On Jan 12, Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch spoke at a meet-and-greet on Peel St., co-hosted by the Conservative Association at McGill University. In response, members of the Montreal community, including McGill students, staged a peaceful protest. While divisive, both the event and the protest are essential expressions of political engagement and should be respected. The interaction between the two exemplifies the varied and continuous dialogue that is vital to productive political conversation. Given the recent political polarization and degeneration of discourse on North American campuses and in American politics, it is increasingly important to create room for political conversation on campus.
Leitch has raised considerable controversy on the campaign trail thus far, most notably for praising Donald Trump and for proposing the mandatory screening of immigrants for “Canadian values.” Protesters claim that Leitch’s platform and ideas are “morally reprehensible” and promote “bigotry, racism, and xenophobia.” Her presence close to campus and the involvement of a group of McGill students raises questions about the purpose of controversial figures on university campuses.
Whether the students in attendance at Leitch’s event and those that protested it ever see eye-to-eye, exposure to different perspectives is critical to meaningful political conversation. Without it, students won’t be introduced to new ideas, and risk becoming entrenched in a political camp without questioning their political beliefs. Confining political discourse to conflicting echo chambers has real consequences, as the rhetoric and outcome of this past American election demonstrated. To prevent ideological silos on campus, students must remain informed of opinions different from their own.
Hate speech should never be tolerated. Accusations of racism and xenophobia, like those levelled at Leitch, deserve serious consideration. The rights of the students who invited Leitch must also be considered: As a student branch of a political party, the Conservative Association at McGill University is well within its rights to host a party leadership candidate to speak to student constituents, especially at an off-campus venue. Indeed, many student groups bring speakers to campus in order to spark conversations and share ideas outside the classroom. Such actions should not be discouraged.
In many cases, differing views may never be reconciled—as Leitch spoke to her supporters inside the event and protesters voiced their objections outside, two different preachers were arguably addressing two different choirs. Points of fundamental disagreement are an inevitable part of contentious political conversation.
Just as Leitch’s presence is a valid contribution to the campus discourse of ideas, protest is also a valid response. As a means of both verbal and symbolic objection, peaceful protest is a different form of political speech than a formal address, but it is no less legitimate. It plays an important role in starting and maintaining communication between opposing groups. Importantly, protesters at the Leitch event did not attempt to disrupt the event from proceeding. Doing so would have the same silencing effect as cancelling the event.
Political conversation takes different forms —sometimes it is a protest, sometimes it is a formal meet-and-greet—and it must be continuous. To this end, it is crucial to maintain space for the views of different groups and the potential for dialogue between them. Controversial figures provoke conversation; observers and commentators must engage rather than entrench.