UBC cancels on-campus SFE event featuring far-right speaker, event still to go on ‘in some capacity’

This article contains mention of the residential school system and genocide denialism.

UBC cancelled a UBC Students for Freedom of Expression (SFE) event space booking intended for an event discussing the unmarked graves found on residential school sites, featuring Canadian far-right pundit Lauren Southern.

Southern, who recently released a documentary questioning the genocide of Indigenous peoples at former residential schools, was set to speak at UBC SFE’s event “An Honest Conversation about Canadian Residential Schools and Mass Graves” on November 17, as one of three speakers. Southern has been criticized for spreading white supremacist and anti-Islamic viewpoints, and promoting the 'white replacement' conspiracy theory.

In an event description, UBC SFE wrote that “[w]hile controversial, Southern believes her independent journalism is needed more than ever in a media atmosphere bought and paid for by interest groups and pressured by political powers.”

Southern was previously invited to speak at a UBC Free Speech club event in 2019, which was later cancelled by UBC.

Southern’s involvement drew widespread criticism from community members online, most of which was directed at UBC administration.

“@UBC can’t have a @irshdc and a massive rally for #OrangeShirtDay to then allow deniers discourses of a really painful truth!!! Really hope this event is cancelled!,” wrote Jose Arias-Bustamante, a PhD candidate in forestry, on Twitter.

A group of Indigenous students from post-secondary institutions across Canada also released a statement on the event, calling on UBC and the AMS to advocate for a full cancellation of the event, issue an apology to Indigenous students and community members, among other requests.

In a statement released across social media on Friday morning, Peter Smailes, UBC’s vice-president finance & operations, said the university did not endorse UBC SFE. He referred to it as an “external group.”

“Although the university does and will continue to support academic freedom, we have determined that this event should not proceed. We believe proceeding with this event would adversely affect campus and community safety,” the statement reads.

Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, confirmed to The Ubyssey that UBC SFE had requested classroom space for its event, but its request was denied.

The AMS also condemned the event — although the SFE is not an AMS club — as did the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC).

“The IRSHDC fully agrees that this event should be canceled and condemns the spreading of misinformation and hate under the auspices of free speech,” the IRSHDC tweeted.

In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, SFE wrote that the event “will still go on in some capacity” — the Facebook event still has a link to a YouTube livestream — but that plans have not been finalized yet.

According to SFE, UBC cancelled the event after one of the speakers, Kevin Annett, reported the group to the university, saying this event would put George Brown, a residential school survivor and one of the other speakers, in danger.

SFE claimed it had informed both Brown and Annett of what the discussion would look like.

“Both Annett and Brown knew that Lauren Southern would be speaking and SFE was upfront about what her opinions were on the church's involvement in genocide and mass graves,” SFE wrote.

“I am disappointed but not surprised that the university is not allowing the event to go forward. Although UBC has a strong statement on academic freedom, they tend to try to avoid controversy at all costs,” SFE wrote of the cancellation, and added that it had seen no “evidence that Lauren Southern is a white suprematist [sic].”

UBC has faced several issues in the past around inviting far-right speakers to campus. In 2018, the Free Speech Club hosted Ben Shapiro at the Chan Centre despite significant community pushback. The SFE hosted alt-right speakers Ricardo Duchesne and Mark Hecht on campus in 2019.

UBC also cancelled a Free Speech Club event with Andy Ngo in early 2020, which led to a lawsuit from both the club and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in summer 2020, claiming the cancellation of the event was a violation to rights of freedom of expression.

In mid-2020, UBC President Santa Ono said that UBC had revised its event risk assessment and mitigation process to “clearly identify the level of risk for these events and therefore more clearly support decision-making regarding speakers” and to evaluate the events through the lens of the BC Human Rights Code.

This is the first major event cancellation under these updated policies.

This article has been updated to include reference to a statement released by a group of Indigenous students.