A Prince George Citizen opinion article written by a group of UNBC faculty, which criticized the City of Prince George for removing belongings and shelters from an encampment on Lower Patricia Boulevard, prompted a backlash from the city, emails obtained by the Citizen through a freedom of information request show.
On Nov. 17, 2021, BC Housing relocated 10 people voluntarily from the encampment, named Moccasin Flats by residents, and the City of Prince George removed items and unoccupied shelters from the site. The removal of possessions and shelters raised concerns by advocates for the city’s homeless population, and was later ruled to be in violation of an October 2021 BC Supreme Court order to leave the encampment in place.
On the morning of Dec. 1, 2021, the Prince George Citizen published an op-ed article written by five UNBC faculty members and one masters student, which was critical of the city’s handling of the issue. In the op-ed, UNBC professors Tara Joly, Daniel Sims, Jonathan Alschech, Robert Budde and Heather Peters, and masters student Juls Budau, said the city violated the human rights of the residents of Moccasin Flats.
‘IT COMES ACROSS AS POLITICAL AND MISINFORMED'
That afternoon, UNBC communications officer Peter James sent an email to city communications manager Julie Rogers and the city’s former communication officer, to let them know UNBC intended to share the op-ed article on the university’s social media channels.
“Would you like us to correct any of the inaccuracies first? We would be happy to provide you with some facts,” Rogers replied in an email that afternoon. “As it is currently written, it comes across as political and uninformed. We are discussing whether we want to respond publicly or privately.”
In an email to UNBC director of communications and marketing Matt Wood, sent just after 5 p.m. on Dec. 1, Rogers provided a list of 10 statements in the op-ed that the city took issue with, and its version of events.
“Given the work the City is embarking on with Kathy Lewis, Acting Vice-President of Research at UNBC, in addressing homelessness and social issues, it is disappointing that the university would consider sharing this misinformation broadly,” Rogers wrote.
Wood responded 10 minutes later, to say that UNBC had no plans to share the op-ed.
The following morning, Wood followed up to ask if the city was reaching out to the authors directly, and asked Rogers if she was alright with him sharing her email with UNBC president Geoff Payne.
“I’d like to share this information with the President and the VPs so he has the rationale at hand for why we aren’t sharing the piece,” Wood wrote. “But it then may circulate to others, so don’t want to disseminate this without your approval/knowing your plans.”
Rogers responded that she intended to reach out to the authors that morning, but “we do not plan to do the statement vs fact scenario we gave you as it may seem confrontational.”
“Our CAO – Walter Babicz – also has a phone call with your president at 11 today,” Rogers added.
In an email to the Citizen, Wood said he consulted with Payne, before making the decision not to share the op-ed.
“City staff provided me with some concerns regarding the content of the op-ed, so I suggested that they reach out to the authors directly. I then consulted with the president and decided not to share the op-ed on social media,” Wood said. “It appears that a call (between Payne and Babicz) was scheduled, but we’re uncertain if it ever took place. I spoke with the president, he has no record of it in his calendar, and no action was taken by his office regarding this issue.”
A spokesperson for the city confirmed the phone conversation between Babicz and Payne did occur.
"The city manager recalls reaching out and having a brief conversation with the UNBC president as a check-in, as part of his role to try and maintain and foster good relationships with the City’s valued community partners such as UNBC," the spokesperson said in an email. "He recalls being advised that the op-ed was the exercise of academic freedom by the authors."
‘BASED ON SOCIAL MEDIA RUMOURS RATHER THAN FACTS’
On the afternoon of Dec. 2, Rogers emailed the op-ed authors with the city’s version of events and requested they correct the opinion piece to reflect that.
“We hope you will provide a correction in the Prince George Citizen and any other media you have shared your opinions with to ensure our citizens are provided with an accurate account of the situation,” Rogers wrote. “I would be happy to facilitate a meeting for you or answer any questions you may have.”
Alschech responded, saying he was interested in hearing from city staff and would see if the other authors would be willing to attend a meeting. Rogers replied, saying she would arrange a meeting time in January. The meeting did not occur, later emails revealed.
