Montreal·Analysis

In vow to protect campus free speech, Quebec premier joins 'war on woke'

Quebec's premier says he intends to move swiftly to protect free speech on university campuses. In doing so, he appears to be steering his government toward yet another divisive ideological debate.

Legault aligns himself with other conservative politicians around the world who've declared a similar mission

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Quebec Premier François Legault says 'a handful of radical activists ... are trying to censor certain words and works.' (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier François Legault has steered his government toward yet another divisive ideological debate by declaring his intention to move swiftly to protect campus free speech from anti-racism activists.

The contentious part of this debate is not the merits of academic freedom per se. It's widely accepted that scholars should be able to debate ideas without fear of repercussion from the powerful, or the popular.

Things turn controversial when it comes to identifying what, exactly, is threatening this ideal.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Legault said the problem in Quebec is with "a handful of radical activists who are trying to censor certain words and works."

He was referring to recent cases at universities in Montreal and Ottawa where students objected to teachers using the N-word in class.

In the University of Ottawa case, a lecturer was briefly suspended this fall after using the word while attempting to illustrate how some groups have reclaimed the slurs used against them.

'We're seeing a movement come here from the United States and, frankly, I think it does not resemble us,' Legault says in his Facebook post about what he sees as the impact of anti-racism activism on free speech on post-secondary campuses. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

At Concordia University in 2019, a teacher apologized after using the word when mentioning the title of a book by Pierre Vallières.

The universities were criticized, in some circles, for having caved to the demands of students.

The controversy was revived earlier this month by a series of columns in La Presse by Isabelle Hachey, who argued that student demands for more sensitivity were going too far.

Hachey's pieces cited several professors who said they now avoided teaching certain material, fearing backlash from "woke" students.

A philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa told her he no longer referenced slavery when teaching about the ancient Greeks. A literature professor at McGill said the university forced her to let students skip pages of classic works of Quebec literature if they contained slurs, which most of the assigned works did.

Legault promised on Saturday that his government would act quickly. "What's really worrying is that more and more people feel intimidated," he said.

By describing the threat this way, Legault aligned himself with the growing number of conservative politicians in the West who believe the most serious danger to academic freedom is the form of social justice advocacy often referred to as wokeness.

And, like many of these politicians, he has suggested the source of this threat is the wave of anti-racism activism that arose following the repeated killings of Black people by police in the U.S.

"We're seeing a movement come here from the United States and, frankly, I think it does not resemble us," Legault said in his Facebook post.

A lecturer at the University of Ottawa was briefly suspended last fall after using the N-word while attempting to illustrate to her students how some groups have reclaimed the slurs used against them. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

'A false debate'

This way of framing the debate has left many Black scholars uneasy. Not only does it deny the long history of anti-racism activism in Quebec, they say, it fails to address the more urgent problems confronting university education, such as funding and access.

"It's a false debate. Professors already have freedom of speech. The problem is some want to abuse it," said Amissi Manirabona, a criminal law professor at the Université de Montreal.

Questions about what words professors should, and shouldn't, use in the classroom are better treated as teaching issues rather than debates about free speech, Manirabona said.

He said professors need to ask themselves: "How can we transmit knowledge while respecting everyone, including minorities, who can be offended by certain discourses?"

"We need to show compassion," he said. "We have to listen to students when they say they don't want to hear the N-word."

The perception that anti-racism ideologies have somehow infiltrated university administrations is also difficult to square with the fact that so few people of colour hold university leadership positions.

A 2019 study by Quebec's human rights commission found only six per cent of university employees in the province were visible minorities, essentially unchanged from 10 years prior.

"In order to counter these ideas, they're making it seem as though anti-racism and queer theory are dominant in universities, which is completely false," said Philippe Néméh-Nombré, a PhD student and vice-president of the Ligue des droits et libertés, a human rights group.

For Néméh-Nombré, the threats to academic freedom lie elsewhere. The growing number of professors hired on short-term contracts and the influence of the private sector on research are far more common obstacles, he said.

 "What's happening now is that a few isolated incidents are being used to obscure real problems," he said.  

Anti-racism activists have been calling on McGill University in Montreal to remove a statue of its founder, James McGill, a slave owner. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d'université (FQPPU), a federation of unions that represents 8,000 professors in Quebec, has come out in support of Legault's intention to bolster protections for academic speech.

The head of the federation, Jean Portugais, said more and more teachers are reporting confrontations with radical students. The federation, though, does not keep statistics about the phenomenon.

"It's not the frequency of cases that's important, it's the principle," Portugais said. "As soon as you have professors changing the way they do research to avoid backlash — that's problematic."

But, he said, the main threats to academic freedom involve corporations trying to suppress research, and beyond that, the way the government allots funding to universities in the province.

Because their funding is based on the number of students enrolled, he said, administrators are afraid of siding against students when disputes with faculty arise.

The groundwork for this system, he pointed out, was laid by Legault himself. As education minister in the late 1990s, he made university funding contingent on meeting certain performance indicators.

The 'war on woke'

The Quebec government has offered few details about how it will actually go about protecting academic freedom.

Danielle McCann, the province's higher education minister, is expected to strike a committee in the coming days to draft proposed solutions.

She hasn't ruled out legislation, which is worrying to some school administrators, and has hinted a bare minimum will be requiring all universities in Quebec to adopt similar free-speech policies.

The conservative governments in Ontario and Alberta have both required their post-secondary schools to adopt principles protecting campus speech.

Like Legault, French President Emmanuel Macron has blamed the U.S. for exporting a style of social justice activism that he claims undermines unity. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

Conservative politicians elsewhere have taken more extreme action against the perceived threat of social justice activism.

In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sought to make federal funding of universities dependent on their defence of free speech. At the time, Trump said he was worried about "far-left ideology."

On Tuesday, the Conservative government in Britain announced plans to appoint a "free speech champion" for its universities, with the power to fine institutions where violations occur.

The tabloids there described the policy as part of the Conservatives' "war on woke."

Like Legault, French President Emmanuel Macron has also blamed the U.S. for exporting a style of social justice activism that he claims undermines the republic's unity.

Macron's increasingly right-leaning government promised this week to launch an inquiry into the influence of "Islamo-leftism" in its universities.

In 2017, the University of California, Berkeley cancelled a speech by far-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos following protests. The cancellation contributed to U.S. President Donald Trump's decision in 2019 to issue an executive order protecting campus free speech. (Ben Margot/The Associated Press)

In a series of interviews earlier this week, McCann sought to ease concerns her government was seeking to interfere with how Quebec's universities are run.

She also offered a more sympathetic description than Legault did of students who object to their professors using slurs while teaching.

"Students are sensitive to certain words, but this is a symptom of, maybe, not being respected enough as minorities," McCann said.

"I think we probably have to address both issues: academic freedom and inclusion in our universities."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Cathy Senay and CBC's Daybreak

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