"All cultures are unique," says Ricardo Duchesne, "but there is something exceptionally unique about the West."
Dr. Duchesne is not paraphrasing a character in Animal Farm. He is a social sciences professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. When he is in the classroom, he says, he offers his students a variety of texts and perspectives on the issues he teaches. But when he is typing away at his computer, he takes a different tone. In conservative-leaning journals, a "Eurocentric" blog, and his own book, he advances perspectives he has developed over his 20 years as a professor: that Western civilization is responsible for most of what is great in the world, and that multiculturalism can "dilute" that greatness.
"I, as an academic, have an obligation to bring this out," he says. "Our own very modern world, our liberal institutions, our sense of freedom," he says in an interview, "came from the Western world."
In his two decades at UNB, Dr. Duchesne's views have rarely caused a stir. But in mid-2014, he found himself the subject of an investigation by his employer after a complaint by Vancouver city councillor and psychiatry professor Kerry Jang. The city's council had been discussing reconciliations for historical policies that discriminated against Chinese immigrants when Dr. Duchesne began blogging about it and e-mailing councillors, including Dr. Jang. Online, he argued among other things that Dr. Jang was "exploiting White ideas to advance the ethnic interests of the Chinese," and that Asians demand to "extract ever more resources from Whites."
Dr. Jang soon lodged his complaint, arguing that Dr. Duchesne was using the guise of scholarship to advance pejorative views. At the start of 2015, UNB declared it had finished the investigation, defending Dr. Duchesne's remarks under the banner of academic freedom – the freedom of speech and inquiry that is the cornerstone of academia.
Academic freedom has earned plenty of headlines in Canada this year. Dr. Duchesne's case made waves in January. In May, when campus security seized an "unflattering" sculpture of Capilano University's president made by an instructor, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called it a violation of his academic freedom. And in August, the chair of the University of British Columbia's board of governors came under scrutiny after complaining about a professor's controversial blog post.
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Each of these cases underscore the necessity of academics' freedom of speech, both on campus and beyond. Rarely included in such discussions, though, are students. When do they have a stake? Nearly 20 per cent of students at UNB Saint John are from abroad, a third of whom come from China. When Dr. Duchesne questions multiculturalism, or writes that a growing Chinese population has weakened the "character" of historically "European" Canadian cities, his words and publications are inseparable from the learning environment he shares with students, including those of Chinese descent.
Canadian academic groups and free-speech advocates largely suggest that's okay – that barring sloppy research or a breach of the law, all academic speech should be protected in the name of spirited intellectual debate. It is a powerful reminder of freedom of speech in Canada: When academics like Dr. Duchesne make controversial statements, their right to say so should be defended at all costs, even if those words have the potential to affect the students they teach.
Dr. Duchesne is both mixed-race and an immigrant himself: Born in Puerto Rico to British and Hispanic parents, he moved to Canada when he was 15. His own story, though, doesn't hinder his views on Canadian immigration policy. "I think that what happened in Vancouver was wrong. It was an infringement on the culture of the people who created that city."
As he studied at Concordia, McGill and York universities, he found himself on the left of the political spectrum, "like every academic." But as he worked toward his PhD at York, he found himself transfixed by the story of Western civilization, from the invention of democracy to the Scientific Revolution and the settling of North America. He joined UNB's faculty in 1995, and soon found himself growing disenfranchised by perspectives that, he felt, downplayed Europe's role in building the modern world – including Canada itself.
He spent a decade honing his views, publishing a book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, in 2011. After that, he began to reflect how his views applied to immigration and multiculturalism. "The history of Canada is being told in a way that is not accurate," he says. "We want to create a whole new Canada that's diverse, so we are rewriting the history." It was this perspective that prompted his interactions with Dr. Jang and UNB's investigation.
UNB representatives declined to speak for this story, but provided a brief statement by e-mail: "Dr. Duchesne's views do not in any way reflect those of the university... Many times, disagreements offer us opportunities to learn and this, of course, is the foundation of an institution of higher learning."
Not intervening, says Mark Mercer, president of Canada's Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, was the right move for UNB. Passionate intellectual debate is crucial for academia, and is bound to leave some offended, he says: "Campuses are a place of intellectual and emotional risk."
Dr. Duchesne's union, the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers, also backed the university's decision. "The understanding we have of academic freedom is that people can say things that other people find troubling, disturbing, offensive," says its president, Allan Reid.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, AUNBT's parent, says comments like Dr. Duchesne's can be "tricky" for organizations committed to ensuring discrimination and harassment-free campuses. Even though he considers Dr. Duchesne's comments offensive, he says, "the very nature of universities is to ensure wide open discussions ... on all sides of the political spectrum and on all issues," he says.
There are, after all, many situations that could make students uncomfortable. Mr. Robinson offers an example with the politics reversed: "A lot of first-year male sociology students might not like to hear about feminism, but it's important to hear that particular point of view."
The Canadian Federation of Students takes a more skeptical view than its professorial counterparts. The federation has long defended the importance of free speech on campus, but argues there has to be room for nuance: For students, after all, campuses are not just places for learning, but for work and living, too. That means professors, as stewards of the academic experience, have a responsibility to the student experience – "to provide a space that is conducive to collective learning," says CFS national chairperson Bilan Arte.
Regarding Dr. Duchesne's controversial statements about Asian immigration, she says, "if those comments were being presented as fact, then those perspectives are going to be present in the classroom as well, and that is going to create a harmful space."
It would be cumbersome, Dr. Reid says, to confirm whether a professor's published views have affected individual students if the students don't speak up. Ms. Arte, though, says that creates a Catch-22. "I think students would feel incredibly intimidated and uncomfortable saying anything... That can affect one's willingness to go to the classroom."
Though past racist incidents against Chinese people in Saint John were brought to police, no students complained to the student council about Dr. Duchesne's comments. "I was surprised," says Jordan Tracey, who was vice-president of the Students' Representative Council at the time.
Cara Zwibel, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Fundamental Freedoms program, says that without a demonstrated impact on the classroom – students coming forward – controversial statements should be protected. "There has to be debate," she says. "We do a real disservice to higher education if we start trying to root out anything that could give rise to feelings of discomfort."
Dr. Duchesne fully expects to be regularly and rigorously debated. By shining a light on controversial perspectives, CAUT's Mr. Robinson says, "we can actually challenge them."
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