By Jamie Sarkonak, January 24, 2023
McGill University is home to Canada’s number two law school. The law faculty is particularly noteworthy because it makes the country’s legal citation style rules, called the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation, or the McGill Guide for short. For lawyers and academics, “McGill” is a name that carries institutional authority.
It’s also a faculty that recently tried to host an event discussing the tension between transgender rights and sexual minority rights — and failed, when transgender activists shouted the event down and assaulted the invited speaker. Where there is no protection of nuanced debate, might makes right.
The shout-down is a sign that freedom of expression in Canada is in a weak state. If our most esteemed universities can’t protect the free exchange of ideas within their walls, it’s unlikely that lesser-resourced institutions stand much of a chance either. This is a problem. The whole point of a publicly-funded academy is to ensure that we have a free marketplace of ideas that can pursue the truth — that market can’t function if certain ideas are chased away with pitchforks before they can even enter.
At the McGill event on January 10, titled “The Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate In the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T,” two ideas were prohibited by the mob. First, that transgender rights might infringe on sex-based rights, and second, that transgender interests may not always align with the interests of those who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The event description elaborated:
Since 2018, there has been a debate in the United Kingdom about whether or not the law should be changed to make it easier for a transgender individual to change their legal sex from their birth sex, and about exceptional situations, such as women-only spaces and sports, in which the individual’s birth sex should take priority over their gender identity, regardless of their legal sex.
The speaker was highly qualified to talk about the subject: Robert Wintemute, once a law student at McGill and now a human rights professor at King’s College London with a career of challenging discrimination against same-sex couples. He was also the trustee of an organization seeking to distance the transgender movement from the sexual minority movement, leading transgender activists to successfully rally against the event. More than 100 activists chanted, threw flour at Wintemute, and unplugged the projector he was to use. A firsthand account described a packed floor with activists shouting, “Get out, get out!”
The harsh reception followed the publication of an open letter demanding no such event is ever hosted on campus again. In the letter, student activist Celeste Trianon accused McGill university of contributing to genocide (according to Trianon, any extra minute of airtime given to an anti-trans activist could bring about the premature deaths of trans people worldwide). For the activist, unsubstantiated claims of genocide were reason enough to thwart freedom to explore ideas on campus.
“As much as McGill may try to absolve itself from blame by claiming its right to academic liberty, we must refute that argument by stating that the tolerance of intolerance ultimately results in the wiping out of tolerance,” Trianon wrote.
In an email to students obtained by the McGill Daily, a faculty member maintained that the event should rightfully proceed, and encouraged dissenters to attend and voice disagreement in the spirit of academic exchange.
Canadian universities have a history of allowing cultural discussions to be shut down. In 2013, the Canadian Federation of Students, Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University), and the University of Toronto’s students’ union all made policy moves against the creation of men’s rights groups in the name of fighting misogyny. In 2017, a Ryerson University panel discussion about free speech on campuses was cancelled due to the controversy it stirred – the panellists included Jordan Peterson and then-Rebel Media journalist Faith Goldy. In 2020, the University of British Columbia cancelled a talk by right-wing social media personality Lauren Southern, and did the same in 2021 to a scheduled talk by independent journalist Andy Ngo.
It’s somewhat a relief that McGill’s law dean, Robert Leckey, didn’t cave to the demands of activist students and permitted the talk to proceed. However, his defence of free expression on campus was lukewarm: “An academic institution doesn’t endorse all views held by each speaker it hosts,” he wrote in an email to students about the event, which has not been rescheduled.
“Board members do not endorse everything said or done by organizations they help to govern. Relatedly, advocates do not endorse everything said or done by the clients they defend vigorously. I believe firmly that, over the long term, preserving this separation is important, including for members of our LGBTQ+ communities.”
With a meek campus administration, help might need to come from somewhere else. Members of the executive branches of government should stand up for free expression on campus — and we can look to Quebec for an example.
A stronger defence of expressive freedom came from Quebec’s minister of higher education, Pascale Déry, writing in Le Devior on January 17: Under no conditions will censorship in the province’s universities be tolerated, because censorship prevents free thought and the pursuit of excellence that forms the core of the university’s mission. Déry didn’t reference the events at McGill, but the timing of her statement was uncannily close. Quebec has taken serious measures on the academic freedom front as well — legislation protecting academic freedom in universities was even passed in mid-2022.
Before the courts, there is a case for protecting freedom of expression on campus under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well. In 2020, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the Charter applied to student events on campus. “[The] grounds of the University are physically designed to ensure that the capacity of each student to learn, debate and share ideas is in a community space,” wrote Justice Jack Watson in a concurring judgment (the majority of the court concurred with his analysis of the Charter’s application to campus). While other provinces have reached different conclusions, the decision in Alberta shows that it’s possible to defend free expression on campus in the judicial realm.
Wintemute’s would-be-talk at McGill was not first campus event to be silenced by individuals who aren’t interested in discussion, but the shutdown was still a disappointment. A healthy academy needs to be open to debate — and it needs people in charge willing to make sure those debates can happen.
Jamie Sarkonak is a weekly columnist at the National Post, where she writes about matters relating to federal governance and cultural policy. She is currently a student at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law.