Earlier today, education theorist William “Bill” Ayers delivered a pre-recorded keynote lecture to the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. While it’s only about an hour-long flight from Ayers’ home city of Chicago to Toronto, where the conference is being held, his lawyers advised him not to bother attempting the trip. He has already been denied entry to Canada on two separate occasions — first in Calgary in 2005, then again in Toronto in 2009 — and his legal advisors determined that he’d be turned back again should he try to re-enter.
Although the American-born professor is a world-renowned expert in teaching, curriculum planning, and education reform, his career trajectory is notably different from those of his peers. Before taking on graduate studies, Ayers was a co-founder of the Weather Underground, the 1970s activist network that planted small homemade explosives at government sites including the US Capitol and the Pentagon. After re-emerging into mainstream life, Ayers became a distinguished professor and senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He retired in 2010.) While he feels uneasy about such pompous titles, he outright rejects the other label by which he is sometimes identified.
“I still find it annoying that ordinary, intelligent people make me justify the fact that I’m not a terrorist,” Ayers tells me, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighbourhood. Nobody was ever killed by a Weather Underground operation — the group phoned in bomb threats prior to each attack, leaving enough time for an evacuation — and Ayers insists that the destruction of public property shouldn’t be equated with terror. He was nevertheless targeted by a hostile media campaign in 2008, as the American right exploited his connections to fellow Hyde Park resident Barack Obama. The media blitz reignited Ayers’ notoriety: he still finds himself explaining to student protesters at campus speaking engagements that he is not a murderer.
It’s debatable as to whether Ayers is even a felon. The FBI breached numerous due-process regulations when investigating the Weather Underground, to the point that it was unable to secure any serious convictions against him. “I do have an arrest record, but it’s minor stuff,” he says. “I don’t even have a drug arrest, which is something that everybody my age should have.”
But Ayers wasn’t coming to Canada to speak about his police record: he was coming to discuss education. As the author of The Good Preschool Teacher, Teaching Toward Freedom, and the recent graphic novel To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, Ayers champions a participatory, accessible educational model. He believes in fostering classroom environments in which students are empowered to challenge their teachers, and teachers are encouraged to constantly re-evaluate their curricula in order to pursue unfamiliar ideas. For Ayers, to be an educator is to be in a constant state of doubt. “The greatest problem we face is the end of thought,” he says. “Dogma and ideology are enemies of thought.”
During the lead up to the 2008 election, Ayers, who, in years past, had interacted Obama at various charitable board meetings and community development initiatives, was labeled a “friend,” “associate,” and “mentor” of the Democrats’ heir presumptive — accusations that were probably as damaging to Obama’s nice-guy image as they were to Ayers’ radical credentials.
Ayers’ proponents argue that the difficulties he faces at the Canadian border are linked to the resurgence of negative publicity he received in the States. For Carleton film studies professor Mark Langer, who helped organize the Worldviews conference, the current situation shows that Canadian Border Services Agency has bought into American right-wing rhetoric. “We shouldn’t have [people like] Sarah Palin dictating our foreign policy,” he says. “Ayers is associated with the left in the US, he’s associated with Obama, and suddenly he can’t come into Canada. It doesn’t make sense.”
Ayers himself is hesitant to offer grandiose explanations as to why he’s inadmissible. “Some guy at some border crossing got it in his mind that they should stop me. And it had this cascading effect,” he says. “I don’t think that it’s some kind of conspiracy.”
He’s probably right. There’s no reason to assume that a shadowy government cabal has closed ranks against him. Border Services places a great deal of discretionary power in the hands of its front-line agents, and once border officials take a position against an applicant on account of a criminal record or dubious Google search results, it can be very difficult to revoke their decision. (That is, unless you happen to be Martha Stewart; in 2005, despite felony convictions related to insider trading, she was swiftly admitted to Canada after immigration officials intervened on her behalf.)
In all likelihood, Ayers is dealing with: (1) a security apparatus that is unreceptive to nuance when questions of alleged terrorism are involved, and (2) a federal government that is uninterested in defending a foreign, left-wing intellectual. But, in this instance, heavy-handed border security and indifferent government officials are stifling free debate.
Ayers has been welcomed at mainstream academic institutions across the United States and Europe, been named Citizen of the Year by the city of Chicago, and even won praise from the prosecutor who attempted to secure convictions against him. He is no longer the renegade living in safe houses while subsisting on sourdough bread and the poetry of Ho Chi Minh. American authorities don’t treat this sixty-six-year-old academic as a security threat, and it seems flatly absurd that the CBSA would disagree.
But Canadian officials don’t have to prove a watertight case in order to ban a non-Canadian from entering the country. “The mere suspicion of any links to terrorist groups is grounds for exclusion,” explains Queen’s law professor Sharry Aiken. “The ultimate irony is that [under current law] somebody like Nelson Mandela would be precluded because of his prior involvement in the ANC.”