Quebec's heated debate over professor's suspension overlooked Black voices, students say

Students CBC spoke with say the public discourse missed the mark.

Conversations about the use of a slur by a uOttawa teacher were dominated by white politicians and columnists

Elijah Olise, a member of the Montreal-based Racial Justice Collective, says Premier François Legault's reaction to the University of Ottawa controversy was revealing. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

The suspension of a University of Ottawa teacher after she used a slur in her class caused an uproar in Quebec media and politics. 

Multiple editorials in every major newspaper in the province — most written by white journalists — came to the defence of the white teacher. The premier weighed in, too, comparing the social media outrage over the teacher to "censorship police."

But students CBC spoke with say the public discourse missed the mark. Here is their perspective.

'What I see is a literal perpetuation of systemic racism'

Edynne Grand-Pierre, who is studying law and international development in French at the University of Ottawa, says she turned on the TV to find four white journalists discussing the n-word. (Submitted by Edynne Grand-Pierre)

Edynne Grand-Pierre, 21, says Premier François Legault's defence of a professor who said a word so well-known for the hatred, pain and grief it's associated with, was, in itself, hurtful.

"What I see is a literal perpetuation of systemic racism. Again, people who are white and in positions of power, who are telling Black people how they should feel and how they should react," said Grand-Pierre, who is in her third-year at University of Ottawa, studying civil law and international development.

Grand-Pierre grew up in Montreal and has returned home to conduct her studies online during the pandemic. She recalled turning her TV on to a news channel this week to see four white journalists discussing the controversy in a panel.

"We're not inviting the people who are directly affected by this term to be part of the discussion," she said. "Black people have to suffer this word, whereas white people can write it, say it, explain it, without ever having to suffer from it."

She doesn't believe the teacher meant any harm by what she did, but she is disappointed the conversation in Quebec didn't acknowledge the distress the word can cause, even uttered outside of an insult.

A way forward

Alexandra Mayard, an UQAM law student, says the discussion in Quebec could have the effect of educating people about the word's harm. (Submitted by Alexandra Mayard)

As frustrating as some of it has been to hear and read, the discussion could help educate non-Black Quebecers about "the heaviness this word is tied to," said Alexandra Mayard, 30,

Mayard is a third-year law student at Université du Québec à Montréal and has been volunteering and interning at legal clinics in northeastern Montreal. 

Mayard says she wasn't offended by the way the University of Ottawa professor is reported to have used the word, but, like Grand-Pierre, says there was a lack of Black voices in Quebec media to show the diversity of feelings and opinions. 

She believes the teacher's proposal of a class discussion may have reflected a power imbalance. 

"We know that this word is pejorative. It's an insult. So, why have a conversation about whether we can use it or not?" Mayard said.

"It's not up to [the student] to educate the teacher about this word."

A telling reaction from the premier

"I have my own relationship with academia, especially with how I am perceived as a Black male and how people respect my opinion and value what I think," Elijah Olise, 24, said.

"How they believe my existence is political and that they can just talk about it and argue about it, and debate it. Like: 'Hey, should we say the n-word?' Like, what? No.'"

Olise, a part-time student at Concordia University and an actor, is part of the Racial Justice Collective and works for Pivot 2020, a youth-led organization gathering data on populations in Canadian cities.

He believes Legault's decision to react publicly, condemning the University of Ottawa's suspension of the teacher, says a lot about how the premier feels about the word itself.

"He's telling on himself. His stance and his opinions kind of show what his inner feelings are about the usage of the word."

'The word itself is hate'

Josiane N'tchoreret-Mbiamany, a communications student at the University of Ottawa, says students have a right to feel uncomfortable and fight back. (Submitted by Josiane N'tchoreret-Mbiamany)

Josiane N'tchoreret-Mbiamany, a second-year communications student at the University of Ottawa, says no matter the context, the word will never be divorced from hate.

"The academic context and the use of the freedom-of-speech argument is really, I believe, incorrect. Of course, freedom of speech is your right to share your opinion, but that doesn't mean that you are free from any subsequent consequence of said speech," says N'tchoreret-Mbiamany.

"There is a right for students who feel uncomfortable to fight back, to have these conversations. The excuse that the woman wasn't using it in a hateful way or as an insult — the word itself is hate. It's a hateful word."

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.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With a file from Daybreak Montreal