It took three minutes and 19 seconds of surreptitiously recorded iPhone video to thrust one of the founding fathers of Canadian conservatism into a political firestorm, one that culminated with the announcement of his retirement from the University of Calgary.
The university announced on Thursday that Prof. Tom Flanagan, a former adviser and mentor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was retiring after a 45-year teaching career amid a controversy over his views on child pornography.
In a question-and-answer session on Wednesday evening at the University of Lethbridge, Prof. Flanagan said he had “grave doubts” about the idea of jailing people who view child pornography. “It is a real issue of personal liberty and to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person,” he said.
He faced jeers from the audience. In another era, that might have been the end of it. But the comments were recorded and posted online, and the backlash Thursday was swift.
He was denounced by the office of his onetime ally Mr. Harper. He was relieved of his commentary duties with the CBC. He was told he’d no longer have any “formal or informal” role with Alberta’s Wildrose Party, for which he ran last year’s election campaign.
At the University of Calgary, where he has taught since 1968, president Elizabeth Cannon condemned the professor’s statements, saying they “absolutely do not represent the views” of the institution. In a statement, she said Prof. Flanagan, who is currently on a research leave, told the university in January that he will retire on June 30.
Prof. Flanagan was a force behind the so-called Calgary School of conservatism, one that produced the likes of Mr. Harper and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. He was not only a onetime adviser and campaign manager to Mr. Harper, but also an early organizer in the Reform Party and had emerged as an architect of the upstart Wildrose.
In a written statement to the CBC Thursday afternoon, Prof. Flanagan apologized “unreservedly” for his comments, saying his words were “badly chosen” in an “academic setting.”
“I absolutely condemn the sexual abuse of children, including the use of children to produce pornography,” he wrote.
Prof. Flanagan, whose columns have appeared regularly in The Globe and Mail, declined requests for additional comment from The Globe.
His original comments came during a seminar hosted by the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs, a loosely organized group, and held at the University of Lethbridge in southeastern Alberta. He was questioned about comments, made in 2009 and reported by The Manitoban student newspaper, when he asked “what’s wrong with child pornography – in the sense that it’s just pictures?” On Wednesday evening, he sought to lay out his belief that viewing a photograph does not directly victimize a person.
“A lot of people on my side of the spectrum, the conservative side of the spectrum, have been on kind of a jihad against pornography and child pornography in particular. And I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures,” the professor said.
Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Mr. Harper’s office, wrote on Twitter that the comments were “repugnant, ignorant, and appalling.”
Wildrose’s Ms. Smith, a onetime star student of Prof. Flanagan, condemned the remarks and effectively removed him from her inner circle. “There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan’s comments,” Ms. Smith said in a written statement Thursday, adding: “He will have no role – formal or informal – with our organization going forward.”
The CBC said his comments “crossed the line and impacted his credibility as a commentator for us.” It was on this network that Prof. Flanagan has made some of his other incendiary remarks, including calling for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Prof. Flanagan was briefly defended by SACPA, the event organizer. Its Twitter account said Thursday that he simply “gave the libertarian take on porn: go [after]the producer/molester, not the [viewer].”
Others disagreed. “Child pornography is a despicable crime that seriously harms all those involved, including the viewer,” Ms. Smith said, with U of C’s Dr. Cannon adding: “All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children.”
The video was posted by Arnell Tailfeathers, 32, a University of Lethbridge graduate and member of the Blood Tribe in southeastern Alberta. An Idle No More supporter, Mr. Tailfeathers urged people to attend Wednesday’s meeting to “send a message” to the professor, and was surprised by what he called “a pretty sick statement” and by how quickly it spread. “Maybe he didn’t know a camera was in the room, maybe not,” Mr. Tailfeathers said.