Concordia students launch petition condemning film professor's use of N-word in class

The professor was speaking about a 1968 book by Quebec journalist Pierre Vallières that includes the N-word.

Prof. Catherine Russell has apologized for using the word during a class in Fall 2019

In a statement, Concordia University said the Faculty of Fine Arts will organize trainings on inclusive classrooms. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

A group of Concordia Film Studies students is circulating an online petition condemning the actions of Prof. Catherine Russell, who used the N-word on two occasions during a class in the fall of 2019.

Rose Stiffarm is a Master's student in the film program and was in Russell's class when the offensive word was used.

She said Russell was speaking about a 1968 book by Quebec journalist Pierre Vallières that includes the N-word in the title.

"What happened was unacceptable and uncomfortable," said Stiffarm, who is Indigenous.

Rose Stiffarm is an Indigenous woman and a Master's student in the film program at Concordia. (Submitted by Rose Stiffarm )

On July 31, Russell issued a written apology to all students in the mandatory, year-long class.

"First of all, I am deeply sorry for having upset you and your classmates so profoundly. I have to admit that I was unaware of the implications of using the N-word, even in the context of historical work," wrote Russell.

"As a white teacher, I am very much in a position of privilege and power and I clearly need to do better for all students to feel more respected in the class room, and especially for BIPOC students to feel that they are in a safe space."

Despite the apology, some students started sharing the petition this week, saying that the issue needs to be tackled on a larger level.

"There must be a concerted effort to refuse any and all framing of Professor Russell's infraction as an isolated, one-off incident, for it is precisely through such masking that systemic racism operates," reads the text of the petition, which began circulating this week.

Students also filed an official complaint with the university.

Stiffarm is among 200 who signed the petition calling for Russell to no longer teach that film studies course in the upcoming semester. 

Students also want changes at the university level, such as mandatory diversity training for all of the program's professors and teaching assistants.

In a statement, Concordia said the Faculty of Fine Arts will organize training sessions on inclusive classrooms.

Vannina Maestracci, a spokesperson for the university, told CBC in an email that they "take such matters very seriously and encourage all members of our community to speak out about racism and report such incidents. There is no place for racism at Concordia University."

Maestracci said departments in the faculty are looking at their curriculum "to make it more diverse and inclusive."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio