White teacher interrupts anti-racism talk to argue, swears at Black presenter in front of students

The Lester B. Pearson School Board in the Montreal area held a series of virtual assemblies over the past week related to the origins of the N-word. The Black presenter says a white teacher interrupted his anti-racism presentation and directed a swear word at him.

Presentation part of week-long anti-racism initiative by Montreal-area school board

Omari Newton, an educator and actor, says his encounter with a white teacher at the Lester B. Pearson School Board event will motivate him to continue speaking about racism. (Submitted by Omari Newton)

A Black man says a white teacher with a Montreal-area school board interrupted his anti-racism presentation about the history of the N-word and swore at him.

Omari Newton, a Quebec educator and actor, organized virtual assemblies over the past week with the goal of teaching Grade 10 students about the origins and implications of the N-word.

The Lester B. Pearson School Board, which runs schools on the island of Montreal, had asked Newton to prepare online presentations as part of its anti-racism week initiative.

The board had committed to addressing the issue of racism, after two students who attend John Rennie High School in the city of Pointe-Claire posted an offensive video on social media last summer. The video featured blackface, racial slurs and derogatory statements about Black people.

On Thursday, Newton had reached the part of his workshop that dealt with a book by author Pierre Vallières, the title of which contains the N-word. Vallières was known as an intellectual leader of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), which committed acts of terror.

The book by Vallières drew parallels between the plight of French-speaking Quebecers and the civil rights struggle of African Americans.

Newton said he started explaining to students that the parallel was not a fair and valid one, and that's when he says the white teacher cut him off and began to argue.

An administrator tried to defuse the situation, Newton said. CBC News has not viewed a recording of the virtual assembly.

Newton said he continued with his presentation, stating that the topic is relevant because many people, including Quebec's premier, deny that systemic racism exists in the province.

He said it was then that the teacher swore at him.

"Obviously, it's shocking. This is a Zoom [call] with hundreds of students and staff. It's incredibly disrespectful, and I think it is a form of white privilege and racism," Newton said.

The Lester B. Pearson School Board sent out a letter to parents following the incident, calling it 'inappropriate, unprofessional, and most importantly, disrespectful towards our guest presenter.' (Charles Contant/CBC)

Newton said the teacher told him he had enjoyed the presentation up to the point where he mentioned Vallières.

"To me this is an example of unconscious bias. He was totally fine with the presentation until he was implicated, until Quebec was brought up. This is when he spoke up," Newton said, adding that he believes the teacher was a French-speaking Quebecer.

"Here we have a white man cursing off a Black man who's presenting to a school. It's unacceptable. I don't know if he would do that to a white presenter. Maybe he would. But too often does this happen to us as people of colour."

The school board said it could not confirm the teacher's identity because it would go against the privacy of its personnel.

'Inappropriate, unprofessional,' says school board

In a letter sent to parents, the school board described the staff member's reaction as "disconcerting and understandably upsetting."

"Today's comments by the staff member were inappropriate, unprofessional, and most importantly, disrespectful towards our guest presenter," the letter stated. "It was wholly inappropriate for an exchange of this nature to take place during an assembly with students."

A board spokesperson would not comment on whether the staff member is still teaching, or if he has been disciplined for his actions.

Newton called the encounter disheartening, but he also said it's motivating him to keep speaking out about racism.

"My resolve to do this work has increased," Newton said. "It's reminded me of why it's important to do this work and have these conversations. There are people who have unconscious biases and don't even realize [it]."

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.

With files from Matt D'Amours