Transcript: Frances Widdowson lecture at U of L

Frances Widdowson, who became a free speech advocate after being fired from Mount Royal University in 2022, spoke at the University of Lethbridge recently.

Earlier this week. Frances Widdowson was invited by University of Lethbridge philosophy instructor Paul Viminitz to be a guest lecturer in one of his classes. Someone recorded that lecture and uploaded it to YouTube.

I took the liberty to transcribe her presentation and the class discussion, which you can find below.

I tried to keep the text pretty much intact, but I did edit for ums, capitalization, paragraphs, repetition, and punctuation. The audio was difficult to hear in a few parts, so I had to go with my best guess in those instances, or I used “unintelligible”.

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Here it is.

Want to put a few notes. So, okay, so, first of all, I wanted to thank Paul [Viminitz] for having the courage to facilitate discussions about the facility contentious discussions on University campuses, . . . 

[Paul Viminitz interrupted with, “If I’d known it required courage, I wouldn’t have done it.”]

. . . and also Pamela Lindsay, who has been very gracious at facilitating a bunch of other things, and Albert Howard in terms of the discussions that we’re having today. Albert Howard and I have written a great deal on Indigenous ways of knowing, probably the most famous is in our co-authored book Disrobing The Aboriginal industry. Then I have discussed things further in terms of Indigenous ways of knowing in the edited volume Indigenizing the University, which has a number of different articles—I tried when I was editing that volume to bring in a huge variety of different perspectives on Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenization. It was very difficult to get advocates of Indigenous ways of knowing to contribute articles to that volume, but there still are quite a few different perspectives that have been put forward in them. So that’s just a bit of a background I have been involved in studying this area for 25 years.

So people may disagree with me. They may think that my views are flawed, which, of course, is part of the academic process. We need to challenge our views so that we can develop a better understanding of the way things are, and this is not helping what the University of Lethbridge is doing. This is a completely erroneous way to proceed in an academic environment, where we need to be able to speak what we think is true. If we can’t do that, we have nothing—we have nothing in the university. So, by all means, disagree with me—show me how I’m wrong—but let’s stop preventing people from speaking. This is a huge mistake, and it should never happen in a university. Unfortunately, this is what’s happening all the time at university campuses. It’s just that in my case, it’s become a lot more sort of visible than you would normally see, but I’ve seen this a lot over the last 5 years, and that’s getting much much worse

What I would like to do for the class and I think we have, what, we go to 10 to 10 to 6? Is that correct? I’d like to talk for, I guess, around maybe half an hour, and then we can open it up for discussion and any questions. Nothing is off limits, right? You should say what you think is true, even if you think that it might be offensive to me or to anyone else, right? That’s how we learn, and all this kind of attempts to, like, try to figure out whether what you’re going to say isn’t acceptable before you say it is really getting in the way of our ability to communicate and to try to understand things. 

In terms of the question—Should universities foster respect for Indigenous ways of knowing?—my answer is no, okay? And the reason why I’m using this language—you might be wondering why I’m using that language—is that Mount Royal University, which is the University that I was fired from in December 2021. If you’re interested in my case, you even read all about it at; that’s a website that’s been developed about my case. On that case, you will find 16 episodes pertaining to why I was fired. As well, I have written 9 articles on my case. Again, a publication associated with an organization in the United States called the National Association of Scholars, which is the fundamental defense for academic freedom in the United States and is associated with an organization that Paul and I are board members of, which is the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. Those are kind of sister organizations: SAFS is the organization in Canada and National Association of Scholars is the organization in the United States. Anyway, that is the sort of background about my case, which this is related to. The US has different legislation. The United States, I believe, doesn’t have any rules on hate speech, it’s the freedom of expression in the United States. Anyway, so that’s background, so if you want to look me up, find out all about me, those are the best sources to look at, or you can find these other materials as well.

But the reason why I’ve got this language for the question—Should universities foster respect for Indigenous ways of knowing—is that “foster respect” is the language that is used by Mount Royal University in its what’s called Indigenous Strategic Plan, which was a document that was put out in 2016,  which has a whole bunch of goals, I guess. It was put out a number of goals for how we were going to Indigenize Mount Royal University. I was a critic from the very beginning about this Indigenous strategic plan because I thought that it was an it was an attempt to say this is the right way to think about this issue and Indigenization, and this meant that anyone like me who had serious qualms about some aspects of the plan—some of the some aspects of the plan I agreed with, which is trying to improve education for Indigenous students; I was in agreement with that part of the plan, but I was in disagreement with the arguments about fostering respect for Indigenous ways of knowing because I think that Indigenous ways of knowing [stuttering]. 

First of all, it’s hard to determine what it is, but when you read about it and try and figure it out, you realize that it is contrary to the values of the Enlightenment, so it’s actually an attack on the values of the Enlightenment in the university. For people who are unfamiliar with the Enlightenment, do people know what I’m talking about when I talk about the Enlightenment? Okay, the Enlightenment was a period, I guess, in around the 1700s and 1800s, whereby there was a resistance to religion, there was an attempt to stop religion from imposing itself on all aspects of human life because religion is something that demands that you accept things on faith, and what the enlightenment was arguing is that you should use reason to help you understand the way things are in the world, and religion was having, you know, a huge negative impact on people’s ability to think clearly during that period. So, the enlightenment was the promotion of reason, evidence, logic, the scientific method, and our universities, over the last 100 years or so, have been founded on those principles of the Enlightenment. What’s happened is in the 1960s, we had a position that was taken by some intellectuals called postmodernism, and postmodernism is the idea that there is no objective truth and that it should really be subjective beliefs that people should should put forward and you really shouldn’t be able to make claims to say this is true; it should be sort of these subjective kind of perspectives, which people have respect for. As a result of that assault on the Enlightenment in the 1960s, we have a deadly politics that gained a foothold in universities, and that’s when you see programs like Indigenous studies, women’s studies, queer studies, and so on and there’s nothing wrong with the study of all these areas. So, you can have academic study of women, of indigenous people, of homosexuality, or transgenderism, or what have you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you have what’s called an advocacy studies program, where you demand that the ways of knowing of women, or of Indigenous people, or queer people, or what have you be accepted as valid without question, that’s where you have difficulties within the university.

