On Bill 18: Danielle Smith, the Calgary School, and the Politics of Academic Freedom

Mack Penner

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On 10 April 2024, the United Conservative Party (UCP) introduced Bill 18, or the Provincial Priorities Act, in order to “support Alberta’s government in pushing back against overreach by the federal government.” If passed, the bill would require “provincial entities” of all kinds to pass any agreements with the federal government through provincial review. The bill fits neatly into the ongoing agenda of the UCP and its leader, Danielle Smith, to resist the federal government at every possible turn.[1]

Immediately, the introduction of Bill 18 provoked outcry, including from academics, who rightly saw the legislation as a threat to academic freedom. Not only was it plain to see that the bill made room for political meddling with research funding, it could also potentially drive scholars and researchers out of the province or discourage them from coming in the first place.[2] With the total amount of tri-agency federal funding for research in Alberta totalling well over $300 million just in 2022-23 according to the CBC, the stakes are high.

It may seem obvious that, by establishing authority to vet funding arrangements between Alberta researchers and the federal government, Smith is subordinating bedrock principles of academic freedom to whatever her government happens to mean by “provincial priorities.” But the Premier doesn’t see things that way. In an interview on CBC’s Power and Politics, where she was asked about the appearance of political interference, Smith said, “Well, look, I want to have a review,” and expressed a willingness to use provincial funds to ensure that a “broad range of research and opinion is taking place at universities.” In Smith’s view, the federal government only funds “certain types of opinion, certain types of researchers.” Bill 18 would actually augment academic freedom by democratizing research funding and by adding “balance” to universities, or so the thinking goes.

Where did Smith get the idea that research funding only flows to (dubiously imprecise) “certain types”? Pressed on the issue, and informed that tri-agency federal funding is based on a public, peer-reviewed application process, Smith replied that, “I have heard enough from some of our academics about how difficult it can be to access some of that funding.” Smith is concerned that federal research funding is biased toward certain kinds of scholarship and opinion because she has been talking to “some of our academics.” This raises the question of with whom, exactly, Smith has been conversing.

Smith does not say exactly who, in academia, has been shaping her perceptions, but informed speculation is possible. As it happens, Smith’s time at the University of Calgary is well-known, and indeed while studying in Calgary she made lasting academic connections. Among those connections, likely none has been more enduring or consequential than Smith’s relationship with political scientist Tom Flanagan, and more broadly with the Calgary School of which he was a key “member.” Smith and Flanagan have known each other for about 30 years, working together first as student and professor at Calgary, and then later as candidate and campaign manager during Smith’s stint as leader of the Alberta Wildrose Party.[3] As a 2023 profile in Maclean’s has it, Smith “soaked up the School’s philosophies, adopting them as foundational pieces of her own political persona.” The claim about Smith soaking up the ideology of the Calgary School is fuzzy, but it can be substantiated.

In the case of Bill 18, Smith appears to be carrying out an agenda with recognizable precedent in the Calgary School’s output. Flanagan’s past statements on academic freedom and the state of federal research funding, for example, rhyme with Smith’s. In Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, published in 2014 shortly after a swirl of controversy over remarks that he made about punishments for child pornography, Flanagan lamented “that academic freedom is less securely protected in Canada than we might like to think.”[4] How so? Flanagan’s beef with the University of Calgary in this instance was elaborated at great length, but arguably his key point was that politics had been permitted to take precedence over principle in the university system, as universities increasingly took institutional positions on matters that ought to have been subject to debate. “Today, unless a Canadian university wants to lose all federal research money, it has to endorse policies of employment equity for women, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, and people with disabilities,” he wrote.[5] The principle of academic freedom in this framing is subordinate both to academic politics and to federal political authority.

Here, then, are the two keys to this view of academic freedom, and the two keys to understanding how the Calgary School set the precedent for Smith’s present legislating. On the one hand, left-wing political views are seen as orthodoxies in universities, and such views are taken to be fundamentally flawed. When Flanagan mentions something like policies of employment equity for particular groups, he is referring to a mode of policymaking that Calgary Schoolers like he, Rainer Knopff, and Ted Morton lambasted for decades. Such policies amount to exercises in “social engineering,” which are seen to be based on a misguided belief that social ills can always be addressed by intentional structural changes.[6]

