Weaponizing Social Justice to Protect School Administrators and Discredit Whistle-blowers: A Canadian Case Study
Statue of Sir Isaac Brock at Brock University.

Weaponizing Social Justice to Protect School Administrators and Discredit Whistle-blowers: A Canadian Case Study

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay

On March 6th, I published a Quillette article describing how Robyn Bourgeois, the newly installed vice-provost for Indigenous engagement at Canada’s Brock University, had been seeking to mobilize her peers against the anonymous operator of an obscure (and by then, defunct) Twitter account called @BrockCivis. On her social-media channels and at the university’s “Two Row Council” (a body tasked with managing Brock’s efforts at “Indigenization, reconciliation, and decolonization”), Bourgeois accused the account of operating a racist and “criminal” program of “cyber harassment” that targeted her in particular, and Indigenous people more generally. No one at Brock would feel “safe,” she said, in a world where @BrockCivis is still “allowed to dehumanize the highest-ranking Indigenous person at Brock” (by which she meant herself).

At a February 22nd Council meeting, a recording of which was subsequently made available to me, school officials brainstormed with Bourgeois about how they might investigate the nefarious account. The contents of @BrockCivis, one participant suggested, were a threat not just to Brock, but to Indigenous people all over Canada. Later in the conversation, another speaker said that this kind of racism might even propel Brock toward some Canadian version of the January 6th riot at the United States Capitol. On February 26th, Bourgeois announced publicly that an investigation into @BrockCivis was underway, and asked that members of the public should send incriminating screenshots of @BrockCivis tweets to her official Brock email account so that she could “pass these on to investigators.”

I have listened to the recording of that February 22nd meeting several times, and still find it surreal: These were senior administrators at a medium-sized Canadian university—including the school’s provost and its director of human rights and equity—strategizing for a full hour on the best way to take down an anonymous social-media account that had already gone off-line. What I found even stranger is that no one in that February 22nd meeting presented any proof that @BrockCivis had engaged in anything resembling “hate speech” (as several speakers described it). Bourgeois’s colleagues simply took her word that @BrockCivis had said “criminal” things—evidence of which, they seemed to assume, might be found in some remote corner of the web.

On March 25th, I emailed a number of Brock officials to ask them about the investigation that Bourgeois had publicly announced on February 26th, as well as other subjects connected with my original article. By way of reply, I got a five-paragraph statement from one of the attendees at the February 22nd meeting—Brock’s provost, Lynn Wells—cataloguing the “new Indigenous-centered academic programming and research efforts” her team was spearheading. But she declined to tell me how Bourgeois’s announced investigation of @BrockCivis was proceeding, when the investigation would be completed, or what means Brock would be using to pursue it. The whole thing remains very surreal.

But then in late March, I was sent an archive file containing @BrockCivis’s tweets— from the account’s inaugural message on October 19th, 2017 to its final entry on February 17th, 2021, comprising 537 tweets in total. I’ve combed through all of them, searching for the explosive hate speech that apparently has the potential to spark a violent political insurrection on Brock’s campus and beyond. Alas, my search came up empty.

Far from being a hatemonger, it turns out, @BrockCivis’s creator appears to be an ordinary liberal who’s simply become exasperated with what he or she regards as the hypocrisy and incompetence of Brock’s administration. On June 16th, 2020, the account tweeted, “shameful [Brock] University tripping over itself to pretend to be diverse, when its leaders are anything but.” On July 28th, @BrockCivis criticized the school’s president for offering mere “meaningless platitudes” in regard to corporations’ role in promoting social justice. Several tweets draw attention to the poor living conditions on First Nations reserves, and the racism experienced by blue-collar workers, along with commentary in the vein of “While overpaid @BrockUniversity professors search for racism under every blade of grass, real racism goes unaddressed and real people suffer” (August 25th, 2020). The account also asked how many supporters of Indigenization at Brock had “ever set foot on a reserve (excluding trips for gas and gambling),” and noted that “our suffering Indigenous brothers and sisters on reserves without clean water” derive no “benefit” from the school’s culture of “canned land acknowledgements.”

The account also scathingly criticized the “privilege” of two wealthy (white) Canadian brothers who’d recently been allegedly implicated in a charity-funding scandal involving Canada’s government; and asked why Brock, a school that’s dedicated itself to “decolonization,” was still named after a 19th-century white male military officer who’d laid the groundwork for Upper Canada’s political order.

