By Linda Diebel
Toronto Star | March 16, 2011
A Canadian political scientist, whose peace proposals won national and international awards, believes his criticism of the Harper government was the final straw that led the conservative-minded University of Western Ontario to drop his courses and land him on a blacklist.
Peter Langille, 54, hasn’t been able to find full-time work in three years. A passionate peace scholar once hailed by Sir Brian Urquhart, a United Nations founder, Langille now works part-time in Toronto teaching post-grad military students about war.
“Ten years ago I had some faith that this system would employ and reward on the basis of merit and service,” Langille said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “I learned I was dead wrong. And lately, I’ve realized that the Harper regime will be very punitive toward those who challenge or attempt constructive criticism.”
Langille is the fourth academic in recent months to recount experience with a political chill at Canadian universities under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Harper’s spokesman has denied any involvement in other instances of so-called “academic chill.”
University of Ottawa professors Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, seen as Liberal voices by Conservatives, reported being the subjects of massive freedom-of-information requests, which they describe as “witch hunts.” Heather MacIvor, a University of Windsor political scientist, says she was increasingly portrayed as “an enemy of the party” because of her criticism of the Harper government.
In an interview, Don Abelson, political science chair during Langille’s last years, said “it is complete nonsense if Peter Langille thinks I am conservative and he is liberal left-of-centre and I was somehow responsible for orchestrating his dismissal.” Added Abelson: “I’d love for that to hold up in court ... This is just an absolute joke.”
Langille, an outspoken professor with a PhD in peace studies, had problems with Canada’s defence establishment long before Western hired him in 1997. In 2005, he was the lone academic to testify before a parliamentary committee about soaring cost overruns and equipment problems with four Upholder-class submarines the Canadian Forces purchased from the Royal Navy. Moreover, he told the committee that military and strategic studies programs at universities are “deliberately structured to establish a supportive academic constituency.”
At Western, he says he ran afoul of a mindset in senior levels of the political science department that cringed over his criticism of government-supported defence programs and, ultimately, the Harper team over its failure to send Canadian peacekeepers to genocide-ravaged Darfur. His final course was dropped from the curriculum even as he completed a prestigious post-doctorate fellowship in 2006-07 and served as a poster boy for Western as a featured speaker at global conferences.
Brian Timney, dean of the university’s social science faculty, told the Star that Langille was dropped due to budget problems and low enrollment. Langille insists his classes were always full. Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas ignored requests for comment on Langille’s allegation that PMO politics over Darfur played a negative role in his career at Western.
The university denies politics were involved and insists Langille wasn’t fired. Since he wasn’t a tenure track professor (despite nine years of trying) or even full-time, the school says he simply wasn’t assigned classes. Langille says the political chill has knocked him into relative obscurity. His voice is no longer as effective in analyzing weapons procurement programs, including the controversy over billions Ottawa plans to spend for F-35 fighter jets from the U.S.
In the spring of 2006, Langille urged Harper to authorize Canadian peacekeepers to take a lead role in stopping the genocide in Darfur by participating in a special fast-action brigade. It was set up under the United Nations and known by its acronym, SHIRBRIG. At that time, the death toll in the civil war in western Sudan had reached tens of thousands and was being called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Retired Canadian Brig.-Gen. Greg Mitchell, then in charge of SHIRBRIG, also supported the idea of deployment to Darfur, although he presented his case to his military superiors in Ottawa, rather than the PMO.
Langille says he was asked to approach the PMO by a civil servant close to SHIRBRIG, who knew he had taught at Western with fellow political scientist Ian Brodie, by then Harper’s chief-of-staff. He says he emailed Brodie April 27, 2006 about Darfur — subject line: “a ‘win-win’ option for Canada to lead on stopping genocide in Darfur” — in the hope the PM might sway the key contributors to the peace brigade. Canada was among 15 member “middle power” nations, which did not include the United States.
Contacted by the Star, Brodie said he never spoke to Langille about Darfur. “This is the first I’ve heard of any of this,” he said from Washington, where he works for the consulting firm Hill & Knowlton. “I was not aware that Peter had any views on Darfur ... I’d like to guess that in my time in the PMO, I think I probably spent less than two minutes on the issue of Darfur.”
However, in an email also dated Apr. 27, 2006, Brodie responds to Langille:
“Thanks Peter. I’m in D.C. right now for the lumber thing. I’ll read this in the morning when I get back home. I’m having a blast of course. Ams (Americans) unlikely to ask us for troops. We can’t send troops unless we draw down faster in Kandahar. That’s a possibility, but with the demand for troops to be back home for the Olympics, we will be drawing down anyway. But let’s see what I can sniff out.”
On May 10, 2006, Brodie sent Langille another email that said it still wasn’t “entirely clear to me what this is intended to accomplish,” and raised problems with getting involved in Darfur. Brodie wrote: “The Americans seem unclear even on what the possible outcomes are.”
Contacted about the emails March 15, Brodie wrote the Star: “I don’t recall anything about it at all.”
Langille has had powerful admirers.
“I believe Mike Pearson would have warmly supported Peter Langille’s work and would have seen it as an important follow-up to his own pioneering efforts,” Urquhart wrote in a letter to the Pearson Peace Medal Jury for 2003. (Stephen Lewis won that year.)
Retired Brig.-Gen. Mitchell says he likes Langille’s ideas and has a positive view of his work. “I have a great deal of respect for him,” he said in an interview from Arizona.
Robin Collins, on the board of the Ottawa-based World Federalist Movement that concentrates on global governance issues, says Langille’s proposals for fast-action UN brigades are significant and desperately needed in a world bloodied by Darfur, Rwanda and Libya.
“His time is now,” said Collins. “I think he is a very credible person. He’s told me some of the things that have gone on and they make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I trust him completely ... He’s not a person to make things up.”
Former Liberal cabinet minister Warren Allmand, WFM national president in 2008, presented a peace award to Langille.
“These ideas have from time to time been less than fashionable in some academic and policy circles,” Allmand told the crowd. “But it’s important to persist in the service of a worthy cause, and Peter has certainly done that.”