Photos C/O Sabrina Macklai
On Nov. 9, recipients of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award, one of McMaster University’s largest scholarships, held a dinner meeting in partnership with the Socrates Project to discuss free speech and McMaster’s current guidelines in light of the larger province-wide focus on the issue.
The event was invite-only, consisting of nine Wilson Leaders and alumni and approximately ten additional guests.
The topic of free speech was chosen as a result of the Ontario government’s recent announcement that all Ontario universities must formulate a “free-speech policy” by January 2019.
McMaster currently has a “guidance document” outlining “acceptable” forms of protest for event organizers.
The Wilson event allowed participants to share a meal and exchange ideas on free speech and how McMaster should move forward. The focus, according to Wilson scholar Monish Ahluwalia, was simply to promote critical discussion in an open environment, not to come to any definitive conclusion or recommendation.
“We are all from very different backgrounds and programs and experiences,” Ahluwalia said.
“We are hoping we can end with a group of people who have had this discussion and who will open their minds up to some different views hopefully and come out with a more holistic understanding of what free speech is.”
The Wilson Leadership Scholar Award is an award given to three undergraduate students and three graduate students each year. It provides them with up to $50,000 in funding and unique mentorship and leadership opportunities.
This small dinner was the first of its kind that the Wilson scholarship had hosted. However, the event was also an extension of the Socrates Project, which has facilitated many events this year on social issues and art projects.
Wilson scholars Josh Young and Ahluwalia agree that the small size of the dinner helped promote dialogue and dissent.
“Smaller group-oriented discussions seem to foster more organic discussion. It is not forceful,” said Young.
“We’re curious to see if this is something that students find valuable,” Ahluwalia added. “Moving forward, we are not decided on whether we want it to be invite-only or public. We fear that with too many people, it might get hard to control. It might lose its value.”
The idea of more productive discussion in small groups of select students raises questions about inclusion and exclusion and how to best ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and respected when it comes to contentious issues.
In effort to include more voices, yesterday, the McMaster Students Union hosted a town hall open discussion at TwelvEighty. MSU President Ikram Farah, McMaster President Patrick Deane and McMaster associate vice president (Equity and Inclusion) Arig al Shaibah were there to field questions from students.
Both the Wilson dinner and the MSU town hall are products of the university’s focus on the issue of free expression against the backdrop of the provincial government mandate.
Carleton University and the University of Western Ontario both released free speech policy drafts in Oct. 2018. Last month, both the MSU and the University of Toronto Students’ Union condemned the government’s free speech mandate.
As the January policy deadline nears, McMaster students can expect more dialogue and speech on the question of “free speech” on campus.