There’s room for controversial discussion at universities, but not when it comes at a cost to marginalized communities made vulnerable by those conversations.
In early January, Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke cancelled his lecture at the University of Regina, made controversial by his initial refusal to rule out reading poetry written by Steven Kummerfield, a man convicted of killing an Indigenous woman in 1995, in his presentation.
Clarke, who obtained his PhD at Queen’s, was scheduled to speak at the school about Indigenous justice issues. His advocacy for Kummerfield’s poetry was wrong, considering ongoing Indigenous oppression in Canada and decades of violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
If Clarke had followed through with reading the killer’s poems, he would’ve given voice to a man who contributed to violence against Indigenous people at an event meant to celebrate them.
Kummerfield murdered Pamela George in Regina less than 25 years before Clarke’s scheduled lecture. After serving just over three years in prison for manslaughter, Kummerfield changed his name and began writing poetry. Clarke has been supporting and editing his work since 2005.
The backlash facing Clarke’s initial defence of his intent to read that poetry isn’t a matter of free speech. It’s a fair response to the insensitive reopening of trauma for the community where George was murdered, and her killers let off with far-too-lenient repercussions.
Kummerfield has already faced little consequence for his horrific violence. He doesn’t deserve to be celebrated as an artist.
By prioritizing Kummerfield’s voice above the voices of those affected by George’s murder and hurt by the killer’s actions against the Indigenous community in Regina, Clarke made himself rightfully unwelcome at the lecture.
There’s no shortage of debate about which people and groups should be welcomed to speak on campuses. This event clarifies one certainty: there’s a difference between prohibiting speakers that make community members feel unsafe and restricting free speech.
Controversy surrounding speakers isn’t new at Queen’s. In 2018, a Smith School of Business instructor virtually hosted Chance Macdonald, a former Queen’s student convicted of common assault of a 16-year-old in 2017, as a guest speaker. Following criticism, the business school announced its plan to develop a centralized review process for future speakers.
Processes to approve guest lectures are mechanisms to protect affected students and faculty from controversial speakers whose past actions are upsetting and potentially triggering.
When approving campus speakers, universities must be conscious of their responsibility to the vulnerable groups in their communities.
Kummerfield doesn’t deserve a platform to have his work celebrated. Clarke should never have offered to give him that platform in the first place.
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