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Pierre Poilievre pledges to protect freedom of speech at universities

Proposed policy could impact universities’ federal funding
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Winning Conservative Party candidate Pierre Poilievre. ANDRE FORGET via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Winning Conservative Party candidate Pierre Poilievre. ANDRE FORGET via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Newly elected Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre has pledged to make federal grants for universities conditional on whether they uphold academic freedom and free speech on campus. Poilievre suggested that universities have become averse to “discussion and debate,” leading to the resignations of “popular” professors like Jordan Peterson. 

In February, members of the Conservative Party removed Erin O’Toole from his position as the leader of the Conservative Party. His caucus, a meeting of supporters or members, explained that they disagreed with his position on several issues including carbon tax and gun control, because his views did not comply with the principles that Conservatives initially campaigned with. Following O’Toole’s removal, Pierre Poilievre won the party’s leadership elections on September 10.  

The Varsity broke down Poilievre’s plans for the party’s preferred policy on education.

Proposed policy

This past June, Poilievre suggested that universities have become “places where gatekeepers and a loud minority silence students and faculty.” 

In the press release, Poilievre explained that he believes that there have been instances in which individuals were deplatformed or student groups were pushed to cancel events “just because of their different viewpoint.” 

In Poilievre’s proposed system, federal funding would depend on whether universities pledge to uphold section two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of speech. 

The press release announcing his policy specified that universities must also “defend [Charter freedoms] when they are attacked, including by other students and faculty.” 

However, Poilievre specified that the policy would not defend hate speech, which is not protected by the Charter.

The other portion of Poilievre’s plan includes appointing a former judge as free speech guardian, who would monitor a university’s compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and investigate allegations of censorship. Through this position, the guardian would be able to recommend reductions in federal grants to universities that the guardian believes are failing to protect free speech.

Professors across Canada have expressed disdain with Poilievre’s proposed policy, arguing that it harms academic freedom instead of addressing the problems that faculty face.

The danger of trying to dictate to universities what free expression they should or should not allow is [that] we suddenly get into a situation where governments are telling institutions what they should protect, and perhaps what they shouldn’t protect,” said David Robinson, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, in a statement to PressProgress

U of T and freedom of speech

Although he didn’t mention U of T by name, Poilievre’s announcement framed former U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s resignation as a symptom of the very problem he’d like to address. 

Peterson retired from his tenured position at U of T in January 2022, citing concerns with equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives at the university. Peterson has long been a controversial figure at U of T. In a series of YouTube videos posted in 2016, Peterson spoke out against Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) that included gender expression and gender identity as protected rights under the CHRA. Peterson suggested that the inclusion of gender expression and gender identity in the CHRA obstructed free speech because it required individuals to use others’ preferred pronouns regardless of their decision to do so.  

Despite Poilievre’s framing, U of T has repeatedly stressed its commitment to protecting freedom of speech. 

U of T’s free speech policy is primarily outlined in two key documents: the “Statement of Institutional Purpose” and the “Statement on Freedom of Speech.” Both documents position academic freedom as one of U of T’s core mandates. 

Academic freedom is further cemented in agreements between the university and the University of Toronto Faculty Association, which commit U of T to protect “the freedom [of faculty] to examine, question, teach, and learn… the right to investigate, speculate, and comment without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University of Toronto and society at large.” 

Moreover, a 2019 report, which was mandated by the government of Ontario and performed by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, found that U of T’s free speech policy complied with provincial regulations on free speech.