Okay. So, what I’m trying to talk about in terms of why I am opposed to this, you know, fostering respect, that’s not to say that Indigenous ways of knowing can’t be studied— you can study them in the university. See, what they are—do they shed light on what’s happening in the world, those kinds of things that happen in the university. You know, religious studies does this. If you take religious studies, they don’t say you have to be a Christian to study Christianity. They don’t say that. They say Christianity is a belief system; it has certain ideas that are associated with it. As well, Christianity has had an impact on what’s happened in the world, and we can study that, we can talk about politics, in terms of how, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but you don’t have to take a position on Christianity itself to study. So that’s the nature of that.

Anyway, so, in terms of this fostering respect for Indigenous ways of knowing—that is an advocacy position; it’s a promotional position about an Indigenous ways of knowing, and that shouldn’t be happening in a university. Like we shouldn’t be respecting Indigenous ways of knowing just for its own sake. We should be saying, you know, does Indigenous ways of knowing help us to better understand the world? That’s the question that I would pose, or what impact has Indigenous ways of knowing had on Indigenous politics, for example, or anything like that. That’s fine, but it’s, like, the fostering respect—and I would argue that fostering respect has two very, very negative consequences for universities. The first one is academic standards. It has had a negative effect on academic standards, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today, as to how that is the case. Okay, and then the second thing I want to talk about is the negative implications that it has for academic freedom. That is what I’m going to talk about on Thursday.

Okay ,as you guys probably are aware, I was going to give a talk in a room on campus on how wokeism threatens academic freedom that for a variety of reasons was canceled, but I will be speaking tomorrow in the atrium. I don’t know which atrium—there’s two atriums I’m told.

Audience member: This one here.

What is that atrium?

Several audience members: U-Haul atrium.

U-Haul Atrium?

Audience member: Yeah.

Okay. Someone said, “Which atrium are you speaking at?” I don’t know. I was just told the atrium. I don’t know anything about this. So, the atrium in U-Haul uh tomorrow at 4:30. Well, hopefully. I am going to show up there, and I’m going to try to speak, and if the university wants to stop me, they can do so, but as far as I understand, it’s a public space, and so there should be no problem. You know, I guess the university was thinking, “if she’s actually in a room in the University of Lethbridge, it could mean that the University of Lethbridge is endorsing what she’s saying, so we can’t allow that because it could cause all sorts of harm for students” and so on and so forth ,which is absolutely absurd. This is ridiculous that these kinds of arguments are being made by a university president, who is supposed to be upholding academic standards at a university. It’s really, really disturbing that this is happening in various universities across the country, and it’s not just University of Lethbridge. It’s all over the place. Okay, so academic standards today, academic freedom on Thursday—that’s the plan. Any questions so far?

Audience member: You said that you were against the advocacy position that will (unintelligible) the university. Is that to say you’re against all advocacy positions within a university?


Audience member: Okay. A follow-up question. Do you think it’s possible for universities to have, to not have an idea because there is the argument that being influenced by the Enlightenment takes up an Enlightenment advocacy position or that being a European-based institution that you’re—universities are—already a Western advocacy position?

Well, I think that the Enlightenment is allowed, what allows us to determine whether various advocacy positions are valid, so it’s sort of, like, it’s got—and I think that’s a very sophisticated question because it gets into sort of Foreman content kinds of distinctions. So, we have the idea that the university is a space where we can allow the different positions to contest one another, so I would argue that we should have advocacy for that position right, but if we have advocacy for a particular position, that will mean that all the other positions will be kind of excluded from being able to be contested within that space. As for Western, this is when we get into sort of the postmodern type of idea, which is that the pursuit of truth is a Western idea, and it’s just the West that is interested in the pursuit of a universal truth. I say nonsense. It is human. Humans want to pursue the truth, and why should we allow the West to be the one that is, you know, having a stranglehold on that at universities? We have people from all over the world that come here, that interact with one another, right? And their interaction is part of that human process of pursuing the truth. It’s true that the enlightenment emerged in the West, right? And this will get a little bit contentious area. Some would say that it was just because the rest of that time was the most developed culture that existed in the world. Right now, that’s contentious, but that doesn’t mean that it only applies to the West. It just means as we develop as a species and we become more in tune with reason, evidence, the scientific method, interacting with one another on equal terms, then we will all be able to contribute to this truth-seeking process that we need to be able  to thrive as a species in the world today. Those are big questions. Excellent. Yes. (Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: So, you’re saying you don’t want any form of advocacy groups. In theory, wouldn’t ethics boards be considered an ethical advocacy group. Are you against, like, that because that could be considered an advocacy group, by all means.

I’m not against advocacy groups. So, it’s not the groups. It is when the university takes an advocacy position.

Audience member: So, ethics boards?

Ethics boards, you know, ethics—you know, you could argue that ethics are needed in order to make sure that we can pursue Enlightenment principles, so I guess I would argue that advocacy for enlightenment principles is essential for a university because it is the Enlightenment, the framework of the Enlightenment, that allows these different perspectives to come together and interact with one another. If you have unethical behavior that happens in a university, this could result in excluding certain elements within a university, so that’s, I think, what’s needed in terms of the kinds of discussions that go on. Yeah. [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: So, you’re saying that classes like Indigenous studies or (unintelligible) promotional position kind of class instead of, like, a more study kind of class. Just, like, personally, do you see any value in Indigenous ways of knowing or living?