The most commonly discussed subject on the @BrockCivis feed was the culture of “nepotism” and “cronyism” that critics of Brock have been calling out for years. On October 23rd, 2020, for instance, the account tweeted highlights of a voluminous consultant’s report on the “climate for learning, living, and working” at Brock. As @BrockCivis summarized the survey results contained in the report, “only 30% of Brock’s faculty respondents feel their opinions are taken seriously by Brock’s President, Provost, Deans, VPs”; “35% of Brock faculty and staff respondents have observed discrimination in hiring, including high rates of nepotism/cronyism”; and “62% of faculty and 63% of Staff respondents have seriously considered leaving Brock in the past year.” The account also suggested that Brock administrators’ frequently promoted social-justice and anti-racism flourishes were intended, at least in part, to draw attention away from these concerns about Brock’s governance.

During the time when @BrockCivis was active, it called out numerous Brock administrators—often on such mundane issues as enforcement of COVID-19 health protocols, the disposal of office equipment, and their refusal to take questions on campus-wide town-hall video calls. Bourgeois was certainly among those who occasionally came up for criticism, but she was never identified by name. And I couldn’t find more than half a dozen tweets in the whole archive that referenced her.

Specifically, on October 21st, 2020, @BrockCivis criticized Bourgeois’s appointment to her current role on the basis that she was a “race-baiter”—an apparent reference to an April 25th, 2020 opinion article written by Bourgeois, in which she’d dubiously characterized a senseless mass murder in Nova Scotia as “white male terrorism.” But even that tweet didn’t mention Bourgeois’s race (the school describes her as a “mixed race Cree woman”), let alone state anything racist. At the time, moreover, @BrockCivis was hardly the only one criticizing Bourgeois’s 2020 column: The article had been so widely panned that Bourgeois ended up deleting her Twitter account (and then wrote a 12-page article about the experience—which she presents as emblematic of the abuse commonly heaped on “feminist scholars belonging to socially marginalized groups”).

Then there are the pair of @BrockCivis tweets from early 2021 that got passed around at the February 22nd, 2021 Two Row Council meeting—which Bourgeois seemed to suggest were a smoking gun, because the word “stupid” had been used in the context of a student group’s efforts to memorialize murdered Indigenous women. But it’s obvious to anyone reading these tweets that their target wasn’t the victimized Indigenous women themselves, but rather the Brock communications officers seeking to “co-opt” student activism as a means “to score ideological points” and burnish the school’s reputation. @BrockCivis stated this distinction explicitly, in fact (as I detailed in my original article).

I also found a tweet from November 24th, 2020 in which @BrockCivis took issue with Bourgeois’ “polarizing” presence on a Royal Society of Canada speaking panel. But otherwise, the only bits in the archive that seem likely to raise progressives’ eyebrows much are the frequent attacks on cancel culture, and the scattered citations to free-speech-oriented writers such as Jordan Peterson, Lawrence Krauss, and (on a few occasions) me. That’s it. This is apparently what is making Brock’s campus “unsafe.”

Earlier this month, Brock University announced that, in light of “topics that have arisen” of late, it would be conducting a survey of selected Indigenous students—a project that will be organized under the supervisory auspices of none other than Vice-Provost Robyn Bourgeois herself. Bourgeois will also help pick the survey participants and then report a curated summary of their attitudes back to the university. When I asked the school whether this arrangement was likely to yield any kind of useful or objective data, given Bourgeois’s own oft-stated certainty that the campus is contaminated with anti-Indigenous bigotry, Provost Wells declined to answer. Instead, she told me the tone of my inquiries “undermines the work of reconciliation so necessary and important to Canada.”

* * *

As the Brock saga shows, the pandemic has been a golden age for a certain kind of academic whistleblower: Because university meetings and classes have been conducted by Zoom since early 2020, it’s been easy for participants to record the proceedings and then pass the information on to third parties (such as yours truly). In February, for instance, a student at the University of British Columbia sent me a recording of a professor having an extended social-justice meltdown during a class on anti-racism. And my Quillette article on the late-2020 racial social panic at Haverford College in Pennsylvania was based in large part on the contents of a recorded campus-wide Zoom call, and other electronic artifacts that simply wouldn’t have existed before the pandemic.

