Jordan Peterson Stirs Debates about Freedom of Speech Across Canada

Edited by: Jina Aryaan


Over the past year, universities across Canada have been involved in an ongoing debate about the balance of freedom of speech and protection from discrimination. Several incidents have ignited rallies and discussions about the duty of universities to ensure that an environment of academic freedom is maintained while upholding principles of fairness and non-discrimination.

Early last school year, Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, published an hour-long YouTube lecture on political correctness. During this video, Peterson objected to Bill C-16 (which has since become enforceable legislation). This law amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. It also amends the Criminal Code to extend protection against hate propaganda to the section of the public distinguished by gender identity or gender expression. Peterson feared that the legislation would allow for legal action to be taken against discussions and research on gender and sexuality, equating the limitations to authoritarianism. In his video, Peterson also denied the existence of non-binary gender identities and stated that he would not recognize the requests of students to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Peterson’s remarks spurred protests and other forms of demonstrations, including a teach-in organized by the Women and Gender Studies Institute, on campus. Other faculty members have spoken out against Peterson. A.W. Peet, a physics professor at the University of Toronto, told the National Post that Peterson does have a right to free speech, however, he also has a professional duty of care to the student body that elevates the standard of respect to which he must be held: “I refuse to stand by and just let Peterson hurt vulnerable genderqueer members of the university community.” Academic administrators at the University of Toronto sent Peterson two letters of warning in response to the controversy, however, formal disciplinary action was not taken. More recently, an open letter signed by individuals and groups from postsecondary institutions across North America, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union, has been sent to senior administration of the University of Toronto calling for the termination of Peterson.

The backlash against Peterson’s gender diversity criticisms has also been met by advocates for free speech in defense of Peterson. An Indiegogo campaign, organized by The Rebel Media, raised $195,000 for Peterson in May of 2017 after he was denied a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant for the first time in his career, a decision which he interpreted as retaliation for his criticisms of Bill C-16. Peterson also receives monthly crowdfunding payments from 6,544 Patreon supporters (as of November 29th).

The controversy created by Jordan Peterson is not limited to the University of Toronto. Peterson has also influenced free speech discussions at other universities. In August, Franz Kurtzke, a fourth-year philosophy major at the University of British Columbia, faced heavy criticism from faculty members and other students for his distribution of leaflets that criticized the “social justice” movement. These flyers urged professors to apply for membership in Heterodox Academy, an organization that encourages professors to support “viewpoint diversity,” and included links to articles and videos criticizing social justice advocacy of safe spaces and diverse gender identities. Jordan Peterson was the author of one of the YouTube videos cited and the subject of another. More recently, Wilfrid Laurier University came under intense scrutiny for sanctioning a teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepard, who showed her class a televised debate between Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte, a lecturer in the sexual diversity studies program of the University of Toronto, on gender-neutral pronouns. The video was shown within the context of a lesson about how language affects society and was presented alongside the discussion question: “How do gender pronouns influence society’s understanding of gender itself?” Shepard was accused of creating a toxic environment in class and told that her lesson plans would need to be approved by another faculty member in the future. Since then, the President of Wilfrid Laurier University has apologized and the sanctions have been removed.

Debates about free speech and its implications for minority groups, in particular, have become increasingly present on university campuses. The prevalence of these incidents has led to calls for more clearly defined policies on freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination. Despite the highly divisive nature of this issue, Neil Guppy, the senior advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom at the University of British Columbia, told the Globe and Mail that he sees a way to bridge both free speech and protection from discrimination: “Freedom needs to have with it the enabling notions of civility and inclusion and equality: that is what makes the university environment different from other environments. This is not the bully pulpit where you get up there and shout out opinions and try to drown out your opponents. This is a place where critical reasoning and incisive thought takes place and that requires this notion of civility.”