The federal government, especially when helmed by Liberals, is then viewed by Calgary Schoolers as a kind of paradigmatic social engineering state. For example, in explanation of the crisis in the Canadian Army after servicemembers brutally murdered a Somali teenager named Shidane Arone in 1993, Calgary Schooler David Bercuson blamed an over-active government. The “Old” Army “passed away,” in Berucson’s phrasing, thanks to “postwar prosperity, immigration, education, upward mobility, [and] the feminist revolution,” which collectively led to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian welfare state, and like structural changes. These changes were not necessarily for the worse, in Bercuson’s opinion, but they were overly engineered: “the changes that took place in the Canadian Forces were also due to the deliberate action of government,” specifically “[Lester] Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and a generation of bureaucrats.” The army became a laboratory for these “social experiments.”[7] When governments act intentionally, especially seeking particular outcomes, alarm bells ring in the heads of Calgary Schoolers and those they have influenced.

In such a worldview, the Canadian university system is beholden to both misguided left-wing orthodoxies and to federal authority that, with exceptions, has been all-too-receptive to such orthodoxies for more than 50 years. It is important to note here that, with regard to the germane matter of research funding, this perception is wrong. A review published in The Conversation indicates that money does not flow disproportionately to research that is associated with liberal or left-wing agendas. But in any case, the opportunity for Smith is too good to miss. Mere perception, accurate or not, is plenty to launch this attack against longstanding foes.

Bill 18 is thus clearly political rather than principled legislation, especially in terms of its effects in the academic sector. Principles like academic freedom are important, but we have to allow that precisely because of their importance they can also function as devices for smuggling politics in under the guise of principle. Here, it is all-too-clear: Smith’s solution to a perceived problem of political interference is to announce a policy of explicit political interference, but with different interferers.

Bill 18, that is, represents a move on the part of an emboldened right-wing in Alberta to put a thumb on its own side of the academic scale, in accordance with views developed over decades previous by the likes of the Calgary School. Perhaps Smith and the UCP are hoping, as the defenders of balance, to funnel more cash towards counter-consensus research on important provincial issues like climate change. Indeed, it is worth noting that in 2008 The Globe & Mail reported that another Calgary Schooler, Barry Cooper, used his own control of research funds to direct money to the Friends of Science and their efforts at discrediting the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change.[8] Bill 18 might be seen as a massive scaling up of such a dynamic.

It is anticipated that Bill 18 will come into effect in early 2025. At that time, “provincial priorities” will be about what they are now. But by acknowledging that the bill represents a self-serving political act on the part of the UCP, rather than a principled stand on behalf of academic freedom or free inquiry, we confront the legislation for what it is and make room for a commensurate counter-politics.

Mack Penner is a PhD candidate at McMaster University, where he is working on a history of the Calgary School. He teaches at the University of Lethbridge.


[1] Smith’s UCP leadership campaign in 2022 and subsequent election campaign in 2023 both revolved around what became the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act which, constitutionally dubious as it may be, allows the Alberta government to reject federal authority.

[2] In Alberta, professional fight is already a major concern as, for example, an exodus of doctors and other healthcare practitioners has left the provincial healthcare system in tatters.

[3] Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014), 33-34.

[4] Flanagan, Persona Non Grata, 132.

[5] Flanagan, Persona Non Grata, 139-140.

[6] On the supposed ills of social engineering see, for example, F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopff, The Charter Revolution and the Court Party (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000), especially pp. 74-77. For a related critique see Rainer Knopff with Tom Flanagan, Human Rights & Social Technology: The New War on Discrimination (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1990).

[7] David Bercuson, Significant Incident: Canada’s Army, the Airborne, and the Murder in Somalia (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996), 68. Bercuson has also, notably, directly concerned himself with Canadian university culture. With collaborators Robert Bothwell and Jack Granatstein, who may be well-known to Active History readers, he co-published The Great Brain Robbery: Canada’s Universities on the Road to Ruin (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984) and later Petrified Campus: The Crisis in Canada’s Universities (Toronto: Random House, 1997).

[8] This debate is frequently had with numbers, with declarations that “99.9% of scientists agree,” or “97% of scientists agree,” and so on. Right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute, long home to the likes of Flanagan, frequently dispute those kinds of numbers by cleverly, and perhaps disingenuously, picking apart the methods by which they are arrived at. In lieu of numbers, it is helpful that NASA provides a list of statements from scientific organizations all over the world on the realities of anthropogenic climate change.

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