Because these articles have been widely shared in academic subcultures, they’ve created a snowball effect, leading to me receiving more tips from more schools (often accompanied by yet more recordings). In some cases, I’ve encouraged these whistleblowers to tell their stories themselves, as at University of Calgary and Bryn Mawr. In other cases, as with Smith College and Dalhousie, I’ve reported them under my own byline. It’s a target-rich journalistic environment because commonly used digital tools make it easy to prove the bad faith of campus activists who weaponize social-justice doctrines against their ideological opponents.

I’ve reported on so many of these case studies over the past year, in fact, that I’ve started to notice an important common element that can escape one’s notice when each case is viewed in isolation: None of these controversies centered on any identifiable act of actual racism per se. In most cases, rather, the mobs targeted fellow students, professors, or staff based on what those people said about racism. In this respect, the hysteria at Brock surrounding @BrockCivis is typical: For all Bourgeois’s repeated claims that @BrockCivis was a fountain of racist bigotry, my examination of the evidence shows that its operator was merely a whistleblower who occasionally opined on the school’s cynical co-option of ideological fads—including anti-racism.

Last year, Brock denounced one of its own professors, Tomáš Hudlický, after he’d spoken out against affirmative action in a journal article. At Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, likewise, social-justice purists recently erupted in fury at an Arab-Canadian female professor because she’d expressed exasperation concerning Black Lives Matter and other post-liberal political movements that divide people into rigidly defined groups based on their identity (a practice that, as she’s noted online, has left a long trail of bloodshed in her native Lebanon). At CUNY School of Law, the dean self-canceled in mid-March after using a problematic metaphor in a faculty discussion of race-based hiring. In none of these cases is there even a pretense that anything substantively racist occurred—only that the accused individual had exhibited wrongthink or wrongspeak in regard to the appropriate way that racism should be discussed or suppressed. It’s basically meta-racism, in other words.

In the case of Smith College (which the New York Times eventually got around to covering, albeit three months after Quillette broke the story), the initial 2019 furor centered on a black student’s claim that she’d been racially profiled by campus dining staff. But an extensive third-party investigation determined that the student had made up key facts, and that no racist incident is known to have taken place. By the time the university received the investigators’ report, however, college president Kathleen McCartney was already highly invested in the myriad anti-racism programs she’d zealously promoted in response to the fictional incident. When a clerical staffer named Jodi Shaw then blew the whistle on the college’s absurd overreaction to the faux-racist 2019 incident, it was Shaw, not the false accuser or McCartney, who ended up being villainized by the college community.

Not only does this kind of meta-racist social panic not require any underlying evidence of racism: It also doesn’t require the presence of anyone who isn’t white—since the mobs are primarily interested in prosecuting ideological campaigns that are waged most fiercely among privileged, status-seeking white subcultures. Nor does it require the presence of any kind of central authority figure: In many cases, students have shown themselves fully capable of crowdsourcing these social panics all on their own.

An excerpt from Quid Novi

At McGill University in Montreal, for instance, law students recently upbraided the editor of an obscure in-house publication called Quid Novi because he’d printed a throwaway joke about students interrupting class with non-sequitur shoutouts to “buzzwords” such as “oppression, patriarchy, and colonialism.” One of the editor’s critics declared that his joke was “incredibly insensitive” in light of “anti-black racism and the recent mass shooting in Atlanta.”

Two hours to the west of Montreal, the University of Ottawa is now in the midst of its own racism-free anti-racism social panic. The catalyst in this case was also a joke—a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post by a student who satirically opined that he’d have a better chance of getting a job in Canada’s capital if he identified as “a veteran indigenous pansexual woman of ethnic origin with disabilities.” As with @BrockCivis, the student, one Nikolay Stanchulov, wasn’t actually denigrating any particular group. His target, rather, was the affirmative-action policies that now are advertised openly in Ottawa. Just months ago, Justin Trudeau’s federal government announced fresh measures to create an “inventory” (Canada’s governing Liberals actually use that word) of non-white people who could be considered for senior government positions. Even putting aside the fact that Stanchulov intended his post as a joke, what he wrote was completely true. And it is unsettling that the progressive stigma against criticizing affirmative action has now apparently metastasized into a taboo on criticizing government (or university) policy in this area.