That’s what I’m going to talk about right now, but I’m just making a distinction between what some women’s studies programs are all about. For example, like, there’s a very, very good book by Cortez and Patai called Who Stole Women’s Studies, or some some kind of topic like that [Ed. I couldn’t find this title.], which is women’s studies in many universities started out in response to the fact that women were not being adequately studied in universities because of the—you know, and there is truth to this—men were in control of the universities, and so they said, “Why do you want to study all that stuff about child care and blah, blah, blah”, and so women said, “Hey, these are very important issues that we got to study”, so—and Indigenous peoples as well—that those are all very, very valid kinds of concerns. Those got hijacked by identity politics and then said, “Okay, you’ve got to, you know, foster Indigenous ways of knowing, and if you don’t you’re going to be pushed out because you’re espousing anti-Indigenous rhetoric” and all these kinds of claims. 

Audience member: So, it’s fair to say that your standpoint is not that you don’t agree with that (unintelligible] it’s that you don’t agree with the university endorsing one over another, say Indigenous over feminism.

Yes. So, everyone should feel free to advocate, to put forth their position, but when the university takes a position, it means it’s going to exclude certain positions or make it very very difficult for certain positions to be able to put themselves forward in the university, and I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong, with respect to universities.

Okay, so I was just asked about, sort of, whether I think there’s any value to Indigenous ways of knowing, and that’s going to be what I’m going to be talking about. So academic standards, that’s the first thing we’re going to be talking about  this class, and then Thursday, academic freedom.

In terms of should universities foster respect for Indigenous ways of knowing, I would say, first of all, no, because it is a threat to academic standards. Yes. [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member (Albert, I think):  I guess I could talk here?

Yes, you can.

Audience member: I think before we embark on the next stage that Francis was talking about, we should determine the difference between Indigenous ways of knowing and the universal concept we have of knowledge. First of all, you can’t know something that isn’t, first of all, true. You can’t know that the Earth is flat; you can say the Earth is flat and you can advocate for it, but the response to that kind of application is to determine whether or not it is true, and we do use the scientific method to do this. The ultimate, the end of it is: what is your evidence for your, claim and I don’t think it should go any further. I’m suggesting unless we make a distinction between Indigenous ways of knowing and the universal concept—not the Western Way; the way they use in China, the way they use in India, all of it, which allows these communities to come together and speak without having a different way of knowing. They all have the universal concept of knowledge.

Okay, so that’s good, and I was going to start off with “What are indigenous ways of knowing?” That was kind of what I wanted to first kind of look at but this kind of, I think, is a good point, which is there’s an “Indigenous” adjective in front of ways of knowing. It seems to indicate, I think, it’s what’s Albert’s getting at is that there’s something a bit different about Indigenous ways of knowing than non-Indigenous ways of knowing, in terms of acquiring knowledge. Would you agree with that? [Pointing to the same audience member.]

Audience member: Not a little bit. There’s a definite distinction between if you call something something, it’s different from something else, and we’ll want to know what the difference is.

Yes. Okay, so any ideas about how Indigenous ways of knowing might be different than, for example, the scientific method?

Audience member: It relies on qualitative evidence instead of quantitative?

But can’t  the scientific method rely on qualitative data?

Audience member: Yes.

Okay, so science can either use quantitative data or qualitative data, so that probably can’t be it. Yeah.  [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: Indigenous ways of knowing don’t put forward falsifiable claims?

Perhaps. I—that might be, that might be, so, falsifiability. So, that’s kind of one of the aspects of the scientific method is that, you know, you put forth hypotheses and they have to be falsifiable. That’s one argument actually is made as to why the humanities are not sciences.

Audience members: They’re social sciences.

No, the humanities and social sciences often are distinguished, and this is just not—I think his name is Andrew Rafael [no idea if this is the right spelling] makes this distinction. He says humanities use persuasive argumentation, whereas the social sciences use falsifiability. He makes a distinction that political science is different from history because political science tries to have false liability into its processes, whereas the humanities often are just making what they would consider to be persuasive arguments, which are not falsifiable [unintelligible]. Philosophy is kind of an interesting discipline in this regards as well. Yes. [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: So, I took a class where we had a speaker who was speaking on Indigenous ways of knowing. She gave some points about how Indigenous knowledge—or ways of knowing—differs from science [unintelligible], so I was wondering if I could just read the points?

Sure. Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.

Audience member: So, the first is that Indigenous knowledge is place-based and not easily applied to other locations.


Audience member: Yeah. Place-based and not easily applied to other locations. 


Audience member: And the second one is it is holistic and focuses on connections. Third, it’s generational and based on long-term wisdom.

Was that long-term wisdom?

Audience member: Yes.


Audience member: The fourth is it is experiential. Fifth is it based on explanations and stories.


Audience member: Yes. Based on anecdotes.


Audience member: The goal is survival.

The goal is survival?

Audience member: Yeah.

Is that it?

Audience member: Yes.

Okay. Okay, we’ll just leave that there for a minute at the back there. Go ahead. [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: When you talk about Indigenous ways of knowing, are you referring to, like, cultural values or scientific knowledge? Because you seem to oscillate back and forth between the two definitions, and they’re very different things [unintelligible].