“It is disheartening to see criticisms in the paper that seem to be based on social media rumours rather than facts,” Rogers added. “We can do so much better for our community when we all pull together. There are so many people interested in the situation and I feel very strongly that if more of them took the time to learn and participate, our community will be much better off.”
On Dec. 3, Rogers submitted a rebuttal to the op-ed on behalf of the City of Prince George to the Citizen. Citizen editor-in-chief Neil Godbout opted not to publish the city's submission, as it primarily restated the city's position that had already been well covered in the Citizen's reporting.
"The Citizen has given ample coverage of the city's perspective and actions on this matter, either on its own or in conjunction with contrary views," Godbout wrote in a emailed response to Rogers. "In that light, I'm reluctant to offer commentary space to individuals representing an organization that has already provided its perspective and will continue to be offered that opportunity as warranted."
‘THE BC SUPREME COURT SUPPORTED OUR VIEW’
On March 24, 2022, after the City of Prince George issued a formal apology for its role in the Nov. 17 incident, op-ed co-author Sims reached out to Rogers to ask if the promised meeting had ever happened and asked for an apology from the city to the op-ed authors.
“Given that we were criticized online for our op-ed by the city and in some instances our supervisors contacted by some of your coworkers, would it be possible to get an official apology on those same platforms regarding our piece,” Sims wrote.
“I am also concerned about the fact someone from the city contacted our supervisors to try to get us in trouble,” Sims added in a subsequent email.
In her response, Rogers said city staff acted with respect and professionalism, and the apology was for “the unintended consequence of causing harm to some of our citizens.”
“The City stands behind the facts presented in the statement issued in November correcting the misinformation in your letter,” she added.
“I probably shouldn’t be poking the bear, but to be clear, reading through the BC Supreme Court ruling for the Johnny case it is clear the BC Supreme Court did not believe many of the things claimed in the statement issued in November either,” Sims responded in an email to Rogers and his fellow co-authors. “It doesn’t look like we’ll get an apology or an explanation for why someone contacted Jonathan’s chair, but at least we can take solace in knowing the BC Supreme Court supported our view.”
‘A WEAK COMMITMENT TO ACADEMIC FREEDOM’
In an email to the Citizen, Wood said to his knowledge there is no indication that the City of Prince George recommend any type of disciplinary action against the op-ed authors and, other than not sharing the article through the university’s usual social media channels, no other action was taken by UNBC regarding the op-ed or its authors.
The spokesperson for the City of Prince George did confirm that Rogers reached out to the UNBC communications team and the authors with concerns about the accuracy of the op-ed, but could not confirm or deny Sim's allegation that someone from the city contacted the authors' department chairs to complain about the article.
"As you know, the City has several hundred employees," the spokesperson said in an email. "As such, we are not able to confirm if any one of them contacted any of the various parties."
UNBC Faculty Association president, professor Jacqueline Holler, said the emails obtained by the Citizen “should concern everyone.”
“Based on the email communications quoted in the article, it appears that UNBC changed its plans to share the op-ed because of objections from City Hall. If so, UNBC demonstrated a weak commitment to academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas,” Holler said in an emailed statement.
Academic freedom means faculty should have the right to teach, conduct research and engage in public debate without interference, she said. The purpose of academic freedom is to foster a free and open discussion of even the most difficult subjects, so that human knowledge can be advanced.
“They can and should bring their expertise to bear on public debates without fear that they will be punished or censored by the university,” Holler said. “Some might say that deciding whether or not to put an article on a social media feed is far from censorship… But when a university changes its plans to avoid ruffling feathers, it is weakening its commitment to academic freedom.”
It’s not enough for UNBC to “simply to refrain from censorship,” Holler said.
“That is, to ensure a healthy society, the university must not only refrain from censoring faculty, but should actively promote free inquiry and the exchange of ideas. The university should be brave,” Holler said. “The UNBC-FA welcomes UNBC’s recommitment to its positive obligation to promote academic freedom not only on campus, but in its relations with community.”