Why using the N-word was a tactic during the Quebec leaders' debate

During the provincial election campaign's first leaders' debate, a white party leader used the N-word and dared his opponent to do the same.

Racial slur is at heart of debate about academic and journalistic freedoms in province

Five people stand in a circle.
Québec Solidaire Co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, both standing in the middle of this photo, each used the N-word during an exchange about academic freedom at last week's leadership debate. (Martin Chevalier/Pool/The Canadian Press)

Warning: This story contains reference to a literary work by Pierre Vallières which contains a racial slur in the title. CBC has decided to publish the name of the book without the offensive word in full. 

During the election campaign's first leaders' debate, two white men aspiring to be premier of Quebec suddenly blurted out the N-word.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon used the slur last Thursday while referring to the book of a famous Quebec author, and then he dared Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois to do the same.

The Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson was explaining the need for academic freedom in schools and universities when TVA anchor and the evening's moderator, Pierre Bruneau, jumped in. He asked Nadeau-Dubois if the title of Pierre Vallières's 1968 book, which features the N-word, can be said in classrooms.

That's when Plamondon pounced.

"N----- blancs d'Amérique, can we say the title of that book?" Plamondon said without warning, before backing Nadeau-Dubois into a corner.

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"It's a book pertaining to the history of Quebecers. Are you able to say the title of that book?" Plamondon asked.

This exchange played out on live television with 1.5 million Quebecers reportedly watching and Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, the first Black woman to ever lead a provincial party in Quebec and take part in such a debate, standing right there.

It was a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't moment for Nadeau-Dubois, one of the few candidates for premier who acknowledges the existence of systemic racism in the province.

"Of course, we can say the title of the book from Pierre Vallières, N----- blancs d'Amérique, there is no problem," he said before criticizing his opponent for using the word as part of a personal crusade.

The use of the N-word that evening was seen by many people as careless and gratuitous.

"What happened at the leaders' debate horrifies me," lawyer and columnist Fabrice Vil wrote in a Facebook post last Friday. 

"On a television channel viewed by all of Quebec, during a leaders' debate with the main parties, while we have important societal issues, men are insisting on their right to quote a work containing the N-word?"

WATCH | Nadeau-Dubois says he's not the one who should be answering questions about N-word: 

Québec Solidaires's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois defends use of N-word during debate

1 year ago
Duration 6:28
Midway through the Quebec election campaign, CBC Montreal News at 6's Debra Arbec asks Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois about his use of the N-word during a televised debate, and about some of his campaign promises.

After the debate, Nadeau-Dubois faced several questions from reporters about why he caved in to Plamondon's pressure. According to one Journal de Montréal columnist, it was a "clever" move by Plamondon to "put a forbidden word, the N-word, in the mouth of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois."

The back-and-forth between the two candidates showed just how politicized the N-word has become in Quebec. One candidate leveraged it for political gain and the other appeared to feel pressured to say it, as though he would risk scaring off potential voters if he didn't.

In the last two years, the N-word has been at the heart of several controversies, sparking debates about academic and journalistic freedoms and racism, with many people, politicians included, picking a side.

People are walking inside a building
Many people with ties to Radio-Canada spoke out against the CRTC after it ordered the public broadcaster to issue a public apology for the use of the N-word on a French radio program. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Politicizing the N-word

One of those controversies reverberated across Quebec even though it unfolded in Ontario.

In 2020, a University of Ottawa professor was suspended for using the N-word in an art and gender class. Politicians in Quebec, including Legault, jumped at the chance to weigh in.

"It's like we have some kind of censorship police," Legault said at the time. 

As a direct result, Legault's party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, managed to pass an academic freedom bill into law this past June.

Later that month, the Canadian Radio-television And Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) released a majority decision that instantly drew the ire of journalists, pundits and politicians.

The CRTC ordered Radio-Canada to publicly apologize to Ricardo Lamour, a Black Montrealer who filed a complaint after the N-word was used several times on air in both French and English in reference to Vallières's work.

The ruling criticized Radio-Canada for not giving listeners a heads up before the word was used. For many commentators, however, the CRTC's decision was an attack on journalistic freedom. Legault said the commission, not Radio-Canada, should be the one apologizing.

References to the N-word, censured or not, became more commonplace in Quebec media and elsewhere. 

In some cases, using the word appeared to be a show of resistance: a way to not cave in to a culture of political correctness perceived to have gone too far.

This summer, the pressure on CBC/Radio-Canada to not apologize for the use of the N-word on its airwaves ramped up. 

Big names from the past and present of Radio-Canada signed open letters. One of them, signed primarily by its former ombudsman who handled Lamour's complaint before it reached the CRTC, described the ruling as an "indefensible" violation of freedom of expression and the public broadcaster's journalistic independence.

The letter describes the decision as one that "denies Quebec history" — an argument similar to the one used by the PQ leader to goad Nadeau-Dubois into uttering the slur during last Thursday's debate.

The following day, in an interview with CBC Montreal's Debra Arbec, Nadeau-Dubois said he did not want to use the word and that he wouldn't have "if the circumstances had been different."

Fabrice Vil, a lawyer, columnist and founder of the non-profit organization Pour 3 Points, took to social media to express that he was 'horrified' by the use of the N-word during the debate. (Alain Wong)

Debate not going away

The recurring discussions in Quebec about the N-word have left many in the province's Black communities puzzled, exasperated or hurt.

Vil, who is also the founder of the non-profit organization Pour 3 Points, says the debate about the word has been oversimplified and is not really about whether the word can be said in an academic or journalistic context.

"There are in Quebec a number of Black people that simply hope for sensitivity from people who have the privilege of [access] to media, that hope to have the impression, watching television and radio, that they're thinking of their dignity as well," he wrote.

This past summer, CBC/Radio-Canada chose to appeal the CRTC's ruling but still issued a public apology — a compromise believed to have gone over poorly with people on both sides of the issue.

With the case set to be heard at the Federal Court of Appeal, the debate about academic and journalistic freedoms and the N-word isn't going away.

Expect politicians and pundits in the province to be eager to let you know exactly where they stand.

WATCH | A recap of the 1st leaders' debate:

Quebec's leaders debate features heated exchanges

1 year ago
Duration 1:00
Controversial language was used in more ways than one, as the leaders of the five major Quebec parties faced off in the election's first official debate.

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'.


Antoni Nerestant has been with CBC Montreal since 2015. He's worked as a video journalist, a sports reporter and a web writer, covering anything from Quebec provincial politics to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.