Yeah, and and you will find that with the discussions of Indigenous ways of knowing; you’re not sure what is really being talked about a lot of the time, but I would argue that if we’re going to get into this idea which Albert was mentioning, which is knowledge, then, like, historically, the definition of knowledge has been “justified true belief”. That is the, like, since Plato, that was the same as Albert was saying, you cannot know that the world is flat because the evidence shows that the Earth is round, so if people are going to claim that. So that’s knowledge. Now, we get into cultural kinds of things, and you say, “Okay, you know, this is my culture. This is what I value, and so on”, that seems to be a different thing than, you know, claims about knowledge, has to be, what is true or not true, those sorts of things. Any other arguments before I try to get into this, the list, this kind of shopping list of what’s being put forward here?

Now this is just one, like, this view that has been put forward as to what Indigenous ways of knowing is, who’s to say that’s what it is, you know, like, who made them god of the universe to say Indigenous ways of knowing? So, when I see this list, there’s one essential thing that is left off there, which I see time and time again in discussions of Indigenous ways of knowing, which is spiritual beliefs, spirituality. That is very, very common, so I’m just going to put this to the side here because I don’t think if you’re—and now it could be some of these things, like holistic and so on, that may be spiritual beliefs, but I definitely think I’ve seen many, many times spiritual beliefs are things which are pointed to as Indigenous ways of knowing. I’m going to give you another kind of a person who’s talked about this, who, you know, has a certain amount of authority—not that we have to accept that, because that is very dangerous to have authority as the reason why you accept something as being true or not true. For example, imagine if we accepted the authority of the president of this university, where would we be? Anyway. Just a snide remark. 

Okay, so Marlene Brant Castellano. Has anyone heard of Maureen, uh Marlene Brant Castellano. Okay. Marlene Brant Castellano was the research director, an Indigenous a person—I believe she is a Mohawk person—She was the research director of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples. Have you guys heard of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples? The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was a government-initiated—it was sort of the precursor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I think probably everyone are familiar with, that was, actually came out of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. So the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, in one of its recommendations, recommended The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that was in, they put out a report in 1996, and Marlene Brant Castellano, she wrote a very relatively clear article—or she’s written a number of articles, but she had sort of stated what she thought Indigenous ways of knowing are—has some similarities with that list there, but it’s a bit more concise so it’s easier to follow. It probably has a lot of overlap, and she said that there are, sort of, three aspects to the Indigenous ways of knowing: traditional teachings, empirical observations, and what she calls—and these are her words—revelatory knowledge. Those are the three kinds of aspects. And in terms of these aspects here, many of these, in fact, you could say, are particular, are consistent with the scientific method as well, right? Like the scientific method can be placed-based, right? You go into, you know, some ecosystem, which is a place, you study all the, you know, you take samples, you do sorts of things, and you make conclusions about that particular place, right? So, I don’t quite know why the scientific method, for example, wouldn’t be place-based. Holistic? You know, connections? The scientific method—although it does kind of compartmentalize things to try to, you know, pin down what’s cause and effects are within in various aspects—it draws connections as well, right? It’s not opposed to drawing connection; it’s not antithetical to drawing connections. Intergenerational? Why, you know, Einstein, his theories, a bunch of scientists are studying his theories. Why wouldn’t that be intergenerational? Don’t see why that couldn’t be the case. Experiential? You can have experience. It has to be systematic, of course, right? There’s a bit of a problem, but I would argue with, you know, this is kind of getting into this aspect: empirical observations. This is an aspect of the scientific method, empirical observations; however in this, with the scientific method, often what happens is you have controls in your observation, so observations are systematic. So, in, sort of, the Indigenous ways of knowing, you know, you’ll have elders going out and hunting polar bears and they’ll say things like, “There’s more bears this year than there were last year.” That will be an example of empirical observations, but scientists, when they’re looking at that question, will say, “Well, okay, the elders might be seeing more bears, but that doesn’t mean the population of bears is larger, because what could happen is that because of the ice deteriorating, because of climate change, the bears are now forced off of the ice flows, and they’re now going into town more, and so you see the bears more because they’re no longer out on the ice flow, so in order to say the bear population as a whole is increasing or decreasing, you have to have some kind of systematic methodology of counting the bears or counting a segment of those bears and extrapolating into that number, into the larger population.

Okay. Anecdotes again. You know, anecdotes have to be systematized in scientific methodology so relying on anecdotes in scientific, in sort of scientific research would be considered to be pseudoscience because you don’t know whether you’re being misled by an unrepresentative observation, right? So, I go out into the University of Lethbridge today. Pam and I drive around wildly, madly around the car, trying to find parking spots at the University of Lethbridge. I get out and it is nasty, the weather, and say I go home and I say, “Man, Lethbridge, the weather there is just awful: biting wind, nastiness.” And people say, “You were just there one day. How do you know what the weather in Lethbridge is like? That is just totally untrue. All the rest of the days of the year, it is balmy. People are out there in their shirt sleeves basking in the sunshine. It just was one of those particularly nasty”. So, that’s kind of anecdotal, as opposed to a systematic study of the weather. 

Audience member: Doesn’t it depend on your, for drawing pool, like, if you’re doing standard deviation studying in psychology, I’m going to ask you what you think but I’m going to ask 100 other people so it’s not just your opinion. Yeah, so that’s anecdotal though, that’s still asking you what you think, and I’m still going to ask Cody, and I’m still going to ask Ava, and these all represent different parts of it so would that not be anecdotal?

Anecdotal evidence is, as far as I understand it, non-systematic evidence, so you’re just taking, like, people, what people say, so if I wanted to find out what the general opinion is on Indigenous ways of knowing, whether it should be respect, whether we should foster respect for that, and I just asked you about that and made a conclusion about the whole class on that basis, that would be invalid; whereas if I were to do that scientifically, I would have to take a representative sample of students. So, the representative sampling is trying to get away from the kind of anecdotal type of approach.

