11/21/2017 15:11 EST | Updated 11/21/2017 15:22 EST

Andrew Scheer Calls Wilfrid Laurier University Controversy 'Egregious'

He argued in the Tory leadership race free speech was "under attack" on campuses.

Justin Tang/CP
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 20, 2017.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the academic freedom controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University is "precisely" why he proposed during the Tory leadership campaign to withhold federal funds from universities that restrict free speech.

But in an interview with The Andrew Lawton Show on 980 CFPL in London, Ont. Tuesday, Scheer suggested he wouldn't intervene in the Laurier case if he were prime minister.

Lawton referenced how Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd was recently "censored" for showing students a clip of a debate on gender-neutral pronouns that aired on TVOntario and featured controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who refuses to use pronouns other than "he" or "she."

The reason why I proposed this idea in the leadership campaign is precisely for the types of things that are happening on campus and specifically what happened to Lindsay Shepherd.Andrew Scheer

Shepherd surreptitiously recorded a meeting with other faculty where she says she was criticized for not condemning Peterson's views and creating a "toxic" learning environment.

In clips released to Global News and the National Post, Shepherd can be heard arguing that universities should be places where all opinions are up for debate. She is told by a superior that her neutral approach to Peterson was comparable to being neutral about views espoused by Adolf Hitler.

Laurier President Deborah MacLatchy has since released a statement apologizing to Shepherd.

Scheer argued during the Tory leadership race that free speech was "under attack" on university campuses, with certain topics and speakers deemed out of bounds. He pledged that, if elected prime minister, he would withhold federal grants from institutions that do not foster an environment of open expression and inquiry.

Lawton asked Scheer if the Laurier case might fit the bill.

"The reason why I proposed this idea in the leadership campaign is precisely for the types of things that are happening on campus and specifically what happened to Lindsay Shepherd, as you mentioned, a grad student who had the audacity to show her students both sides of a debate on a current issue, on something that was before Parliament just recently," he said.

Listen to a clip from Lawton's show:

The Tory leader was referring to the debate around Bill C-16, Liberal legislation that passed Parliament in the summer. It amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. Scheer voted against the bill.

"To think that we've got to the state in Canada where a university would have an inquisition on a young grad student and make comparisons to Hitler, to bully her, to tell her that she's committed acts of violence by showing a clip from a public broadcast on a public broadcaster is ridiculous," he said.

Though he called the situation "egregious" and a "sad state of affairs," Scheer would not say it was a circumstance where federal funding should be pulled.

The Tory leader told Lawton he aims to meet with university officials and administrators so that he can put forward an "objective set of criteria" for how universities should protect free speech. The federal government should prioritize funding for schools with a framework to protect free expression, he said.

Scheer said he wants to prevent similar controversies on university campuses in the future. He compared it to how Liberals are prioritizing funding to universities that achieve diversity targets.

Mere minutes after winning the Tory leadership last May, Scheer's campaign team took down the policy planks on his website. In a section titled "No free speech on campus means no federal grants," Scheer promised:

As Prime Minister, I will ensure that public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus will not receive federal funding. The federal government provides research grants via CIHR, SSHRC, NSERC, Canada Research Chairs among other funding mechanisms. In order to be eligible to apply for grants, public universities must pledge to uphold the widest possible free speech rights on their campuses and their record of fostering free and open speech on campuses will be considered as a factor for eligibility as well. A public post-secondary institution that doesn't support freedom of expression and inquiry will likewise not have financial support from the federal government.

Watch: Scheer abruptly ends press conference