Students decry letter defending N-word use at the University of Ottawa

Students at the University of Ottawa are condemning a letter signed by 34 professors at the school defending a colleague who was suspended for using the N-word in class.

34 professors at school sign letter in support of part-time professor who used offensive term in class

Med student Ibrahim Mohammad, left, and law student Hannan Mohamud are two of the students calling for the University of Ottawa to institute a zero-tolerance policy for the use of the N-word on campus. (CBC)

Students at the University of Ottawa are condemning a letter signed by 34 professors at the school defending a colleague who was suspended for using the N-word in class.

Part-time University of Ottawa professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended Sept. 23 after a student complained she had said the N-word during a class as an example of a word that a community has reclaimed.

In response to her suspension, 34 professors in multiple departments signed a letter of support for her on Friday — the day Lieutenant-Duval returned to teaching — saying that the use of the term can offer educational value and that a classroom is a place for debate. 

"It is important that university administrations, while helping to uncover and abolish all forms of systemic racism, ensure that the transmission of knowledge, the development of critical thinking and academic freedom is protected," the letter said in French.

In a statement posted to social media, the Students Union called the professors' letter "appalling."

A group of law students and a group of med students wrote in separate letters that they were "gravely alarmed" by the letter supporting Lieutenant-Duval, and called on the school to develop a zero-tolerance policy on the use of the N-word by anyone at the University of Ottawa.

"I cannot even fathom what academic freedom is because I'm here trying to tell you using the N-word is already alienating me and not giving me a freedom to exist in these spaces," said Hannan Mohamud, one of the students who signed the letter from law students. Mohamud is also vice-president of advocacy with the Black Law Students' Association at the University of Ottawa. 

"Personally, as a Black student, I already feel isolated."

School says prof apologized

Mohamud said she herself has heard the N-word used in class as an undergraduate student, but did not provide details. She said the experience left her feeling degraded and disappointed. 

"These problems have never gone away; they are still inherent and very reflected in our society," she said. Using the N-word in class, she said, shows "a lack of acknowledgment and a disassociation from what's happening right now."

The University of Ottawa released a statement Monday saying Lieutenant-Duval subsequently apologized for using the term in class and invited students to discuss its use. The school also offered students an opportunity to continue the class with a different instructor.

"This was a necessary step to accommodate and respect the rights of all," said Jacques Frémont, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa.

'Taking stock'

The university has been criticized for racist incidents recently. In May, a report commissioned by the school found that race played a role in a Black student being carded as he entered his residence last year. In September, students complained that racist language was used during a class while a professor was not present. 

"We are, like many other universities, taking stock of the systemic dimensions of racism, and we have committed to making meaningful changes to address these issues," said Frémont.

Jacques Frémont, president of the University of Ottawa, said a professor's right to freedom of expression and the students' right to dignity must coexist, but he stopped short of banning use of the N-word at the school. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Frémont did not outright ban the use of the N-word, but said both a professor's right to freedom of expression and the students' right to dignity must coexist. He did note the professor could have used the term "N-word" rather than the actual word, but chose not to and faced the consequences for her actions. 

Mohamud and medical student Ibrahim Mohammad, who also signed a letter condemning the 34 professors who supported Lieutenant-Duval's use of the N-word, argue that the term should be banned to protect the safety of Black students.

"This word has been used for hundreds of years to oppress Black people," Mohammad said.

Mohammad and Mohamud are also calling on the university to consult Black and Indigenous students on potential repercussions for the use of racist language at the school. 

"We do not believe that there is any appropriate setting which this word can be used because it is directly harmful to all of the Black students on campus."

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.

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Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at

With files from Sandra Abma and Radio-Canada's Jean-François Poudrier

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