Audience member: [unintelligible]

Well, one is trying to have enough data that you can draw a representative conclusion as opposed to you just have—

Audience member: So, you’re saying that only applies to asing one person?

Or not a representative number, right? So if it is true that Indigenous ways of knowing are anecdotal, then that is not a valid way of knowing would be the argument. But I don’t know. This is just one view of Indigenous ways of knowing. As I was saying with the Marlene Brant Castellano [unintelligible], but I think most of these things— and survival? Isn’t the scientific method about survival, right? We’re trying to understand the world. The better we understand the world, the more, the greater our chances for survival, so that seems to be not very, so, you know, there’s a lot of overlap, but what Albert was saying there, which I think is important, is the assumption is that Indigenous ways of knowing are different than non-Indigenous ways of knowing. That’s the assumption. So, we’re trying to get at the difference, not the similarity, between the two, and if we’re going to say the non-Indigenous way of knowing is the scientific method, we could make the argument. Is there, are there other non-Indigenous ways of knowing besides the scientific method?

Audience member: You pointed to me there. I never said there was a non-Indigenous way of knowing. I said there was knowledge. Universal knowledge, that everybody can have and that has been show to be true. It’s not non-Indigenous; it’s knowledge. And none whatever argues with that says they’ve got a [unintelligible] way. The thing that we have to do is look to see what is this way of knowing that is different from the universal concept. You know what it is? It’s abandonment of evidence. All of this stuff here, you know, we don’t, we talk about intergenerational things. How about Santa Claus coming down the chimney? Now, this is intergenerational. It’s not true.

Another audience member: How dare you! [Laughter.]

Audience member: I’m sorry to break it to you. [Pause.] You know, if you throw beaver bones into the water, that does not produce more beavers next year. That’s a belief that’s put out by Native people. We should not be doing this to them, allowing this, and fostering it, and respecting it. We should be saying, “This is evidence, and beaver bones don’t produce more beavers.”

You’re getting ahead of, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here because we still haven’t, I would I would ask that to see indigenous ways of knowing that language, phrasing it that way, the assumption in that assertion is that there is such a thing as a non-Indigenous reason, just because, like, why are you putting the “Indigenous” thing? What’s the purpose of that? It seems to be now what Albert is arguing is that probably I would say—correct me if I’m wrong—that it doesn’t make sense to say Indigenous ways of knowing.

Albert: That’s right.


Albert: There’s no such thing.

I don’t know what you guys just think [unintelligible], like, Albert is saying, what Albert’s argument is is that there’s just the human way of knowing. If we’re going to use that language, personally, to be honest, to put my cards on the table, I’m not really all that crazy about this term “way” or “ways” because it’s got this kind of vagueness to it, like, I’m more comfortable with words like “methods” and so on, you know, “processes” and so on. I bet we could say, “Well, this is just quibbling and it’s not, it’s not really very, you know, important to get into those kinds of semantical things.” But, you know, is knowledge universal, I guess is the question, or do different groups have knowledge, or different cultures have knowledge that other cultures don’t have? And there would be an argument about that, right? And what I mean is not that, you know, there’s some tribe somewhere who knows something that members of that tribe don’t know right now. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that their culture gives them insights into things into the world that is not available, but no matter how hard you try, even if you went and you learned the language, and you immersed yourself, and so on, you still would not be able to understand because you’re not, you don’t have that thing that is part of that culture that allows them to have that knowledge about various things.

Audience member: Are you saying that children adopted into that culture can’t have that because they’re not blood?

Well, I’m just saying one, I’m just trying to get it—so, when we say that there is, and this is contested right, because some people would say there is no such thing as an Indigenous way of knowing, like, that if you have to have ancestry or you have to be adult, whatever it is and be able to access this particular aspect of understanding, this particular aspect of the world, right? Some would say that others would say that that’s not valid because we’re all human and we could, by just having those tools, those intellectual tools, getting those intellectual tools, those could be transported from one person to another, and what you would have to do is just get access to whatever that would be, those tools, whatever they may be. This is getting a bit abstract, but there’s a bit of a different argument that is coming forward about this question. Some who say Indigenous people, because they’re indigenous, have a way of knowing, which people who are not Indigenous, you can never have that, would be one possession. Another position would be that’s not true, that anyone who’s given these tools—whatever they may be, regardless of whether they’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous—they can come to the same understanding. So people understand the difference between that argument one is saying that there’s some kind of Indigenous basis to a particular kind of knowledge, the other argument is a rejection of that idea that there’s an Indigenous basis for knowledge and that it’s just that the Indigenous people lived in this area of the world and they studied this environment really closely but if another person who wasn’t Indigenous went into that area of the world and studied that environment very closely, they would come to the same conclusions as that Indigenous person did. That’s the other, that’s the other one. 

Audience member: So if we were to just, let’s say, change it and make it “different ways of knowing”, does that change your position or are you more so against like—

Well, I’m just trying to separate the arguments, but I guess it would depend upon what the, what is the difference, what’s, what is, what makes one way of knowing different than another way of knowing. 

Audience member: So, it’s less so about specifically the Indigenous part and more so the fact you’re kind of arguing against there are, you know, different ways of knowing versus how one collected knowledge?

