Wilfrid Laurier TA reprimanded for showing gender neutrality debate video

Wilfrid Laurier University reprimanded a teaching assistant for showing her first-year communications tutorial class a video debate featuring controversial University of Toronto (U of T) psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Lindsay Shepherd was sanctioned after she screened an episode of The Agenda, a TVO current affairs program, where Peterson—known for his stance on issues such as genderless pronouns—debated Nicholas Matte, a sexual diversity studies professor at the U of T, according to a CBC News article.

She told CBC that she explained to her students it is important to listen to both sides of an issue before forming an opinion on it. 

“I very clearly stated, watching debates like these are so important for getting yourself out of speech bubbles,” she told CBC News.

According to the article, following complaints from several students in the tutorial, Laurier’s president and vice-chancellor Deborah MacLatchy, Shepherd’s supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, professor Herbert Pimlott and the manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support Adria Joel, held a meeting with Shepherd where Rambukkana told her that showing the video and not denouncing Peterson and his views was akin to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.”

During the meeting, Shepherd said they accused her of showing “hate-filled content” to her students, creating a toxic environment for transgender students and called her transphobic, according to a Global News article.

Shepherd recorded the meeting in secret and media outlets obtained the audio, resulting in the institution being scrutinized for the way it handled the situation. Following this, MacLatchy released an official apology on behalf of the university.

In her apology, MacLatchy wrote that “the conversation heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did, and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd.”

MacLatchy also noted that the university has an independent party coming in to conduct a formal review.

“Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression . . . while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion, is not a simple matter,” MacLatchy wrote.

Others have weighed in, following vast media attention. Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, said that this highlights a broader issue of stifling of free speech in Canada. 

“To think we’ve got a state in Canada where a university would have an inquisition on a young grad student . . . bully her, tell her she committed acts of violence by showing a clip from a public broadcast on a public broadcaster, is ridiculous,” Scheer said in an interview with Global News.

May Friedman, an associate professor at Ryerson University, told Global News the reason this issue has caught the attention of the political right is because “general transgender rights are not acknowledged by the right.”

Laurier’s Rainbow Centre, an LGBTQ+ group on campus, shared a post to their Facebook page, criticizing the way the story has been portrayed.

They said there has been a one-sided perspective that is entirely disconnected from the experiences of transgendered individuals.

“Under the banner of freedom of speech, the news media have advanced a critique of institutional practices aimed at increasing inclusivity and challenging oppression,” the post reads. The post also notes that these debates, “regardless of how neutrally they are presented, constitute a form of epistemic violence that dehumanizes trans people by denying the validity of trans experience.”

The group called for people to be critical in their discussion about transgender people and their identities in the name of free speech.

The post also called for the university to take the concerns of students seriously and for LGBTQ+ students and allies to speak up and help create a safer space on campus.

The university has launched a task force on freedom of expression to explore the issues of  “freedom of speech and freedom of expression while respecting human rights legislation and the university’s values of diversity and inclusion and civil discourse,” according to its website.

They have also hired a third party to make a report to the president on the incident and provide recommendations. However, the findings of the report are to remain confidential, according to the university.

Photo by Selena Halani