Universities have traditionally been places where ideas can be freely exchanged, and tenure has ensured that professors can express their views without fear of reprisals.
In Canada, the vast majority of professors are unionized and most universities have collective agreements in place to help ensure that professors are not disciplined for exercising their right to free speech.
Universities have become left-leaning since the 1960s
In addition to the majority of the Canadian academy being unionized, its political composition has shifted dramatically since the 1960s. In 2018, the majority of professors and administrators lean towards the left or the far left end of the political spectrum. This shift has resulted in universities committing themselves to “social justice” instead of searching for truths.
One consequence of universities committing themselves to an ideology is that it creates a totalitarian work environment for professors in which dissenting views are not tolerated.
At some Canadian universities, union executives are now working with administrators to undermine the protections that are in place in collective agreements in order to punish professors when they speak out. This method of using workplace politics to suppress free speech appears to be unique to Canada, yet it has received minimal coverage in the media.
I will focus on my own experience in this piece but encourage readers to also learn about the case of Derek Pyne of Thompson Rivers University.
My encounter with censorship at Acadia University
Between July 1, 2003, and August 31, 2018, I was a professor at Acadia University. I received no media coverage until I sent a tweet to Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer in January 2018. In my tweet, I asked him how he could claim to be committed to free speech, yet also remove a Senator from the Conservative party’s caucus. I sent the tweet because the Senator was removed from the party’s caucus because indigenous activists were offended by some of the letters she had posted on her web site.
Later in January, I lost the courses that I had taught for years. In an article about my tweet that was published by the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, the media spokesperson for Acadia University stated that the university was taking steps to ensure that students who were offended by my tweet were not required to take courses with me.
Between February and June, I was the subject of two investigations: one conducted by an independent investigator and one conducted by a Dean at the university. The collective agreement at my university does not allow for a report based on an independent investigation to be used as a basis for disciplining professors. Furthermore, neither of the reports from the two investigations explained what procedures were in place to ensure that I was treated fairly.
Rather than advocate for me and argue against the two reports being the bases for disciplining me, the union executive signed a contract with the administration known as a non-disclosure agreement. This agreement undermined the protections that I had in my university’s collective agreement; this contract was signed on August 1. In it, the two sides agreed that neither would discuss my case with any third party (e.g., journalists). Had I given in to the union’s pressure to sign the contact, I would have consented to being broadly gagged.
Free speech protections are being undermined by loopholes in labour law
On August 31, President Peter Ricketts terminated my employment at Acadia University. When I read the letter that he provided, I noticed that it did not give me specific reasons for my dismissal. It instead stated only broad categories of misconduct and referred me to other documents for more detail. Given that the President is the only person at the university who has the authority to fire me; it is noteworthy that he did not have the fortitude to give me the specific reasons for my dismissal.
Before I was dismissed, I submitted a Duty of Fair Representation complaint to Nova Scotia’s Labour Board and provided evidence for my belief that my union was acting against my interests. The response that I received stated that the union executive has the full authority to make decisions about my case based on what it thinks is in the best interests of the union’s membership, as opposed to my best interests. Furthermore, in the eyes of labour law, the union is representing me because it filed my case for arbitration, even though its actions allowed for my employment to be terminated in the first place. I believe that this evidence demonstrates how little protection unionized professors have when they express dissenting views.
Academics have traditionally been the voice of reason during polarized or divisive times because they are the ones who question the direction in which a society is heading. In Canada, one major rationale for unionizing the professoriate was to give Canadian academics protection when they exercised their right to free speech. Unfortunately, this protection is being undermined by loopholes in labour law. Readers should be concerned because history tells us that societies do not bode well when the voices of academics are being suppressed.