Lindsay Shepherd is a Canadian columnist who became known for her involvement, as a graduate student and teaching assistant, in an academic freedom controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario in 2017.
|Occupation||Teaching assistant (2017–2018)|
|Organization||Laurier Society for Open Inquiry Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms|
|Known for||Academic freedom activism, Columnist|
|Awards||Harry Weldon Canadian Values Award (2018)|
In November 2017, Shepherd played her communications class two clips of a debate with psychologist Jordan Peterson on Bill C-16, which added "gender identity or expression" as a prohibited ground for discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act and as an identifiable group to the Criminal Code. Following the class, Shepherd was summoned to a meeting with her supervisor; the head of her academic program; and an acting manager from the university's Diversity and Equity Office. Shepherd recorded the meeting, during which she was asked about the video clips and told 'at least one' complaint about her class had been raised. Shepherd was accused of having created a "toxic climate for some of the students" by playing the clips[A] and told she would have to submit a lesson plan to Professor Nathan Rambukkana prior to each class.[B]
After she released the recording, an independent fact-finder hired by the university reported that the meeting should not have taken place, that "no formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy" had been registered, and that Shepherd had done nothing wrong by showing the clips.
After the tape's release, Shepherd became active online about issues of free speech and academic freedom. In 2018, she founded the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry at WLU, and in May that year received the 2018 Harry Weldon Canadian Values Award from Canadians for Accountability. The following month she filed a lawsuit against the university, the two professors, the third staff member and a student, alleging "harassment, intentional infliction of nervous shock, negligence, and constructive dismissal". Peterson also filed a lawsuit, for defamation, against the university and the staff members in the meeting.
Early life and educationEdit
Shepherd was born in British Columbia and raised in a non-religious household. Her mother teaches elementary school and her father is a youth counsellor. She attended Cariboo Hill Secondary school, Burnaby, before completing her undergraduate degree in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In 2018 she was awarded an MA in Cultural Analysis & Social Theory from Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), after joining the graduate program in September 2017.
Wilfrid Laurier University incidentEdit
On 1 November 2017, Shepherd was teaching a WLU first-year undergraduate class, "Canadian Communication in Context". Discussing grammar and pronouns, she showed the class one two-minute clip and a second three-minute clip from The Agenda with Steve Paikin, a current-affairs program produced by TVOntario, a publicly funded channel. Broadcast in 2016, the context of the episode was Bill C-16, which added "gender identity or expression"[C] as a prohibited ground for discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act and as an identifiable group to the Criminal Code. The bill became law in June 2017.
The first clip featured the host, Steve Paikin, discussing gender-neutral pronouns with Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. A critic of Bill C-16 and "what he sees as an intolerant left-wing in higher education", according to The Globe and Mail, Peterson was arguing against being legally compelled to use pronouns such as zie and zher or the singular they. He told Paikin that he was being asked "to use a certain set of words that I think are the constructions of people who have a political ideology that I don't believe in and that I also regard as dangerous", and described it as an "attempt to control language in a direction that isn't happening organically ... but by force and by fiat". The second clip, from the same debate, showed Peterson discuss the issues with Nicholas Matte, a historian, also at Toronto, who teaches in the Sexual Diversity Studies program. Matte told Peterson: "I don't care about your language use. I care about the safety of people being harmed."
After the clips were shown, a heated discussion took place among students in the class, some supportive of Peterson and others critical; one told a college newspaper that students had used the discussion "as an excuse to make fun of trans identities".
According to Toby Finlay, an administrator with the university's Rainbow Centre, an LGBTQ support group, one student approached them with an expression of concern about the clips. The Rainbow Centre then spoke to Adria Joel, acting manager of gender violence prevention in the university's Diversity and Equity Office. On 7 November 2017 Nathan Rambukkana, Shepherd's supervisor, emailed Shepherd to ask that she attend a meeting the following day with him, Joel, and Herbert Pimlott, head of Shepherd's academic program. Shepherd's mother suggested that she record the discussion; the other participants did not know they were being recorded. Citing confidentiality, they did not show Shepherd the complaint, say who had complained, or explain how many complaints there had been; she was told only that "one or multiple students had come forward" expressing concern.
