The RCMP quizzed a University of Lethbridge professor about his role in organizing an indigenous rights conference coinciding with the Quebec City Summit of the Americas later this month.
Tony Hall, associate professor of Native American studies, said a member of the RCMP's national security investigations section questioned him on campus for 45 minutes concerning his attendance at the Quebec conference and material he had written critical of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
"In all my professional life, I've never run into this kind of thing," Hall said. "Why am I being questioned by national security for raising these issues? I'm just doing the job that is expected of me as a professor."
Ian McKenna, chair of CAUT's academic freedom and tenure committee says the RCMP may have violated Hall's civil rights and his academic freedom.
"CAUT is extremely disturbed by what we would see as a breach of academic freedom," McKenna said. "Tony's academic areas are very much the issues raised by the FTAA and the impact of unrestricted development on aboriginal people. Unless they're investigating a crime, the RCMP has no business singling him out."
Hall said he tried to explain the importance of academic freedom to the RCMP security official during the questioning, but these concerns seemed to be dismissed. The official explained that Hall was being questioned because his activities fall into a "grey area" and demanded the names of those helping to organize the indigenous rights conference. Hall refused to provide any names.
Michael Kubara, a fellow professor at Lethbridge and a former member of CAUT's AF&T committee, says the questioning looks like a form of harassment designed to intimidate Hall from participating at alternative events around the summit.
"Even if there were no threats, the very gesture is threatening," Kubara said. "People are quite reasonable to be worried about this."
Kubara added that in his five years on the AF&T committee, he never encountered a similar case of police intimidation.
"During my time on the committee, the federal and provincial governments were more concerned to protect academics, not to limit them," he said.
Hall said he is extremely concerned that by merely expressing ideas and placing them in the public domain, academics could be monitored and questioned by the RCMP.
In a letter to Alberta's NDP Leader, Raj Pannu, which describes the incident, Hall worries that his encounter may not be an isolated incident and that academic freedom may be at risk.
"Academic freedom is the essential condition as well as the gem in the academic crown of our post-secondary institutions," Hall wrote. "Police intervention in the work of universities is always a dangerous signal of the existence of repressive currents in a society. We need to be vigilant in safeguarding the integrity of our work environment, not only for ourselves but for all members of a society that have interests in the success of our institutions of higher learning."
Richard Epp, president of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association said he is very distressed by the incident.
"This certainly looks like an attempt at intimidation and a challenge to our colleague's freedom of expression," Epp stated. "Professor Hall is a respected academic and it is surely his right as a citizen and as an academic to take a point of view, popular or unpopular as the case may be, and to engage in discussion with students and the community at large."
University of Lethbridge president, Bill Cade, told the Lethbridge Herald he was not notified that an RCMP official was on campus or that security agents had any concerns about Hall's involvement in the indigenous rights conference.
"Hall is entitled to exercise his freedom of speech and his academic freedom," Cade said. "I don't think he was doing anything he shouldn't have been."
The controversy quickly spilled over into the House of Commons when NDP Leader Alexa McDonough raised the issue during question period.
"The police are investigating people on the basis of their beliefs and the government cannot be unaware of this intimidation," McDonough said in reference to the Hall case. "I ask the Prime Minister, what instructions has the government given about security at the Quebec Summit to ensure that citizens can exercise their democratic rights at the People's Summit?"
"The government wants people to express themselves," Prime Minister Jean Chrétien answered. "However, the police have the responsibility of ensuring that the security of citizens and visitors to Quebec City is assured."
"Canadians do not think that interrogation and intimidation is the job of the police," McDonough responded.
In a letter to Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay, CAUT president Tom Booth stressed that "police interventions that compromise academic freedom will not be tolerated."
Booth called on MacAulay to issue a formal apology to Hall and to launch an investigation into the matter.
"We need to know who gave the orders to question Hall and whether the Solicitor General's office was involved," Booth said. "We also need to know whether other academics have been subject to these kinds of intimidating tactics."