that there is no room for hate on campus.
“I understand that her talk was not about residential schools, but it is not just about her talk, it is about the nature of what she represents to the people on this campus and the hurt that has been caused and things that we’re working to build back now,” said Bhatt.
She said the original idea was to have a student-led demonstration, but it organically grew to hundreds of people gathered.
“This is historic and I recognize that now and I’m so incredibly proud,” said Bhatt.
She said that she hopes that if anyone felt like they did not have a place on campus before, they know the university is their home.
After the event was over, U of L president and vice-chancellor Mike Mahon, sent a statement to the media that read in part “tonight’s events were a coming together of our community to show support for each other and a reflection of the values of the University of Lethbridge.”
“I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner,” said Mahon.
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