US & Canada

Canada university under fire for gender pronoun debate

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson
Image caption Jordan Peterson set off a political and cultural firestorm over his refusal to use alternative pronouns

A Canadian university is being accused of stifling free speech after it scolded a teaching assistant for airing a debate on gender-neutral pronouns.

Wilfrid Laurier University chastised Lindsay Shepherd for showing her class a televised debate featuring Jordan Peterson, a transgender-rights critic.

Dr Peterson has gained fame online for slamming "PC culture" and the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Many in academia have rallied behind Ms Shepherd and criticised the school.

The president of the university apologised to Ms Shepherd after an audio recording of her meeting with school officials was made public.

"Through the media, we have now had the opportunity to hear the full recording of the meeting that took place at Wilfrid Laurier University," wrote President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy in a letter posted online.

"After listening to this recording, an apology is in order.

"The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires.

"I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd."

But school officials had earlier accused Ms Shepherd of creating a "toxic" environment in class and told her that her lesson plans would now have to be approved by another faculty member.

The school is now conducting an independent review of the incident and the process for addressing student concerns.

Ms Shepherd said she had played the debate, which aired on Television Ontario, during a tutorial on how language affects society.

She said she asked her students to think about how gender pronouns may influence society's understanding of gender itself.

Ms Shepherd said she presented a clip from the debate neutrally and wanted students to engage with the topic on their own terms.

"I wanted them to think about it for themselves," she told school officials in a meeting after at least one student complained about the material. An audio recording of the meeting was subsequently leaked to the media.

"Not to kind of do the thing where everything is kind of compared to Hitler, but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos from Gamer Gate," said faculty member Nathan Rambukkana during the meeting.

Mr Rambukkana, her supervising faculty member, has since also apologised.

"While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university," he wrote in a letter published online.

"I think the issues are too complex to leave as a binary with protection of students on one side and protection of speech on the other. We should be striving for both."

Dr Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has gained notoriety for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom as well as criticising a federal transgender-rights bill that prohibits discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act on the basis of gender identity and expression.

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