Professor under fire
After writing a controversial new book, Mount Royal College professor Frances Widdowson is facing fierce criticism and calls for her dismissal.
In Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, Widdowson and co-author Albert Howard argue that “parasitic” non-aboriginals (such as lawyers or consultants) make huge profits from government-funded programs while aboriginals themselves suffer.
According to the book, this “aboriginal industry” manipulates (or bribes) native leaders into helping maintain the status quo, ensuring that the money will keep flowing.
Harsh criticism for the book and its authors has flowed in from within Mount Royal, other scholars, aboriginal leaders and those who believe the book’s views are dangerous and outdated.
“There have been both people on campus — which is very shocking — and also people outside of Mount Royal who have been lobbying (administration) to crack down upon myself and Albert,” Widdowson said at a forum about the book on Dec. 1.
The forum included both authors and two other scholars — James Frideres of the University of Calgary and Eldon Yellowhorn of Simon Fraser University. Scores of students and faculty packed the Jenkins Theatre for a two-hour discussion of the book and its ideas.
Widdowson, a new faculty member in Mount Royal’s Department of Policy Studies, said the huge response highlights an important case of academic freedom. People may disagree with her ideas, Widdowson said, but she should still be allowed to present and discuss them academically.
“There have been some suggestions that Frances should either be reprimanded or fired because of her views,” said Robin Fisher, Mount Royal’s provost and vice-president academic. But in his view, “academic freedom isn’t a fight, it’s a given.”
Widdowson quoted a letter from a University of Saskatchewan faculty member to Mount Royal President Dave Marshall. The letter stated Widdowson’s ideas are “offensive on … many levels” and are “intended to generate animosity toward aboriginal peoples.”
At the forum, Frideres sharply criticized the scholarly value of Widdowson and Howard’s book.
“It’s not well researched, it’s not well argued, it definitely does not meet the minimal standards of what I call scholarship,” he said. “(It’s) more of an opinion piece under the guise of scholarship.”
Yellowhorn, an aboriginal archaeologist, said the book is “10 chapters of foregone conclusions followed by a concluding chapter.”
Howard said he was “pissed off” by Frideres’ response, which he called “absolutely meaningless” and meant to get laughs from the audience.
The book has attracted national media attention, with articles published in the Globe and Mail, National Post and Ottawa Citizen, among other publications. The Post story called the book “classical, albeit outmoded, Marxism.”
After the forum, students who disagree with Widdowson and Howard’s book still thought having an open, academic discussion is important.
“I think we need more healthy debates to discuss this,” said Kelly Funk, 24, a first-year student in Mount Royal’s aboriginal education program. “I hope she’s able to go to other universities and colleges and have these debates so the topics can be explored and talked about rather than kept inside.”
Funk said he has no problem with Widdowson teaching at Mount Royal, but said he doesn’t believe the book is properly researched.