Canadian offshoot of U.S. libertarian campus group says it provides needed counterpoint to liberal bias

Canadian offshoot of U.S. libertarian campus group says it provides needed counterpoint to liberal bias

Some U.S. academics are warning their Canadian counterparts to be wary of a U.S. libertarian group that has recently set up a chapter on the campus of Simon Fraser University, but its proponents say it provides a much-needed counterpoint to the increasingly liberal bias of academia.

Turning Point USA describes itself as a "student movement for free markets and limited government" whose mission it is to educate students through "non-partisan debate, dialogue, and discussion."

But it has courted controversy in the U.S. on account of some of its tactics. These include disseminating a "professor watch list" of university teachers whom the group considers to be spreading "leftist propaganda" in the classroom; staging provocative stunts mocking campus "safe spaces" and free speech zones; and hosting polarizing figures of the far right, such as Milo Yiannopoulos.

"They will videotape you. They will perhaps have people in your classroom to take a class to ask certain questions, to get a video clip that they can send to ... their own news website," said Matthew Boedy, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia.

Boedy first heard about the group after he wound up on its watch list, which was launched in November 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Boedy's name made it on the list after he expressed concerns about legislation that would allow university students to carry guns on campus.

"I'd say to fellow professors be aware of how they operate. They're provocative," he said.

Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found herself on the watch list after she wrote a paper suggesting economics textbooks needed to provide more examples of women in the field if they wanted to attract more female students.

"This is not a controversial thing," Stevenson said of her suggestion.

She said she was surprised to find herself on the list given that she sees herself as someone who has tried to ensure conservative students have a voice on campus and helped foster relationships with conservative think tanks.

"There's obviously a lesson for Canada to pay attention to, which is that the U.S. has become a very divisive place," she said. "These styles of political activism where you sort of use the other side as an enemy are not good for political discourse." 

Turning Point Canada distances itself from U.S. group

Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, who was 24 at the time and became the face of the young conservative movement, writing op-eds for publications such as Breitbart and The Washington Times and appearing on panels on Fox News, CNBC and other media.

Kirk has been praised by U.S. President Donald Trump and has said in interviews that he counts Donald Trump Jr., who has spoken at Turning Point USA events, as a friend. 

"Charlie Kirk is a great warrior," Trump Sr. is quoted as saying in promotional material on the group's website.

Those who started the Canadian offshoot say it takes no cues from its American counterpart.

"They have not told us what do. They just kind of let us do as we please," said Wayd Miller, the national chair and co-founder of the Canadian group.

"Obviously, [Canada is] a different political environment."

Miller said Turning Point Canada receives no money from its U.S. counterpart and is entirely self-funded.

For now, Turning Point Canada is registered as a club at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., but Miller said the group has plans to expand to several Ontario campuses in the fall, including McMaster University in Hamilton and Ryerson University in Toronto.

Miller said Canadian universities are veering too much to the left, and there is a need for a group that champions libertarian and conservative principles.

"Millennials seem to be increasingly more liberal, so this is just about offering an alternative view," he said.

"Our professors and so on are increasingly majority liberal and maybe even further left than the Liberal Party of Canada."

Miller said his organization would not consider publishing a professor watch list and that he is not personally a fan of Yiannopoulos.

"It was a brand that had already been made as a conservative libertarian organization," Miller said of Turning Point.

"It's a lot easier to bring a brand that's already established rather than establish your own from the start."

Co-founder of Canadian chapter now works for Tories

Miller said each campus chapter of Turning Point Canada will be free to do as it pleases.

The Simon Fraser chapter was approved as a student club in December 2017. Its mandate is similar to that found on the website of Turning Point USA: "to educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets and capitalism through innovative campus reform activism and non-partisan, thought-provoking discussion."

"I would like to give them a chance to form and be self-determining," said Martin Wyant, CEO of the university's Student Society.

Though aware of the larger U.S. organization's controversial history, he said satellite special interest or advocacy groups often "end up being quite different in practice than some of the groups that they're tied to."

"We don't want to encourage any group if it's going to be leading to hate speech or espousing violence," he said.

None of Turning Point Canada's social media activity he's seen so far suggests that, Wyant said. 

Turning Point Canada appears to have a tangential connection to the federal Conservative Party by way of one of its co-founders, Charlie Beldman, who currently works as a member's assistant at the Ottawa office of Tory Leader Andrew Scheer.

Beldman told CBC News he no longer works with Turning Point Canada and can't comment on the group's activity, but his Twitter feed still identifies him as the group's co-founder and consists largely of retweets of content from Turning Point Canada and Turning Point USA's accounts.

Reached at Scheer's office, Beldman said any questions about the group should be addressed to its social media channels.

When asked about Beldman's involvement, Miller said, "Charlie hasn't had anything to do with us since he started his job with the Conservatives [last summer]."

U.S. group's donations

Turning Point USA operates as a non-profit charity barred from certain types of political activity although it has been accused of violating that restriction and helping campaign for Republican candidates. It has reportedly also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support conservative candidates in student government elections.

It does not have to reveal the names of its donors and would not discuss its funding when reached by the CBC.

But the investigative news organization Pro-Publica has reported that it received $4.3 million US in grants and contributions in the fiscal year ending June 2016, more than double the amount it received the previous year and significantly more than the almost $79,000 it got in the 2012 fiscal year, the group's first year of operation, based on IRS returns examined by ProPublica.

"[There are] a couple of big guys that like to give lots of money," said John Chachas, 53, a New York investment banker who said he has given the group tens of thousands of dollars over the last few years because he believes in the spread of conservative ideas on campuses.

But Chachas also said most of Turning Point U.S.A's cash comes from the group's "impressive" ability to raise much smaller donations.

Faculty association says it won't tolerate watch lists

The president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents more than 68,000 faculty in higher education across the country, said the arrival of Turning Point in Canada caught his attention primarily because of the professor watch list in the U.S.

James Compton said he hopes Turning Point Canada will stick to its word and not engage in such tactics here.

"That's an attack on academic freedom," he said of the watch list. "And if that were to occur in Canada, we would step up forcefully.

"We don't have a problem with controversial speakers. Universities are places where that should be allowed to happen. That's how the academy grows, with vigorous debate."