Today, when the attacks against the free flow of people and ideas in the United States generate headlines, Canada is held up as a model of toleration, diversity and compassion. We proudly welcome Syrian refugees, and many Canadian universities have made a point of facilitating applications by students from countries on American president Donald Trump’s travel ban. While that is to be celebrated, our recent experience at the University of Calgary and the University of British Columbia suggests that academics’ ideas flow less freely in Canada than they used to.
Over the past year, the four of us collaborated to invite Professor Antonio Negri to deliver a series of public lectures in Calgary and Vancouver, scheduled for April 2017. Professor Negri is one of the foremost political philosophers of our time, known especially as a leading critic of neoliberal globalization. He also previously visited Canada over a decade ago, to speak at McMaster University.
Professor Negri is also well known for having spent time in prison in Italy, accused of insurrection, and of secretly being the leader of the armed group the Red Brigades, a charge later dropped. He was convicted in 1979, during the “years of lead” in Italy, a period of intense social conflict. He spent time in exile in France, but returned to Italy in 1997 to serve the final years of his prison term, gaining release in 2003. Today he lives in Paris with his wife, philosopher Judith Revel, and travels freely throughout the world, including back in Italy.
The exception to this freedom is a ban on entering the United States, where his prison record is incompatible with the security and immigration regime imposed after the 9/11 attacks. We knew this when we invited him. We also knew that regardless of the charges against him, he had served his prison sentence, and had also previously been to Canada. For his part, Professor Negri was delighted to accept our invitation, and was very much looking forward to his visit to the west, along with his wife, Professor Judith Revel, an expert on Michel Foucault, who would also give a series of lectures. We assumed that because he had previously visited Canada, he would be able to do so again.
We were wrong. Since his last visit, the security and immigration regime has changed, largely as a consequence of Bill C-51, the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act. Brought in by the Harper government, it has not been repealed by Trudeau’s. A major aim of that legislation is to “harmonize” Canadian security and immigration policy with that of the United States, including by facilitating the sharing of intelligence information. Indeed, it is an open secret that a key intent of Bill C-51 was to respond to US pressure for Canada to tighten its borders.
Under the new regulations, international visitors from visa-exempt countries, such as members of the European Union, are required to obtain an “electronic Travel Authorization” before they can purchase flights. We helped Professors Negri and Revel apply for their eTAs at the end of last year. Professor Revel’s was granted within days, but Professor Negri’s, after several weeks, was denied.
We encouraged him to reapply, and helped him to translate some of the documents pertaining to his trial and conviction, which Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada pointed to as a key reason for denying his eTA. In late February, we learned that immigration authorities were requesting a new and broad range of further documentation pertaining to his trial and conviction. After some deliberation, we decided that, at that late date, with only a few weeks before the planned April visit, even a best-case scenario would make it logistically and financially impossible for us to arrange the visit — especially given that we could not purchase his plane tickets before obtaining permission to travel. We were forced to cancel Professor Negri’s visit, and consequently, also, Professor Revel’s.
We are considering whether to try again during the 2017–2018 academic year. Funding would have to be reassessed, as commitments made in one year do not necessarily carry over into another. And while it is possible that Professor Negri may yet be granted permission to visit Canada, we are not hopeful. The intent of Bill C-51 — to bring Canadian security and immigration policies more in line with those in the United States — makes it unlikely. Until this year, only one other country had denied Professor Negri entry. While in Canada we celebrate our more open and welcoming society, our experience suggests that Canada is less open and welcoming than it used to be, and the flow of people and ideas more limited.
Jon Beasley-Murray is associate professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of British Columbia.
Francesca Cadel is associate professor of Italian at the University of Calgary.
James Ellis is professor of English and Director of the Calgary Institute of the Humanities at the University of Calgary.
Pablo Policzer is associate professor of Political Science and Director of the Latin American Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.