Racist comment mars online class at U of O

The University of Ottawa is denouncing reports of a racist comment during an online class.

Law school dean says it happened without professor present

Tabaret Hall on the sparsely populated University of Ottawa campus on May 7, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The university administration is reiterating its commitment to social justice and anti-racism after a student used racist language in an online class. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The University of Ottawa is denouncing reports of a racist comment during an online class.

Dean Adam Dodek of the faculty of law sent an email to students Monday saying the school had received multiple complaints about "problematic behaviour" during online breakout sessions, when students in a virtual classroom subdivide into separate video conference rooms.

Those reports include that racist language was used without a professor present, Dodek wrote.

"We categorically denounce discriminatory behaviour in all its forms and stand in solidarity with all members of our Common Law community who have experienced discrimination," Dodek wrote.

"We acknowledge that academia, including our law school, has a long history of systemic discriminatory practices, which we must urgently address."

    A spokesperson for the university confirmed receiving reports of a student making a racist comment.

    Neither Dodek nor the university provided details about what specifically was said and whether the student who said it was identified or punished.

    "We are a community committed to social justice and anti-racism, and we must work together to create a safe and welcoming community for all students, staff and faculty," university spokesperson Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn said in an emailed statement. 

    More classes at this university and other schools have moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    'History of discrimination'

    Babacar Faye, president of the University of Ottawa Students' Union, said he was disappointed but not surprised.

    "There is a history … of incidents, of racial discrimination happening on our campus," said Faye, himself a Black law student. ​​​​

    Faye said racism on campus makes non-white students feel alienated.

    "It gives the sentiment that they're not welcome and that they don't have their place in this community," he said.

    While he credits Dodek with being "more or less" proactive by addressing the issue directly with students, Faye said it's not enough to just release a statement.

    Babacar Faye, president of the University of Ottawa Students' Union, said he was disappointed but not surprised by reports that a student used racist language while taking part in an online class. (Submitted by Babacar Faye)

    Steffany Bennett, a professor in the faculty of medicine and a special advisor on diversity and inclusion to the university's president, said incidents like this "eat away at the self-esteem and the security of our students."

    Students driving activism

    The university administration is in the early stages of a campaign to combat racism that was launched last year in response to complaints about racial profiling.

    Women's studies professor Nadia Abu-Zahra, who sits on an advisory committee to the president, said students are driving much of the progress on campus with their activism.

    "Students have shown tremendous leadership," Abu-Zahra said. 

      "When things like this happen to them … They look around and they see the systemic structures and they start to change them."

      Abu-Zahra said Indigenous students and students of colour who are most impacted by racism should have a stronger voice in the administration's plans to address systemic racism.