During the 40-minute meeting, Shepherd was accused of having created a "toxic climate for some of the students" by playing the clips and adopting a neutral stance between the positions. Shepherd argued that students must be exposed to mainstream ideas, and that the ideas should be presented without taking sides. The professor compared the pronoun debate to discussing whether a student of color should have rights; that is, it is "not something intellectually neutral that is up for debate". Shepherd responded that the matter at hand was indeed "out there" and up for debate. Arguing that the ideas had been presented as a valid perspective, the professor compared the Peterson clip to "neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos from Gamergate." Presenting such material devoid of criticism was "diametrically opposed to everything that we've been talking about in the lectures", he said.
The professor added that Peterson's arguments were "counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code [sic]",[D] and that what had happened in class had been contrary to the university's Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy; the manager offered the view that it might have violated the Ontario Human Rights Code.[B]
The meeting ended with Rambukkana asking that Shepherd send him her lesson plan prior to each class because there had been a breakdown in communication. This was the extent of her punishment, but Rambukkana said that he wasn't sure what else might happen going forward and that he had to discuss the matter with other members of the faculty.
Recording released, apologiesEdit
Shepherd released the recording to the National Post, as well as to a local newspaper and another on Canada's west coast. The National Post contacted her immediately, and Christie Blatchford ran the story in the Post on 10 November. WLU's president, Deborah MacLatchy, and Professor Nathan Rambukkana published letters of apology on 21 November. MacLatchy said of the meeting that it "does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires". In his apology, Rambukkana said he should have done more to support Shepherd as her course director and supervisor, and that he had reconsidered some of his positions since the meeting. He wrote that he regretted comparing Peterson to Hitler, which was "untrue and was never my intention".[E]
The university asked a lawyer, Robert Centa, to conduct an independent investigation. His report, which the university did not release, found that Shepherd had not violated university policies and that the meeting had involved "significant overreach". On 18 December 2017 the university president, Deborah MacLatchy, issued a statement saying that there had been "numerous errors in judgement made in the handling of the meeting". The meeting should not have taken place, she wrote, because "[n]o formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video." She concluded that there had been "no wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Shepherd in showing the clip from TVO in her tutorial".
According to MacLatchy, the information about the class had been received via a staff member in the Rainbow Centre "from students who had been on campus talking about it. The policy was not designed to deal with those kind of comments and concerns not actually being raised through the process." In April 2018 she repeated that whatever issue had been raised about the clips, it "was not a complaint as the term is defined in the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy, which Mr. Centa reviewed in establishing his findings".
In June 2018, Shepherd filed a lawsuit against the university, Rambukkana, Pimlott, Joel, and a graduate student for damages of $3.6 million, claiming "harassment, intentional infliction of nervous shock, negligence, and constructive dismissal". On 18 June that year, Peterson filed a $1.5-million defamation lawsuit against Laurier, Rambukkana, Pimlott, and Joel. His statement of claim alleges that he was compared to Hitler and portrayed as "sexist, misogynist, dangerous and racist" during the November 2017 meeting. In December 2018, Rambukkana and Pimlott filed a third-party claim against Shepherd, alleging she had had control over the recording and should therefore be liable for any damages Peterson suffered as a result of its publication.
After the incident, Shepherd gave multiple interviews, including to newspapers and CBC News, as well as on YouTube shows such the Dave Rubin Report and Louder with Crowder, discussing the implications for free speech and academic freedom. She remained active online, gathering over 30,000 Twitter followers by December 2017. She appears in the 2019 documentary No Safe Spaces.
In early 2018, Shepherd founded the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry (LSOI). The LSOI invited Faith Goldy to speak at the university in March that year as the first in its "Unpopular Opinions Speaker Series". Before Goldy could speak, someone activated the fire alarm and the event had to be cancelled. This proved to be a pivotal moment for Shepherd and she stated the experience caused her to no longer consider herself a leftist in her Youtube video "GOODBYE TO THE LEFT." Another speaker was Frances Widdowson, an associate professor at Mount Royal College, Calgary, and co-author of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (2008), who asked "Does University Indigenization Threaten Open Inquiry?"
The Boston Herald identified Shepherd in May 2018 as one of a group of intellectuals described as the intellectual dark web. On 7 February 2019, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms announced that Shepherd was joining the Justice Centre as a "Campus Free Speech Fellow." As of 2019, Shepherd writes a biweekly column for The Post Millennial, a Canadian news site founded in 2017. As of December 2019, Shepherd has worked for the conservative organisation True North Centre.
