Concordia Political Science Department’s Flanagan Fuck Up

Why Was a Widely-Discredited Academic Invited to Speak at Concordia?

Graphic Sam Jones

On March 10, I received my annual email from the Political Science Department informing me of this year’s Workshops in Social Science Research (WSSR) series.

Tom Flanagan—former professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary, former campaign manager and communications advisor for Stephen Harper and major influence on the particular brand of virulent conservatism which has taken hold of Parliament Hill since 2006—was invited to lead a workshop again, as he was last year and for the first WSSR session in 2012.

On March 11, Flanagan’s profile was deleted from the WSSR website and his workshop scrubbed from the listings. Posters had gone up on the 12th floor of Hall, and Flanagan’s face was on none of them. I became unsure if the workshop had been cancelled; my call to the WSSR coordinator’s office was answered with a “no comment” and a “where are you calling from?” for good measure. But that he was invited at all is enough reason for pause.

Flanagan is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, he advocated for the assassination of Julian Assange. In 2013 he was removed from his teaching post and fired as commentator for the CBC and The Globe and Mail, after comments he made regarding child pornography went viral. During his WSSR workshop at Concordia last year, he suggested that concern around climate change was the basis for the “new Salem witch trials” (and having said that in the room next to the Geography graduate lab, he came back from break with pictures of flooded cities taped up behind him).

The controversy in question here, however, spans his career-long discourse on Canada’s indigenous peoples. His workshop for this year was to be “First Nations, Further Thoughts,” based off of his 2000 publication First Nations? Second Thoughts. He was going to “present an overview of his research on First Nations, beginning with basic concepts such as nationhood and sovereignty, then moving on to issues of property rights.” It’s seemingly procedural and innocuous stuff. However, these just are variations on the primary theme in his commentary on indigenous affairs in Canada: the erasure of a legal indigenous identity and the outright denial of indigenous rights.

Based on his writings and his public statements, Flanagan does not believe that the indigenous peoples of what we call Canada have any basis for special rights or claims for protection, since they are nothing more than the immigrants that got to North America first. In fact, for Flanagan, it is racist for indigenous peoples to claim special rights based on genetic grounds. He has claimed that a shadowy cabal of “aboriginal orthodoxy”—made up of academics, indigenous politicians and activists—has perpetuated these claims to rights unfairly.

For Flanagan, colonization was justified: “European civilization was several thousand years more advanced” than North America’s indigenous societies of “savages.” Flanagan defines “civilization” through a racist lens, which excludes any systems that did not reach European levels of technology, European forms of governance and property rights, and permanent settlement. Indigenous peoples apparently do not have a right to traditional use and ownership of land, since any land use that is not exploitative or based in intensive cultivation is supposedly wasted. There is no equivalent validity between European and indigenous histories, because cultural identity is invalidated if transmitted through oral history. It’s telling that Flanagan’s response to the emerging “Idle No More” movement in 2012 was simply: “What does anybody expect to come out of constant harping on grievances?”

Were these the opinions of just another crackpot, there wouldn’t be much to worry about; however, Flanagan is unfortunately considered an “expert” on indigenous property rights in some policy circles—including those circles in Ottawa—and his books are still the basis for a troubling mainstream policy narrative of how we should imagine indigenous rights in Canada. By inviting him to do a workshop for what would have been his third year, Concordia’s Department of Political Science has validated his unfortunate reputation of expertise.

As a community, Concordia is making good, significant steps towards being a more inclusive institution. We are the first university in Quebec to offer an undergraduate major in First Peoples Studies. Resources and support are offered through the Aboriginal Student Centre. Student initiatives like the Aboriginal Art Research Group do fantastic work, and there are an increasing number of student associations (including the Concordia Student Union) that formally recognize that we all meet and work on un-ceded Kanien’kehá:ka land.

Flanagan’s invitation was a step back for us all.

Correction: In the original article Kanien’kehá:ka was spelled incorrectly. The Link regrets the error