Well, I’m trying to understand what is meant by the words “different ways of knowing”. I don’t, I don’t think I understand what’s been talked about. Now with the Indigenous ways of knowing, the difference is indigeneity. That’s what the difference is, so it’s, there’s Indigenous ways of knowing and then there’s non-Indigenous ways of knowing, according to this argument. So, what is it about being Indigenous that gives you this way of knowing? And that’s not very clear. Some would just have a kind of a thing, I think we could all agree on, which would be an Indigenous group has lived in this area for a long period of time, and so they have intimate knowledge with the flora and fauna of the area, but then it’s like, well, if I were non-Indigenous and I moved into that area and had access to the others, you know, the other stories and so on, then I, too, would understand the flora and fauna of that area, and I would be able to do the same kinds of things as the Indigenous people. 

Audience member: But if you have access to, say, like, their language, their stories, what you’re saying is that if you are in culture in the same way that Indigenous people are, you will then have the same kind of knowledge and be able to acquire the same kind of things?


Audience member: So that still means that that is a knowledge that is acculturated into them, something specific to them.

But what people, what often is, and this is kind of in the literature, instead of using the word “Indigenous”, the word that is used is “local”, so an Indigenous group lives in a particular area. They gain an intimate knowledge of this, the flora and the fauna, the fish, the wildlife, everything. They follow around the caribou, they understand the caribou, etc. They know what the caribou was going to do. That, that’s what’s called local knowledge, and you can find that in any—so, I, six months ago, lived in a particular area of Calgary: Cedarbrae. I have intimate knowledge of theCedarbrae area; whereas you guys probably don’t. So, that’s just because I lived in Cedarbrae for a long period of time. Like, there’s nothing about the Francis Widdowsonian way of knowing that allows me to understand Cedarbrae. It’s just I lived there for a long time, and this is the case all over the place: that you have to, and that to some extent, I believe, is what Marlene Brant Castellano is talking about when she talks about empirical observations, I think, it’s being part of Indigenous means of knowing, right? Which is not Indigenous. Empirical observations are not an Indigenous way of knowing. Empirical observations is what all of us human beings use to be able to understand you know, in various areas of the world. Okay?

Audience member: Does that include trial and error then?

Yeah, so the often it is, scientific method, is an interesting question about the scientific method and whether the empirical observation, like, this empirical observations are part of the scientific method, as well; it’s just that there. that is a bit different than no local knowledge because the scientific method is systematic, right? So, local knowledge is okay, you can develop in-depth understanding of a very, very sort of small area, but in terms of being able to apply that to wider kinds of understanding is difficult because it’s not, it’s hard to transport it, so you need to have for the scientific method, you have, you know, sort of, theoretical frameworks that you develop, where you can, sort of, transport empirical observations. So the argument about understanding correctly is that Indigenous ways of knowing is just a specific category within a wider category of knowledge. What do people think about that? Is that is that valid.

Albert: Me again. The point is, is it knowledge? Or a belief? I know more about polar bears than many of the Inuit. The Inuit we believe that there are more polar bears because they see more of them and they’re closer and they’re moving south. But it’s because of the melting of the ice and takes away their access to seals. They’re looking for, they’re looking for, you know, sustenance, so they’re saying, “Well, there are more polar bears. It’s not true that the polar bears are threatened by the environment.” But they certainly are. You know who knows that? Scientists who have studied it. That’s how I know it. I have never seen a polar bear in my life. I lived in the North for six years. I never saw a polar bear. I’ve only seen them in the zoo, but I still have that knowledge, which was scientific. And it’s knowledge. It is not true that there are more polar bears now. The Inuit believe that, but they are wrong, and we should not be pandering to them and condescending like that. We should be explaining science to the Inuit.

Audience member: I would seriously question your way of thinking on that one because to them their knowledge is true. That’s the way that they’ve lived, and knowledge, at the end of the day is relative to whoever speaks it. You’re conflating scientific knowledge for experiential knowledge. [Unintelligible] but their experiences are still true whether or not why they believe it is. So why, who are you to say what it is versus them? They lived there a lot longer than 6 years.

So, right now we’re entering into points of contention, so I know this is becoming unsafe in this space, because, you know, but what we are as students and as as learners, we are trying to understand the different arguments that are being made, so that we can evaluate. Okay? So in terms if I can understand you correctly—and this is an important thing—has anyone heard of what’s called street epistemology, Peter Boghossian? You might be interested in taking a look at that. Anyway, what Peter Boghossian does is that when he’s trying to understand different arguments, he tries to repeat back what he thinks the person is saying and has them either agree or disagree so that we can, at least, you know, sort of have the same kind of understanding of what the arguments are. So, in terms of your argument, you were saying that, so the Inuit and the polar bears, they think that the polar bears, there’s more polar bears because they see more polar bears?

Audience member: My argument is based off of is that most people, if not all people’s knowledge is completely relative to their experience, unless they actively go out of their way to prove themselves wrong. And many populations around the world don’t have the ability to do that. most of it’s experiential, so why would we need to take such an aggressive stance against an experiential knowledge when for thousands of years that knowledge has been relatively fairly true for a select population. We’re defining two topics that don’t need to be defined: scientific and experiential. They’re both true because they’re both, one’s relative to a set and one’s true based on fact and loads.

Okay, so let me try to understand your arguments. So, first of all, you’re making a distinction between experiential knowledge and scientific knowledge. Is that correct? Okay, so in your view, what is the difference between experiential knowledge and scientific knowledge?

Audience member: Experiential knowledge, as has been said, is passed down through generations [unintelligible] people in a certain area or a people of a certain [unintelligible] experience throughout their lifetime [unintelligible] passed it down and it’s continuously correct.

Yeah, so that would be experiential knowledge of the Inuit.