- Lindsay Shepherd (WLU meeting, 8 November 2017, from c. 00:01:53): "Obviously the person who had an issue did not express it to me; they just went straight to whoever ... I don't really know what happened."
Professor (from c. 00:04:44): " ... the reality is that it has created a toxic climate for some of the students. ...
Lindsay Shepherd: "How many? Who? Like, how many? One? ...
Professor: "It's one or multiple students who've come forward saying that this is something that they were concerned about and that it made them uncomfortable."
Aaron Hutchins (Macleans, 12 December 2017): "As for Shepherd, she called her boyfriend [after the class] to say she thought everything went well and that the students were really engaged. Neither knew one student from the class would soon contact the Rainbow Centre, the campus LGBTQ support community, to complain about the discussion. Toby Finlay, an administrator at the Rainbow Centre, wouldn’t share the specifics of the conversation due to confidentiality reasons, but adds: 'It was through us that they made the complaint that led to the situation that blew up in the media.'"
Deborah MacLatchy (president of WLU, 18 December 2017): "No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video."
Simona Chiose (The Globe and Mail, 18 December 2017): "Mr. Centa's [Robert Centa, the independent fact-finder] report presents a different version of how the screening of the debate came to the attention of the staff members, the university's president said."Students in the class talked about the video screening on campus, and staff in the diversity and equity office found out about those conversations, although Ms. Joel was not asked to intervene. "The information came via the staff person, from students who had been on campus talking about it," Dr. MacLatchy said. "The policy was not designed to deal with those kind of comments and concerns not actually being raised through the process."
Lindsay Shepherd (CBC News, 20 December 2017)): "The story is there was a student who was concerned about the content of the tutorial, but they were just having a discussion. And then a representative or staff member from the on-campus Rainbow Centre, which is the LGBTQ collective, took it upon themselves to complain to Professor Rambukkana, who then brought me into that meeting."
Simona Chiose (The Globe and Mail, 5 April 2018): "This week, the university reiterated that any issue that was flagged was not a complaint. 'It was not a complaint as the term is defined in the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy, which Mr. Centa [Robert Centa, the independent fact-finder] reviewed in establishing his findings,' the university said in a statement in response to questions from The Globe.
- Professor (WLU meeting, 8 November 2017, from c. 00:03:50): "These arguments are counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code ever since—and I know that we talked about C-16—ever since this passed, it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression."
Professor (from c. 00:22:06): "What happened was contrary to ... the [university's] Gender and Sexual Violence Policy." ... Shepherd: "Sorry, what did I violate in that policy?" Manager: "So, gender-based violence, transphobia, in that policy. Causing harm to trans students by bringing their identity as invalid or their pronouns as invalid [several speaking at once] ... which under the Ontario Human Rights Code are a protected thing and also something that Laurier holds as a value."
See "12.4 Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures", Wilfrid Laurier University, archived 22 November 2017.
The Ontario Human Rights Code added gender identity and expression as a protected ground in 2012. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, "Refusing to refer to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity, or purposely misgendering, will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social area covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services like education."
- Canadian Human Rights Act, Prohibited grounds of discrimination, 3(1): "For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered."
- It is not clear whether the professor was referring to the Canadian Human Rights Act (federal law) or the Ontario Human Rights Code (provincial law).
- Nathan Rambukkana (apology to Lindsay Shepherd, 21 November 2017): "But instead I tried to make a point about the need to contextualize difficult material, and drew on the example of playing a speech by Hitler to do it. This was, obviously, a poorly chosen example. I meant to use it to drive home a point about context by saying here was material that would definitely need to be contextualized rather than presented neutrally, and instead I implied that Dr. Peterson is like Hitler, which is untrue and was never my intention. While I disagree strongly with many of Dr. Peterson’s academic positions and actions, the tired analogy does him a disservice and was the opposite of useful in our discussion."
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- Recording, 00:01:53.
- Recording, 00:04:44.
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- Lindsay Shepherd on Twitter
- Lindsay Shepherd's channel on YouTube
- Lindsay Shepherd on IMDb
- identitygrifting.ca, website operated by Lindsay Shepherd
- Hopper, Tristin (20 November 2017). "Here's the full recording of Wilfrid Laurier reprimanding Lindsay Shepherd for showing a Jordan Peterson video". National Post.