Andrew Scheer, a man most Canadians have never heard of, beat out 14 other contenders and became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Sheer’s win was an unexpected victory, narrowly defeating Maxime Bernier via secondary ballot selections in the ranked ballot voting system. He is replacing the interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who has recently decided to retire from federal politics. This means Scheer will be the one to compete with Justin Trudeau in the 2019 federal election.
So, who is Andrew Scheer? Born in Ottawa, the 38-year-old is married and has five children. He has a religious background, having attended a Catholic high school and a deacon as a father. Politically Andrew Scheer has been the MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle since 2004. He rose rapidly in the House of Commons, from deputy chairman of the committees of the whole in 2006 to chairman in 2008. In 2011 he became the Speaker of the House of Commons, a position which requires impartiality and even-handed fairness, that he held for four years. In 2015 Scheer was re-elected and became the leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, before as noted above, becoming Conservative party leader.
None of the above is terribly interesting unless you are a political junkie or a Conservative party member, so why care? The man is running to become prime minister, and that makes his views and positions important to everyone; after all, he will be asking for your vote in two short years.
Andrew Scheer’s faith clearly influences his political views on a variety of issues. He does not agree with same-sex marriage and fought its legalization, supporting a bid in 2006 to reopen debate on the issue after it had already been legalized. Scheer also does not believe in a woman’s right to choose. He has consistently voted against abortion rights in the House of Commons and referred the awarding of an Order of Canada to Henry Morgentaler (a pro-choice advocate) as “debase[ing] the Order of Canada.” He disagrees with medically assisted suicide and wants to prioritize Christian refugees, like Yazidis, from conflicts in the Middle East for entry to Canada.
Despite his voting record on such issues, Scheer has assured Canadians that he would not attempt to enforce his moral convictions on the nation, and legislate morality, should he form a government. The above are clearly influenced by his faith, but they also resonate with millions of conservative Canadians from a variety of faiths and origins. Much like Stephen Harper before him, he considers abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia to be largely settled issues with no desire to reopen them. He also has a few policy planks in his platform which appeal to large numbers of Canadians, like tax exemption for new parents on parental leave, and the removal of HST/GST from heating bills. Finally, the item that received the largest applause during his remarks in the last round of the Conservative leadership convention, he promised to cut federal funding to universities “that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus.”
This last point stood out to me. I am well aware of the ongoing issues on American campuses but I was unaware this was an issue in Canada. In 2010 Ann Coulter cancelled speaking engagements at the University of Ottawa following student outrage at her for advising a Muslim student at a prior event to “take a camel” in response to a question about flight restrictions. More recently Danielle Robitaille, a member of Jian Ghomeshi’s legal team, cancelled a speaking engagement at Wilfrid Laurier University in March due to security concerns. Professor Jordan Peterson ran into trouble at the University of Toronto over his refusal to use requested pronouns. Kevin Arriola found himself fighting for free speech when he tried to start a Men’s Issues Awareness Society at Ryerson, similar to the outrage at Simon Fraser in 2012 over the suggestion of a “men’s centre.”
While researching I also came across the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a Calgary-based organization which produces a “Campus Freedom Index” that ranks Canadian universities on the level of free speech on campus. Intrigued, I checked both universities I have attended, UFV and University of Calgary; both received poor grades, but specifically due to past issues with pro-life campaigns on campus and their use of graphic imagery. The index actually grades UFV in 2016 as holding Cs in the areas of “university policies,” “university practices,” and “student union practices,” with a D in “student union policies.” Don’t feel bad though UFV, for all of B.C., Capilano University was the only school to receive even a single A, while UVic has 3 Fs.
I was a student here at UFV during 2013 when we earned our “F” from the JCCF. I don’t remember the incident being that big an issue, likely because I don’t feel the abortion argument warrants much of my attention, but basically in March 2013 the UFV Life Link club was prohibited from distributing materials that the group called “anti-genocide resources” in the hallways unless it was done in a closed room. The university said the group failed to disclose the content of any additional materials being offered beyond those in its “it’s a girl” campaign.
In April 2013, the club wanted to hold an event featuring Mike Schouten, speaking about sex-selective abortion. It was “postponed” by the university on April 5 due to “security concerns.” They claimed that the group did not provide notice that there would be advertising and an outside speaker, and there were plans for a student protest in opposition. The JCCF quotes UFV director of marketing and communications Leslie Courchesne as saying at the time, “UFV did not have enough time to do a fulsome risk assessment to ensure the safety and security of our campus community and external visitors.”
The group later held a private club meeting with the speaker inside an unused room rather than a “prominent location.” The JCCF actually threatened to sue UFV on behalf of the club which retained its services, although I can’t find any actual legal action. The issue for UFV was never the campaign, but the failure to disclose the nature of the materials being distributed and inability to conduct a threat assessment on short notice. UFV weighed its duty to provide UFV Life Link a forum with its duty to protect its students from harm — and security of the university and its students was prioritized. I know UFV didn’t shy away from pro-life issues, I still have photos of a pro-life art installation that was up for months outside A building: a wire frame covered with tiny plastic fetuses representing the number of abortions conducted over a specific time period, which though provocative was not graphically shocking.
Andrew Scheer is threatening — to thunderous conservative convention applause, to possibly strip federal funding from schools like UFV, which would have a direct impact on your education. Scheer has not expanded on what he means by failing to “foster a culture of free speech and inquiry.” He has said in the past that if you don’t like a speaker simply don’t attend, which implies that we should allow nearly anyone to speak, but no one is required to listen. Until he explains his policy further, Scheer has created a potential mechanism to continue fighting against same-sex marriage, abortion, and various other social issues by coercing universities into providing prominent forums. Undoubtedly he is partially driven by the feeling that it’s conservative speech that is under attack and must be defended, as well as his conviction that such social values are worth fighting for.
But is free speech really being suppressed in Canada’s schools? Should there be limits on what can be said on campus? Should anyone be allowed to speak on campus, from anti-vaxxers, holocaust deniers or white nationalists, to radical imams, ecoterrorists, and Alex Jones?