Audience members: When you have thousands of theories and trials proved in scientific experiments, actually proven them,  ice caps are melting, polar bears, etc, there’s a huge relative difference between experiential and what’s classified as scientific. In many cases, experiential can be scientific, and in many cases scientific can be experiential. here’s a crossover, but they have to be made distinct at the same time. And I don’t understand why we’re taking such an aggressive stance versus somebody’s, a very large group of history’s knowledge about this country, so, frankly, they know more than anybody else will. When we just take a step in and we go, “Hey, no, yeah, no, sorry, you definitely understood this for a long time, but you’re wrong.” What’s the point, is my question.

Okay. So just going back to the example that we were dealing with which is the Inuit and the polar bears versus the scientific study of polar bear populations.

Audience member: There’s less polar bears, that’s true. The population has decreased. However, there’s more polar bears in that specific area. So both are true.

Yes, well, the point though is, I think, that what happens is the argument has happened in the context of polar bear hunting quotas, that’s why, that’s why, that’s why there’s this point of contention which is existing between the experiential knowledge and the scientific knowledge. So the argument came to the fore because what was happening was that the government was saying we should have quotas on hunting because the overall population 

of polar bears is shrinking and the elders, based upon their experiential knowledge, were saying, “No, no. We shouldn’t have quotas on polar bears because there’s more, there’s, we’re seeing more bears and, therefore, there’s more polar bears.” So, they were using an experiential kind of knowledge claim to try to defeat the scientific knowledge claim, but what we have there is we have a difference, we have a discrepancy, we have a contention about what’s true with respect to whether the actual population of bears is increasing or decreasing. The elders are saying that as is increasing based upon their experiential knowledge, the scientific researchers, well, most of them. I do actually know of some scientific researchers saying that they are increasing as well, but that would have to be, but still, the general consensus is that they are decreasing based upon population counts.

How do we determine whether it’s true that the entire population is increasing or decreasing?

Audience member: [Unintelligible.]

Well, I was, I was saying, what I was saying is that what I got from your discussion is that you were kind of saying, “Why attack the experiential knowledge? Why not just accept it as being valid for that particular local area? Why would you do that?” That’s what seemed to me what you were saying 

Audience member: Well, [unintelligible], you’re taking it a step further and making it [unintelligible] drawing it back to, back to that population, it is true that they see more polar bears.

That’s true. Yes, it is true. It’s true that they see more polar bears.

Audience member: [unintelligible] scientific or experiential. Realistically, it is super relative and very based off the context that it’s presented in, which you’ve just proven now bring up [unintelligible]. 

Yeah. Well, no, but I’m just trying to say why, I was just trying to respond to your argument, like, why are we, why would we care? Let the elders have their experiential knowledge. Let the scientists have their scientific knowledge. They both have value within their own context kind of argument.

Audience member: Correct.

Yes, and I was saying, well, that that’s all very well and fine to a particular point, but when you’re trying to actually come to some kind of determination and there’s conflict, how do you determine what is true?

Audience member: Based on the context.

Could you just elaborate upon that a little bit, like, how, what does that mean?

Audience member: The context of whether or not it’s true is 100% accurate for both populations, scientific or experiential. Like, there are less polar bears, but in this, let’s say, 200 sq km plot of land, there are more polar bears than last year. [unintelligible] Now, depending on the context that you’re looking at that in, where we need to draw from the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions for whatever you’re trying to prove. But if you just bring it all the way back to the truth and knowledge, both will be correct. It all depends on what is the end goal of what you’re talking about.

Yes. So, so it, okay, so let me get, I’m just going to try and summarize this point here. Is everyone following what we’re doing here? So there’s a little bit of kind of shifting going on in the conversations that I’m just trying to grasp. The first one is what is true in terms of making specific claims, as opposed to what is true in terms of making general claims. So, the specific claim is the polar bears, there’s, the elders are seeing more polar bears. That is true. The scientists are claiming that there are fewer polar bears in the entire population. That is also true, and those can all both coexist quite happily until the experiential knowledge proponents are trying to change policy that is assuming the more general kind of frame, which is what’s happening. That’s the situation, is that the experiential knowledge, when it’s being used to contradict the scientific claim, is not based upon valid principles when we’re dealing with polar bear populations, but that is what is being attempted in that context. Now, you could have it the other way around in some kind of way. I’m trying to think of, think about how that would be the case, that imposing the scientific understanding on the, on the experiential kind of thing has problems, too, but I don’t, I don’t, I’m having a hard time thinking of a specific example of that, but I’m just gonna, because I know there’s other people who are—thank you very much. That was very, that was very, that was a very interesting discussion. Okay, we got two, I see two hands. Is there any other hands that I need to account for? [Points to audience member.]

Audience member: So, is your fear then with fostering respect for Indigenous ways of knowing that if we foster too much respect for Indigenous ways of knowing, we will allow the experiential knowledge to overrule the scientific knowledge? Is that your fear? When you go against the fostering respect?

That’s one fear, but it’s a very, very important fear. The other fear—and I should just mention this right now because I don’t want to lose that because this is the most important part, but we got, like—

Audience member: [unintelligble.]

No, we had very, very interesting conversations and others [unintelligble] we can come back to this, but this is my major concern, this, because this is not knowledge. Revelation is not a way of knowing. Anyway, that’s something to bookmark. So, because, I know we still got other things—

Audience member: So, do you, do you have any categories where you value experiential knowledge, or do you strictly just value empirical data? Are there any places where you will, like, really [unintelligible] experience with data and that’s important, or is it strictly you just value empirical data?

