A government paper is causing a storm within Canadian university circles as critics say that the fundamental rights of free speech and inquiry are being banned in the very places where they should thrive.

The Framework Regarding Prevention of Harrassment and Discrimination in Ontario Universities was issued through the Ministry of Education and Training without any debate in the legislature.  The document states that there can be nothing spoken, read or referred to on a university campus if it “creates a negative environment for individuals or groups.”

The document is a “framework” and colleges and universities are expected to revise their policies to comply with it.  It states institutions are “free to go beyond it and to develop other ways of achieving the intent of the policy which best reflects their local environments.”

One of the most contentious bans is on “comments or conduct that creates a negative environment for individuals or groups.”

“A complainant does not have to be a direct target to be adversely affected by a negative environment,” the document states.  “It includes conduct or comment that creates or maintains an offensive, hostile or intimidating climate for study or work.”

Students or professors contravening the “zero-tolerance” order will be expelled or fired.  Other proposals include:

  • orientation sessions for all students and staff to educate on harassment and discrimination,
  • spending $5.9 million next year preventing discrimination.
  • Programs to evaluate the discrimination policies.

Michael Collins, president of the Pro-life Law Students Association at the University of Ottawa says he has already warned potential members of his group that speaking out on pro-life issues “could trigger application of the policy, with the possibility of an investigation, hearing and sanction.”

“In my opinion, zero tolerance was a weapon that could transform the name-calling by our critics into official charges by the university,” he said.

So far opposition to the document in the media and the academic world has been muted.  The faculty at Trent University is one of those exceptions.

“We defend, therefore, the right to certain types of speech and academic expression which, in fact, we do not condone, and in some cases deplore.” A petition to the government states, “This includes the right to offend one another.  It includes the right to express – and the right of access to intellectual materials which express – racially, ethnically, or sexually discriminatory ideas, opionions or feelings, just as it includes the right to expressions that favour inequality of incomes or benefits.”

Peter Calamai, an editor at the Ottawa Citizen, said the silence in the universities to the government order “is a complicity equally reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s.  “He says on top of the original report, the government has laid down rules about reading lists, what can be cited by professors and what art can be displayed and discussed.

“Universities, however, are about ideas, and little else,” he says.  “They are about causing people discomfort, about questioning assumptions.”