But of course, truth is never a defence when the mob comes for you. (Just the opposite. As I wrote in my last Quillette article, “if you grovel enough, woke mobs might eventually forgive you for being wrong—but never for being right.”) And in due course, a fellow law student named Rachel Gordon tweeted out a screenshot of Stanchulov’s joke; tagged the law school; and urged the university to, as the euphemistic phrase goes, “respond accordingly.” There then followed a (34-page!) “petition” to senior administrators, “to ensure that immediate and appropriate disciplinary action is taken with respect to Mr. Stanchulov’s discriminatory, racist, colonial, ableist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic public comments.”

It is worth noting that the petition was launched after Stanchulov had already deleted the post and apologized. But a mere apology wasn’t enough, the signatories claimed, as Stanchulov had not yet “address[ed] the hurt” he had caused. The 300-plus signatories also said his joke was “violent” (there’s that word again) and insisted that a lack of “serious disciplinary action” (they took care to underline the word “serious”) would serve to “perpetuate” the “systemic institutionalized racism” that apparently afflicts the school. Some petitioners even said they would not “feel safe” with Stanchulov on the campus, lest he make another joke.

Critically, the petitioners suggested that the spectacle of Stanchulov’s humiliation, should the university deliver it, was the critical step needed to unlock the reservoir of goodwill associated with the “funds, working groups, and denouncements of specific incidents” that the administration had already put in place. Like good little informants, they also helpfully included no fewer than four evidentiary appendixes—including “Appendix D,” being comprised of denunciations of Stanchulov issued by three students clubs.

An excerpt from the University of Ottawa petition against a student who made a joke on Facebook

By way of response, law school dean Adam Dodek sent out an email blast indicating that he had “referred the matter to the [university’s] Human Rights Office, which has acknowledged receipt and will investigate in accordance with Policy 67a and Procedure 36-1.” He also indicated that students could double up by making their own individual complaints through the Human Rights Office. Dodek further indicated that his academic unit would “cooperate fully with” investigators, as if he were a state attorney general offering assistance to FBI officers leading a multi-state drug bust.

Oh and, of course, this kicker: “If you are experiencing distress or need support, you can contact Common Law’s Mental Health and Wellness Counsellor.”

Canada can be a small world, and I’ve actually crossed paths with Dodek on a few occasions. He’s smart, level-headed, and, as far as I can remember, fairly centrist (at least by the standards of Canadian academia) in his views. But put yourself in Dodek’s shoes, and ask yourself if you’d be able to resist the lure of Policy 67a—that regulatory lodestar of principled academic governance—especially once more than 300 students had already suggested that they’d stop badgering you about everything else if you’d agree to the public humiliation of a student whom they’d branded for cancel-culture sacrifice.

Think of it as the university-administrator version of the famous “Trolley Problem.” Yes, it’s ludicrous to imagine that a single joke could make students feel “unsafe.” But indulging this absurd conceit doesn’t cost the school anything in a material sense—only the dignity of the people who run it. Dodek wouldn’t be taking money out of anyone’s budget or cutting a course, the usual sources of faculty-lounge grievances. He’d just be throwing some poor sod under the trolley. And in return, his most ideologically engaged students would tweet glowingly about him with hand-clap emojis, and call him the white guy who really gets it. He’d get a measure of social peace, at least for a day or two. Show me a single university administrator who won’t take that action.

And the best part is that, as Dodek’s email helps show, deans don’t even have to take moral responsibility for the results of these unsettling struggle sessions, as they can simply present their actions as a non-discretionary act of regulatory compliance. The Orwellian language of Policy 67a covers every form of vague student grievance imaginable—including any stimulus that “creates a negative psychological and emotional environment for work or study.” If the brain trust at the University of Ottawa law school can’t successfully push for a conviction under that kind of kitchen-sink standard, its members should all be disbarred.

The professional dynamic I’m describing here helps explain why, for all their self-glorifying rhetoric about upsetting “power structures” and “privilege hierarchies,” many campus social-justice activists now have a surprisingly cozy relationship with the administrators to whom they direct their petitions—since the interests of these two classes, as the University of Ottawa case study shows, typically fit like hand in glove. Shop-floor social-justice enforcers such as Rachel Gordon demand the shaming of Stanchulovs and the suppression of his Stanchulovist deviationism for ideological reasons. Her school’s administrators are pressured to acquiesce in the name of careerism. The former revels in the suffering of the accused; while the latter is indifferent (or possibly even secretly sympathetic). But in the end, they both get to the same grubby place—which is why, for all the administrators’ performative confessions about the hellish institutional racism that supposedly infects their campuses, precious few ever seem to find their way to the exit. Nor, in fact, do activists typically demand as much. And why should they? It’s a symbiosis that serves all sides—except, of course, for all the little Stanchulovs, who get whacked by the trolley.

