The Cancel Culture has claimed another victim. Renowned poet George Elliott Clarke has backed out of giving the University of Regina’s Woodrow Lloyd Lecture over accusations from Indigenous activists that he associates with another poet with a criminal background.
His talk was to have been titled ‘Truth and Reconciliation;’ versus the ‘Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.
Controversy erupted when it was revealed that Clarke edited a book by a Regina man who murdered a native woman.
In 1995, Steven Kummerfield and a friend picked up a prostitute, Pamela George, and beat her to death. Almost as shocking was the short sentence the pair received – they were back on the streets after just three-and-a-half years.
Kummerfield changed his name to Stephen Brown, moved to Mexico and became an accomplished poet and a friend of Governor General’s Award winner George Elliott Clarke.
When protesters demanded that the University of Regina cancel the talk, the administration initially refused, citing a commitment to free speech.
Clarke was equally firm, stating “I admire lots of poets, including many who are now long gone, who committed crimes of one sort or another … but who still left behind considerable legacies of excellent poetry for poetry-lovers to enjoy.”
“My friend,” said Clarke, “the accomplice to the murder of this woman, is an incredible poet. … He is a fairly kind man, who has paid his debt to society as the saying goes, and so should be left to live his life.”
But in the end, Clarke saw that nothing was to be gained by defending the powers of art nor the notion that criminals are capable of rehabilitation. In the background, the university had reportedly begun nudging him to decline the invitation to speak.
The Cancel Culture has risen again.
Across North America, protesters have succeeded in silencing free speech through a combination of media pressure, inflated security costs claims, boycotts, riots and violence against speakers.
In 2002, rampaging Palestinian-supporting students engineered the shutdown of a speech at Concordia University in Montreal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Writer Meghan Murphy, who opined that trans rights and feminism were in opposition, found that threats against her by activists forced Simon Fraser University security officials to move her speech last October to a secret location.
The University of British Columbia cancelled a booking last month by the (wait for it) Free Speech Club “in order to safeguard the safety and security of our community” – left-wing radicals of the comically misnamed ‘antifa’ movement apparently represented potential for violence.
Capitulating to threats of disruption is known as the ‘heckler’s veto’ and gives power to those who are not only opposed to a particular issue but also to the possibility of free discourse.
It came as no surprise when protesters showed up in 2018 at Queen’s University to interfere with a lecture about free speech by Jordan Peterson. And no one should have been shocked by the fact that among the mob that chanted, blocked entrances and smashed a window was found a woman allegedly carrying a garrote – a weapon of metal wire with handles on each end used to strangle victims.
Protest organizers called the arrest of the woman hypocritical – after all, they said, students break things all the time, Queen’s University is rich, and the suspect was Indigenous and therefore justified in resisting arrest because “police are well known for enacting horrific violence against Indigenous people over even the smallest crimes.”
Woodrow Lloyd, the mild-mannered Saskatchewan premier after whom the University of Regina lecture series was named, once said: “Education needs courage. The very fact that education, if it is vital, leads to purposeful change, indicates the need for courage on the part of those who lead, because even purposeful change is always opposed. It is opposed by those who do not understand.”
Canadian institutions need to find that courage again. If threats of violence, commercial boycotts or expressions of feelings hurt by unpopular ideas result in the silencing of unfettered discussion, we all suffer.
The foundation of democracy is the exchange of opinions. Ideological monocultures are preferred by totalitarians – we can’t afford them here.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.