Dozens of activist organizations from across Ottawa recently banded together in a failed bid to stop controversial right-wing psychologist and author Jordan Peterson from appearing at the Canadian Tire Centre as part of a speaking tour.
The Ottawa event took place on Jan. 30, with more dates scheduled across Canada and beyond. Peterson is on an international tour following the release of his latest book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
The University of Toronto emeritus professor, who no longer teaches at the school, has been widely criticized for sharing racist, homophobic and transphobic comments on Twitter and other platforms. He has also faced outrage for supporting the month-long Freedom Convoy occupation of Ottawa that took place in January and February 2022.
‘We wanted to show other marginalized folks in the city that we will not stand silent in the face of his rhetoric. When something like this happens, there is a responsibility for us to oppose figures like him who are spewing rhetoric like he does.’— Fae Johnstone, executive director, Wisdom2Action
Last year, Peterson was suspended from Twitter for a transphobic tweet that violated Twitter’s policy at the time. The tweet disparaged Canadian-born transgender actor Elliot Page. Peterson’s account has since been reinstated following tech billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Fae Johnstone was one of the organization leaders who spoke out against Peterson’s planned Ottawa appearance. The trans woman is an activist and the executive director of Wisdom2Action, an organization that focuses on 2SLGBTQ+ issues, gender-based violence and mental health.
After hearing about the event planned for Ottawa, Johnstone acted swiftly by crafting a letter urging organizers and the Canadian Tire Centre to cancel the event. The letter gathered the signatures from representatives of more than 30 Ottawa social justice and community organizations, including the Council of Canadians and the Centretown Community Health Centre.
“The ideas espoused by Peterson directly jeopardize the safety and well-being of marginalized communities, especially women and transgender people,” the letter stated. The event also coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Freedom Convoy occupation of Ottawa, and the letter stated that “equity-deserving communities” in the capital “experienced the traumatic events of the occupation of our city by the far-right.”
“We wanted to show other marginalized folks in the city that we will not stand silent in the face of his rhetoric,” said Johnstone. “When something like this happens, there is a responsibility for us to oppose figures like him who are spewing rhetoric like he does.”
Johnstone added: “I have definitely a bone to pick with him because he decided to make a career off of opposing the rights of a marginalized community that faces high rates of poverty, homelessness and violence.”
“It’s a little bit heartbreaking every time you see significant support for these kinds of ideas and thoughts within your own community. We love Ottawa and it’s kind of hard to watch that sentiment grow here,” she said.
“If we as a community are saying we don’t want to hear it, then I think we’re free to say that, as well. I don’t understand why free speech should end with people who are standing up for themselves,” she said.
On Jan. 20, Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, took to Twitter to voice his opinion in support of the Peterson appearance.
“Now, some in Ottawa want to cancel Jordan Peterson’s event in the nation’s capital. If they don’t like him, skip his event. If they don’t agree with him, debate him. But they can’t ban opinions they don’t like,” he wrote.
“This is freedom of expression, this is democracy — is making our opinions and perspectives known,” Fae Johnstone said.
Sam Hersh, a member of the board of directors at Horizon Ottawa — a municipal government watchdog and social justice advocacy group — also countered the free speech argument by pointing to Peterson’s record of hateful statements.
“I am obviously someone who believes in free speech, as are all the people who co-signed the letter,” Harsh said. “But there’s a point where there’s some hate speech, so if there’s speech that denies the existence of a particular group of people, that goes beyond that.”
Emma Uzoma is the research and policy lead at Project Agape and came across Johnstone’s tweet featuring the letter. Project Agape, an education and support group for Black survivors of gender-based violence, was one of the non-profit organizations that signed the letter.
Somerset Coun. Ariel Troster is city council’s Liaison for Women, Gender Equity and 2SLGBTQ+ Affairs and councillor representing the area south of Parliament Hill that was occupied last year by convoy supporters. On Jan. 27, Troster released a statement echoing the concerns expressed by organizations in their open letter.
‘It’s a little bit heartbreaking every time you see significant support for these kinds of ideas and thoughts within your own community. We love Ottawa and it’s kind of hard to watch that sentiment grow here.’— Emma Uzoma, research and policy lead, Project Agape
“Ottawa has seen a rise in hate against 2SLGBTQ+ people in recent years,” said Troster’s statement. “Jordan Peterson’s event undermines the work that the city and community organizations are doing to create stronger and more equitable communities.”
She detailed Peterson’s hateful speech and urged the cancellation of the event in support of 2SLQBTQ+ organizations and communities.
“It’s funny to sit back and watch as conservatives and far-right groups spin themselves into a crisis, and the fact that they did this themselves, and they got us more views and more traction, is just so funny to me at the end of the day,” Johnstone said.