Over 600 academics sign letter criticizing Kenney's comments during Bill 22 debate

Dec 2 2019, 2:52 pm

A total of 629 academics signed an open letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney following a remark he made on November 25.

Kenney had been debating opposition leader Rachel Notley over the hotly contested Bill 22, and the comment in question came after Notley quoted University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas: “The premier is using the power of the state to silence an independent body and this is corrupt.”

Kenney replied by rejecting Thomas as a valid source.

“It’s so sad over there that they’re now resorting to quoting NDP candidates like Mr. Thomas as objective sources,” Kenney had stated.

Thomas had run as an NDP candidate in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections for the riding of Lethbridge, a fact that Thomas said in a thread of tweets should not discount her academic work.

“The quality of my scholarship is evaluated by my peers, not the Premier of Alberta. If my peers find it wanting, I listen to them. The premier’s take on it is, and should remain irrelevant. That is the very heart of academic freedom,” Thomas wrote.

“As I mentioned above, it is chilling to think that someone in the premier’s position would take umbrage with something as fundamental as academic freedom.”

Backing Thomas are 629 other academics who signed their names on an open letter to Kenney, stating that his remarks about Thomas were “consistent with an increased disregard for expert knowledge.”

The full letter can be found below:

We write to you with concern about comments you made in the Alberta legislature on November 25, 2019. In an off-hand remark, you dismissed the research of University of Calgary political scientist Dr. Melanee Thomas because she ran as an electoral candidate prior to commencing her doctorate.

This incident may seem minor, but it is consistent with an increased disregard for expert knowledge. This disregard jeopardizes the legitimacy of evidence-based research that is essential to informed public policy debate and a healthy democracy.

You portrayed academic enquiry as part of a partisan agenda, which undermines the role of expertise in policy-making and also the expert in question. Political scientists, including Dr. Thomas, engage in rigorous peer-reviewed research: their work is validated by others in their field. To challenge Dr. Thomas’ interventions — not on their merit but because of who is is — is to challenge the very objectivity of the evidence produced by academic institutions. Dr. Thomas, in particular, is one of the country’s leading experts on Canadian politics, and she has won multiple awards for her research.

As premier, you are in a position of enormous power. Your comments send the message that those who take positions that do not align with the government of the day can expect to be summarily dismissed, even if their positions are based on evidence. This may discourage policy experts from contributing their knowledge in the future.

Your words also have gendered consequences. Women on all sides of the political spectrum are subjected to online and in-person attacks simply for being leaders in their fields. Your remarks add to this troubling pattern. Alberta decision-makers often rely on academic advice from those with political ties. Academic expertise — when provided by men — has been marshalled to support partisan work. Unlike Dr. Thomas, their expertise and objectivity have not been so publicly questioned in the legislature by a sitting premier.

In these polarizing times, any rhetoric that undermines the dissemination of publicly funded research should be concerning. It impedes the pursuit of productive policy discussions and constrains the sharing of academic research with the public. We, the undersigned, urge you, members of the government, and all elected representatives to consider ways that we all might contribute constructively to the important provincial and national discussions that lie ahead.

Sincerely,

[629 academics]