UBC refuses to host residential school denialist Lauren Southern

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Sit down, Lauren. Government of British Columbia

Southern free to speak elsewhere

On November 12, a social media statement by the University of British Columbia stated that the school is not allowing permission for a roundtable event with white nationalist Lauren Southern on November 17. The statement emphasized that this event was being planned for by an external group, and was not endorsed by the school. The group in question is called UBC Students for Freedom of Expression who, according to the information on their website, “are a group of UBC students who believe that there should be no such thing as prohibited speech.”

The event in question was promoted as “An honest conversation about Canadian residential schools and mass graves,” and was designed to be a roundtable discussion between Southern, George Brown, and Kevin Annett. All three individuals are known to have controversial and factually incorrect opinions about the investigation of Canada’s residential school system. Southern is a far-right commentator, former Rebel Media worker, and most recently created a controversial film titled “The Canadian Mass Graves Hoax.” The film questions the authenticity of the recent revelations of unmarked graveyards at residential schools, insisting there was no genocide against Indigenous people in Canada, and takes issue with the church burnings following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves this past spring and summer. On the last point, her claim is that there is no evidence of Catholic Church involvement, and that misleading media coverage has made the Church a scapegoat. It is not known how Southern feels about the Pope himself, as well as several Bishops, acknowledging that the Catholic Church was instrumental in the development and operation of the genocidal residential school system.

In the statement announcing the cancellation of this event, UBC authorities clarified more than once that the event was not organized or sponsored by the university itself or any affiliated office. Given how the statement claims that the organizer, UBC Students for Freedom of Expression, is an external group not even endorsed by UBC, it raises questions about how they were able to make booking requests for events on campus, or whether the inclusion of UBC in their group name should thus be addressed. The university also explained that, while it has not allowed the event permission to be held on campus, they are unable to prevent the student group in question from hosting the event off-campus or online under the same banner and title. It can be noted here that this same student entity has been known to host controversial speakers in the past, like right-wing speaker Ben Shapiro and anti-immigration author Mark Hecht. In 2019, their previous attempt to host Southern was also cancelled.

The statement further added that, while they are committed to academic freedom, the university has determined that this event would adversely affect campus and community safety. It also said that UBC remains committed to truth and meaningful reconciliation. Lauren Southern, soon after the release of the UBC statement, took to Twitter to say that she is not surprised, and appreciates “the University acknowledging the violent nature of those attempting to shut down free speech”. It remains unclear which part of the official statement she felt could be interpreted in this manner.

Professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, is supportive of the event being denied space on campus. She said that the horrors of residential schools are well-known, and to have a speaker come forward who categorically denies that any wrong has been done is not freedom of speech, but rather promotion of hatred and misinformation. Turpel-Lafond added that she has been contacted by many students, community members, and residential school survivors who are deeply hurt that such a speaker and event is being associated with the UBC name. She also said that the ongoing possibility that the event might yet go online is troubling, and that the centre has reported their concerns about the event being promoted on Facebook.

The key speaker of the event, Lauren Southern, has long been criticized for her inadequate research behind the claims that there has been no genocide perpetrated against the Indigenous peoples in Canada. Her documentary makes no mention of the reports by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada or of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry. She also chose to completely ignore the findings in multiple papers published by UBC’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

One of the other speakers, Annett, is also part of the sovereign-citizen movement and an outspoken critic of the COVID-19 vaccine. Last year he made multiple statements on social media about how him and his associates plan on disrupting the vaccine supply chain in Canada. Annett, a former United Church Minister, was fired in the 1990s.

As many had been predicting ever since the UBC statement not allowing the event to be held on campus, the UBC Students for Freedom of Expression had indicated that the event would go on in some other manner. In their statement, the student club claims that they are disappointed but not surprised at the cancellation, and allege that UBC has a tendency to avoid controversy at all costs. It is in fact true that the university has faced several issues around inviting far-right speakers, something that led to their event risk assessment and mitigation policy being revised in 2020. This is the first major cancellation since the policy updates.

On November 17, the UBC Students for Freedom of Expression hosted a YouTube livestream of Lauren Southern in lieu of the cancelled event. Interestingly, for a group that enshrines freedom of speech, they mentioned that they were unable to find an opposing speaker and said it is incumbent on the audience to challenge Southern’s claims. On November 18, a further social media post alleged that the YouTube livestream has not been allowed, possibly due to mass reporting, and that they still fully intend to upload a recording of the event at some future date.

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