Jonathan Malloy is the Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University.
When Queen’s University took John A. Macdonald’s name off a campus building in early October, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole tweeted condemnation of one of his hoariest foes: “Cancel culture strikes again.” Shortly after that, he blamed “cancel culture” and its dampening of free speech when the University of Ottawa condemned an instructor’s use of the N-word in class. “Stop cancel culture” was even a key phrase of his leadership campaign, and an initiative against “erasing our past” is now a plank on the party’s official website.
This week, however, he found himself in the crosshairs. Video footage emerged of him defending the efforts of residential-school architect Egerton Ryerson in November, to a group of young conservative students attending the Toronto university that bears his name. Before Mr. O’Toole eventually backtracked from his comments that residential schools were “meant to try and provide education,” his spokesperson defended his remarks by saying he was just “highlighting the damage cancel culture can have.”
The irony in all this shouldn’t be lost. Mr. O’Toole’s defence of free inquiry and historical debate at universities comes even as he leads a political party that has spent the last two decades driving away even the most mainstream researchers. The party that can’t seem to get enough of the sanctity of traditional Canadian history is the same party whose previous two leaders, Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer, rejected the consensus opinion of constitutional experts about who can and cannot form a government, and their offers to help build all-party agreement on parliamentary rules and conventions. It was Mr. Harper’s Conservative government that poured considerable resources into scientific research and grant agencies, but squandered any goodwill by also getting bogged down in fights over cancelled research projects and “muzzled” government scientists. And then there was the Tories’ cancellation and replacement of the 2011 long-form census, a decision that will be enshrined forever in thousands of academic footnotes explaining why the 2011 data is wonky or missing. Even the least politicized scholars remember this slight, and it makes a mockery of Mr. O’Toole’s new-found concern about other kinds of political cancellations.
Surveys, at least in the U.S., do tend to find that academics overall lean distinctly to the left. Yet translating this into partisanship is unwise. While electoral politics is all about team play, anyone who has chaired an academic department knows that professors are not natural conformists. They resist labels, and prize their intellectual independence. Academics see themselves as driven by the open exchange of ideas and are best engaged in that way, rather than categorized as either friends or enemies, in the way the Conservative Party tends to do.
It’s important to note that Conservative doors have not been completely closed to academics. Political science professors Tom Flanagan and Ian Brodie each had prominent roles with the Harper Conservatives. But the price of their engagement was going all-in with the team; with just a few others, they are also the exception.
In contrast, the Liberal Party has established its big tent in the centre of Canadian politics thanks in part to its understanding of the power of symbolic acts in engaging a broad range of academics. It established enormous goodwill by restoring the long-form census on its first day in government in 2015; in 2016, when then-minister of democratic institutions Maryam Monsef mocked one of the more esoteric academic elements of the electoral reform committee’s work in the House, she was later made to apologize.
If Mr. O’Toole is serious about growing his party, he needs to welcome in academics and researchers, who can infuse party policy with new ideas and better answers, which at least some Conservatives have realized they need if they hope to win power. Engagement with academics can increase a party’s legitimacy and appeal to swing voters motivated by ideas and evidence, a critical constituency that the Tories have too often driven away as of late.
Rather than making quick and provocative statements on academic freedom debates, Mr. O’Toole also needs to demonstrate an understanding of the full complexity of this sector. He can complete the work that the Harper government started in harnessing research power to economic growth and social prosperity, while also carving his own path by refusing to get caught up in petty feuds and distractions. His comments to Ryerson’s young conservatives do not signal that academic conciliation is in the offing – “most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university,” he said in the video – but his leadership remains young yet.
Unlike some of its global counterparts, the Conservative Party is not an anti-intellectual party at its core; they just work hard to look like one. The party seems to start on the basis that nearly all academics are against them, making no serious effort to engage them and their ideas. Erin O’Toole should reset this relationship, for the good of the party and the country.
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