The Front Lines of Ontario’s Battle to Protect the Right to Free Speech

The room was full in the basement of the Ottawa Public Library on Metcalfe Street. People of all ages sat in the auditorium waiting for the guests to arrive. There were four speakers scheduled to speak at the Humanist Association of Ottawa panel discussion. However, it was clear that nearly every guest in the room was there for one person – the head of the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, Ms. Lindsay Shepherd. At least twenty years younger than the other panelists including Dr. Christopher DiCarlo, a TV Ontario’s Big Think award winning lecturer and Dr. Henry Beissel, an old yet spunky professor from Concordia University, she was surrounded by prominent figures full of passionate arguments for free speech. Despite these prominent figures, everyone there wanted to see Ms. Shepherd and it was clear she was the reason the room was full.

Shepherd is the 22-year-old Wilfred Laurier graduate student who recorded and then released the Kafkaesque interrogation she was put through last fall by Wilfrid Laurier University professors Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott and Adria Joel, the acting manager of the “Gendered Violence Prevention and Support” program. The  declared her to be “transphobic” and then sanctioned her for showing her class a short video clip from TVO’s The Agenda, which featured University of Toronto psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson talking about the and faddish new un-pronouns such as “zie” and “zher.”  Rambukkana, a “supervising professor”, and the lead tormentor in this wacky Star Chamber, told Shepherd that by showing the video clip neutrally, without first denouncing Peterson, was basically akin to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler …” Peterson of course is a Canadian clinical psychologist, public intellectual, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and New York Times best-selling author. Tyler Cowen an American Economist  and  Chair of Economics at George Mason University has called Jordan Peterson   the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now noting that  Peterson’s popular YouTube  videos where he analyzes classic and biblical texts,  eviscerates identity politics and political correctness have attracted over  40 million views.

Thirty years ago it would have been unlikely for Lindsay Shepherd to become as well-known as she is today since the technology she used to record and later share, the now infamous recording of Nathan Rambukkana would not have been available. In the recording, you can hear Rambukkana grilling Ms. Shepherd in an inquisition-style interrogation for showing a video by Dr. Jordan Peterson to the students in her tutorial at Wilfred Laurier University. By sharing the recording, Ms. Shepherd’s embrace of the newest means of communication has made her the face of the new debate on free speech in Canada. Backers including Jordan Peterson himself and prominent media figures such as Ben Shapiro and Christie Blatchford were quick to defend Shepherd and her story even received international coverage. The Canadian government’s response however, was a lethargic rambling in the House of Commons Question Period by Minister of Science & Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Kirsty Duncan. Minister Duncan’s response shows that the Trudeau government does not care for free speech since it will only support expression if it is not considered “Hate”. Showing a Dr. Peterson video hardly seems equitable to the Triumph of the Will on an objective level.

Since this infamous incident at Laurier, Ms. Shepherd has embraced becoming the figurehead for student speech rights in Canada. Her new organization, The Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, has attempted to host figures such as Faith Goldy, the contentious white nationalist who was fired from the Rebel Media for going on the Neo Nazi Daily Stormer podcast. However, when addressing the auditorium, Ms. Shepherd explains that she invites controversial guests like Faith Goldy not because she agrees with their views but because she wants radical views to be challenged. Laurier University has tried to prevent Ms. Shepherd from inviting contentious speakers to campus by charging her group with security costs. As Canadians who live in a Liberal democracy, we shouldn’t allow this sort of stunt to go unnoticed. This only happens when the opinions of the speakers are conservative or unpopular. Nora Loreto, a Macleans columnist who said of the Humboldt Broncos, “I’m not trying to get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role” in a rant on Twitter, has found Shepherd’s support as well. Ms. Shepherd told the crowd that the free speech issue might be most pressing with the political right, but those who are on the political left or those who express outrageous views in general, also deserve to have their expression rights defended.

The media has described Lindsay Shepherd as an exceptional young woman and they are not wrong. Rather than focusing on the politics of the people she defends, she truly cares about their rights to free speech. She embodies the best of the new generation of adults in Canada: pragmatic yet principled, soft spoken yet strong in action. Shepherd is a fighter for fundamental freedoms that are being washed away in a time of pathos-based political discussion led by Justin Trudeau and politicians who prefer feelings over facts. Lindsay Shepherd is the embodiment of the next generation’s democracy. She has done and continues to do her part to defend free speech in Canada and now it is time, as Canadians, that we do ours.