Student, mom push for change after London, Ont., elementary teacher uses N-word in class

A London, Ont., elementary student and her mother are calling for change after a teacher uttered the N-word in a Grade 8 English class during a discussion about the novel And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.

Catholic board superintendent says teacher didn't break specific rule but shouldn't have used word

Amber Williams, left, and her daughter Amiya Harrison say the novel And Then There were None should no longer be taught in school. Amiya, 13, says students at her London, Ont., elementary were visibly upset by the language used by an English teacher. (Submitted by Amber Williams)

A London, Ont., elementary student and her mother are calling for change after a teacher uttered the N-word in a Grade 8 English class during a discussion about the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None

The incident happened on Oct. 27 as the teacher at St. Kateri Catholic Elementary School spoke about the murder mystery, which was published in 1939. 

Amiya Harrison, 13, said the teacher was introducing the book and started by warning them that it used language no longer acceptable today. Harrison identifies as Black and is of Caribbean descent.

"[The teacher] said later on in the book there's going to be a word and she said the N-word, but she said the actual word," said Amiya. "I was upset that she would just say that word casually, so I didn't really say anything because I was in shock."

Amiya also said other students were visibly upset when the word was spoken.

Her mother, Amber Williams, complained to the school and raised her concerns with St. Kateri principal Tara Lopes. 

"My daughter is at home missing school right now because she's so uncomfortable about this," said Williams.

Lopes addressed the incident in an email  to parents last week in what she said was an attempt to provide "context and clarification." 

CBC has decided not to use the teacher's name because she acknowledged she should not have used the word, and it's uncertain if she'll face discipline.

In her note, Lopes admitted some of the language in the novel is "offensive and racist," and said the teacher's intention was to "have a frank discussion with her students surrounding the impact of words and how language changes with the times." 

'This is a horrible word'

The principal's letter goes on to quote the teacher: "This is a horrible word, but unfortunately when this book was written, this word was often used in society. Thank goodness we have learned and grown, and recognize that this word is no longer acceptable."

Ana Paula Fernandes, a superintendent with the London District Catholic School Board, said although the teacher didn't break any specific rule, she should not have uttered the word. 

"'[The teacher] immediately realized that when she referenced the word, that she should not have stated the word as it appears in the novel," said Fernandes, who wouldn't say whether the teacher will be disciplined. "Within society, we know that what may have been acceptable at one time may no longer be acceptable." 

Fernandes said the school has made its own decision to stop using the book for its novel study, and its place in the Catholic board's curriculum is being reviewed.

Williams said an education assistant in the classroom told students not to speak about the discussion of the novel outside the classroom or mention it to their parents.

Fernandes said she's not aware of any such order.

"At all of our schools, we welcome the voice of our students along with the voice of our parents and community." 

The novel was originally published with the title 10 Little [N-word plural]. The title refers to a children's rhyming song in which characters die one by one with each new verse. The structure of the rhyme is mimicked in the novel, in which characters who arrive on an isolated island are murdered one by one.

The novel's title was changed in the 1960s to 10 Little Indians to reflect another version of the children's rhyme. That title — deemed offensive to Indigenous people — was changed in the 1980s to reflect the last line in the rhyme: "And then there were none." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.