 I think it’s important in as far as it goes, so, like, I wouldn’t deny its importance. My issue is when it’s used to try to prevent the more systematic forms of understanding from being the basis of policy right. So, you know, and it’s sort of, like, you’d have to see it on a case-by-case basis to make an evaluation of it would be my guess. Yes? [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: You were saying earlier you were trying to think of an example of when the scientific knowledge would [unintelligible] experiential knowledge. One thing that we learned, I think part of it [unintelligible] polar bears. I’m not going to go so far as to contest that, like, that we should, like you said, [unintelligible] polar bears, but I do think there is reason for Inuit to doubt the knowledge that comes from us. I don’t think it can be called knowledge for them if we come up to them and say, “There’s less polar bears”, because there’s lots of things that our culture said to them that’s not true. One example of this was in my nutrition class, we learned about when the nutrition triangle came out, the pyramid, that it was for World War II, World War I, and a response they brought to the Natives, and they said this is what you should be, this is what you should be eating, and the Natives said, “Well, we don’t like this. It’s not how we eat. This is, like, not according to our culture.” And they just said, like, “It’s science. We’ve proven it.” But when they went according to the food pyramid, their health actually declined because they weren’t accustomed to that sort of food. That’s an example of when Western scientific method has failed the Native Americans.

But that was just because the method was flawed, like, now we’re saying, okay, and this is an important thing to say, like, it’s a mistake to see things, like, the science says or something like, say like, there’s a method that is being used that is trying to stop people from being fooled by an unrepresentative observation, and what happened in that case is that the way of studying these things was not sufficiently fine-tuned to account for the different metabolism, for example, of Indigenous people, who had a long history of hunting and gathering as part of their way of survival, and and there’s been huge, there’s been many, many instances of this. And, you know, this is actually a critique that women have often put forward of scientific research. The studies of pharmaceuticals are often done on men because women’s hormonal cycles interfere with things and so on, so then, you know, we don’t have a very good understanding of what drugs do with women, but that’s not a fault of science that that has occurred. It’s a fault of research design and not being specific enough with data analysis, and so on, and now we actually discovered that that was a mistake, and we are now trying to rectify that. So, it’s kind of an example of corrective kinds of mechanisms. That is a very different situation than this area of what is called ways of knowing, Indigenous ways of knowing, and you often do see this in discussions, which is Indigenous people have this way of knowing because of some special relationship to the Creator, that’s often an argument that’s being put forward. That is a spiritual belief, okay, which everyone is entitled to have. No one wants to stop people from practicing or having their spiritual beliefs. The difficulty that I have with that is that in this fostering respect kind of language, it’s demanding that I should accept the validity of that, and I do not, I reject that, and I have reasons why I reject that. What I want to put forward, and what’s happening, is that, you know, I’m having this kind of fostering respect language that’s been put forward. Now, I saw there was a hand somewhere, and we’ll take that as the last question. Yeah? [Pointing to an audience member.]

Audience member: Listen, I don’t know a lot about polar bears, and I learned a lot more than I hoped to. My question is kind of going back to the lecture your were presenting on academic standards. Could you please elaborate more on your talk today and how that relates back to academic standards within institutions and what we can expect from the lecture on Thursday.

Okay. So, the academic standards are, sort of, they tie into the Enlightenment, my discussion of the Enlightenment, which happened at the beginning of class, which is, in universities, we should be using reason, evidence, and logic to be able to try to understand the world, and all people—Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Black, White, queer, straight, whatever—all can use these tools to understand the world. What I believe this respects, fostering respect for Indigenous ways of knowing is doing, and I think this has come out a little bit in this discussion, is relativizes the pursuit of truth and says that the truth for Indigenous people is different than the truth for non-Indigenous people, and therefore when an Indigenous person makes an argument based upon their ways, their way of knowing, as a non-Indigenous person, I have no way of evaluating that, and I should make no comment on that. That is completely destructive to the university as a way of increasing knowledge and understanding of the world around us, and I think the whole kind of language of fostering respect is what is attacking those fundamental, universal principles upon which the university is based. [Looks at watch.] It’s a quarter to. So, thank you very much, everyone. I really appreciated all the comments. Next class, right, we did get, we can bring some of this stuff back in because I realized we’ve been off on a few tangents, but what we want to talk about mostly next time is the question of academic freedom. So what does it mean when you have this language of fostering respect, what does that mean for professors and students to be able to pursue the truth and state the truth, as they see it. Thank you very much.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

14 replies on “Transcript: Frances Widdowson lecture at U of L”

Thanks a ton for transcribing this. Maddowson has had a ton of negative press, and I’m really glad to be able to read what she actually has to say rather than someone else’s biased summary. Not as controversial a position as we’ve been led to believe by the uproar.

Thank you for providing this transcript. I think everyone will agree that there was no “hate” or “racism” in this lecture. In terms of the class, I thought it was very positive, and had a great deal of interactions from students. I tended to allow the questions to get us a little off track at times, but this is a difficult thing to manage in the classroom. As well, I use too many fillers – “ummms” and “you knows” etc. – that I need to work on. To say it was a “terrible lecture”, in my view, is not warranted by the evidence shown in this video.

I watched the lecture and I have referenced it to friends as the kind of lecture and discussion I would have liked in my university years; and as a fascinating example of what should never be blocked by cancel culture. The negative comments here about teaching style are way off base (misplaced) in my view.

It’s too bad the discussion didn’t get to the point of comparing the current “state of the art” of knowledge with The Truth, the risks involved in assuming the current state of the art is, in fact, true, how to tell when the the current state of the art might not be the whole truth, etc. etc..

Clearly science and the scientific method has been about improving the state of the art in this respect, but it would also be hubris to suggest there isn’t room for improvement, especially in complex system analysis. The thing is, a lot of things are more complex than they first appear when looked at closer.

True, although this isn’t even really about the science per se. There are claims being made (buried bodies, not to mention “mass graves”, “in the dead of night in an apple orchard” etc etc) for which there is currently NO evidence beyond GPR “ground disturbances”.

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