And if a Stanchulov fails to present himself, it’s always possible to conjure one—as Brock attempted to do with @BrockCivis. Or consider Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia, where a black alumnus complained of racist treatment after he was arrested on campus four months ago. In early March, a highly respected investigator named Andi MacKay concluded there was “no evidence” that racial profiling had been a factor in the incident. And yet when these conclusions were published on March 9th, SFU President Joy Johnson responded by declaring—I am not making this up—that the underlying incident had actually reinforced her “concerns about racism on our campuses,” not to mention her conviction that SFU needs further measures “to address systemic anti-Black racism and increase inclusion of Black and Indigenous people and people of colour.” Johnson also declared that these events were “traumatic for many in our community,” and then offered “counseling and other supports” to distraught “students, faculty and staff.”

And just to be clear: SFU’s president wasn’t offering these “supports” in regard to the (non-racist) incident of December 11th, which by this time was three months in the past—or in regard to any other act of racism, fictional or otherwise. No, she was offering these “supports” in regard to the release of an investigator’s report that explicitly exonerated the school and other stakeholders on claims of racist behaviour. This finding of non-racism is the trigger that President Johnson worried might cause trauma to the SFU community.

Which in some way makes a weird kind of sense: As with analogous events at Smith College in 2019 and 2020, it seems clear that SFU administrators would have been quite happy for MacKay to come back with a finding of racism—as this would have opened the door for the usual suite of anti-racism announcements, events, and trainings that serve to propel otherwise obscure administrative functionaries into the public spotlight as social-justice protagonists. In the BLM era, moreover, school administrators now continuously insist that their own campuses are suffused with powerful forms of systemic racism that, to everyone’s frustration, are undetectable to any of the five human senses. And so it is understandable that they’d get positively giddy at the prospect of a real live, honest-to-goodness racist incident that they can all bravely denounce. Anti-racism at places such as SFU has basically become a high-status scavenger hunt for some of the most privileged people in our society. What a shame that the prizes are so difficult to find.

* * *

At Brock University, one of the awkward facts that administrators have to dance around is that they’ve already conducted an extensive survey on attitudes toward racism—and the results were (from their point of view) disappointing. In a 466-page 2020 report, consultants at Rankin & Associates indicated that 11.9 percent of Brock University survey respondents expressed a belief that “racialized identity” and “ethnicity” comprised a basis for “unjust” hiring practices as the school. That’s not insignificant. But there were seven other bias categories that respondents identified as bigger problems—including “length of service” (12.5 percent); credentials (13.6 percent); restructuring (15.3 percent); gender (15.3 percent); age (17 percent); and the big one, “nepotism/cronyism” (36.4 percent—more than three times the level reported for “racialized identity”). (When it came to unjust hiring decisions in regard to tenure, just 8.2 percent cited race.) As for the more detailed write-in complaints they inspected, the consultants noted, “one theme emerged from the responses: cronyism” (a word defined in the appendix as “the hiring or promoting of friends or associates to positions without proper regard to their qualifications”).

When it comes to the supposed climate of racism that suffuses Brock, and Canadian society more generally, the school is voluble to a fault. Bourgeois herself has been featured repeatedly in the official school magazine, and in local media, talking about the problem. Yet when it comes to cronyism, which is apparently regarded as a much larger problem by internal stakeholders, the school has trouble finding its words. “Why aren’t you Tweeting this?” @BrockCivis asked archly when Rankin’s conclusions about cronyism were published in October.

Of course, we all know why Brock isn’t “Tweeting this.” If you were an administrator at Brock (or anywhere else), what would you want students and staff talking about: (1) the cronyism that infects your campus, and which may even explain why you have your own job; or (2) your tireless, some might even say heroic, efforts to hunt down those unseen, mysterious, unidentified villains lurking around campus, plotting to inflict “violence” with their diabolical Twitter critiques and Facebook jokes?

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but please remember that @BrockCivis was never captured. He or she could be anywhere. So please be vigilant as we await the trolley that, one can only hope, will deliver us from our darkest fears.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the April, 2020 killings in Portapique, Nova Scotia as having taken place in New Brunswick.

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Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette, a host of the Quillette podcast, a regular op-ed contributor to the National Post, and a book author.