The Alberta government will require post-secondary institutions to provide annual free speech reporting to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides after the University of Lethbridge cancelled a controversial speaker earlier this week. 

On Monday, the University Lethbridge caved to public pressure and cancelled a speaker who questioned whether abuses against Indigenous children amounted to cultural genocide.

Nicolaides said it is “abundantly clear” that more needs to be done to ensure post-secondary institutions are adequately protecting free speech

“Alberta’s post-secondary institutions should be bastions of free speech and academic freedom that promote critical thinking,” he said in a statement on Friday. “I will continue to explore greater steps we can take to strengthen free speech on campus.”

Frances Widdowson, a former tenured professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, was supposed to speak at Lethbridge about mob mentality and “woke policies” she says threaten academic freedom.

Widdowson was fired from Mount Royal in 2021 after noting what she described as the educational benefits of Canada’s residential school system and for questioning whether abuses against Indigenous children amounted to cultural genocide.

Widdowson was invited by a professor to speak on Wednesday. The University of Lethbridge granted space for the event until about 2,500 students signed a petition against that decision.

University president Mike Mahon initially defended the decision to host Widdowson, citing free speech. But days later, he revoked the space saying her views would not advance the residential schools discussion and would “cause harm” by minimizing the pain and suffering inflicted on First Nations children and families.

“It is clear that the harm associated with this talk is an impediment to meaningful reconciliation,” he said in a statement.

In response, Nicolaides said changes are coming to further protect free speech on campuses. 

“I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial,” Nicolaides told the Canadian Press on Tuesday. “But I believe it is important for our universities and colleges to foster a strong culture of free speech and diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are deemed controversial, or even offensive, barring speech intended to incite hatred or violence of course.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she was troubled by Nicolaides’ position.

“As far as I’m concerned, the idea of having someone come and speak at the university, particularly in Lethbridge, to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools, is deeply troubling to me,” Notley told reporters Tuesday.”That is deeply hurtful communication.”

In its announcement, the Alberta government also cited a 2022 MacDonald Laurier Institute study of university professors in Canada. The report found that, regardless of political leaning, 34% of professors self-censor because they are concerned about negative consequences if their true opinions on certain topics become known.

In his mandate letter, published in November, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith charged Nicolaides with ensuring the province’s institutions are “adequately protecting the academic freedom and free speech of students and faculty.”

In 2019, the United Conservative Party government required all 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions in Alberta to either endorse the Chicago Principles on free expression or develop a policy that is consistent with the principles. All institutions complied and implemented their policies by the December 2019 deadline, with an exception made for Burman University and the institution’s religious values.


  • Rachel Emmanuel

    Rachel is a seasoned political reporter who’s covered government institutions from a variety of levels. A Carleton University journalism graduate, she was a multimedia reporter for three local Niagara newspapers. Her work has been published in the Toronto Star. Rachel was the inaugural recipient of the Political Matters internship, placing her at The Globe and Mail’s parliamentary bureau. She spent three years covering the federal government for iPolitics. Rachel is the Alberta correspondent for True North based in Edmonton.