The Current

Students call for systemic change in wake of N-word controversy at University of Ottawa

A University of Ottawa professor's controversial use of the N-word during class demonstrates the need for human rights boards to be created at universities across Canada, says a Black student who was carded on the school's campus last year.

Professor apologized after using the offensive term during a class in September

University of Ottawa student Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce, says a professor's use of the N-word last month is an issue that goes 'beyond the individual.' (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

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A University of Ottawa professor's controversial use of the N-word during class demonstrates the need for human rights boards to be created at universities across Canada, says a Black student who was carded on the school's campus last year.

"I even had a very similar [experience] where a few days ago, in another class, another professor used the N-word — hard E-R — again, while having a conversation about the issues of the other professor using the N-word," Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"And I think the clear issue this presents in having another teacher do it within this same context and climate is that it goes far beyond the individual."

Last month, a part-time University of Ottawa professor used the racial slur during an art and gender class, setting off a firestorm between students and university officials. Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended from her position on Sept. 23, after a student complained about the incident. She has since apologized and been reinstated.

A group of 34 professors signed a letter defending their colleague, citing concerns about the protection of academic freedom. Students on campus responded by condemning the letter and calling for a zero-tolerance policy to the use of the word at the university.

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The Current reached out to the University of Ottawa for comment, but did not receive a response by publication time.

Koulmiye-Boyce said this is not a new issue at the university, or a new response from students. He said little has changed since last June, when campus security stopped him for ID while he was skateboarding across campus, and then handcuffed him.

"After that incident, students organized. We released an open letter asking for very clear things. We asked for a policy review, we asked for transparency, accountability, information and representation," he said. 

"So then to see ... a professor using the N-word verbatim in class, such a clear issue, and not a clear and decisive response from the university to protect BIPOC students, I have to say I'm let down, but not surprised."

The university's president responded to the incident on Wednesday in an open letter, in which he called for calm and clarified the harmful impact the word has had on students.

Fourth-year University of Guelph student Laila El Mugammar told Galloway that academia holds a notion that every concept carries equal merit, and that it's a free exchange of ideas.

The group of professors that expressed support for Lieutenant-Duval, for example, argued in their letter that the classroom is a place for debate, and that the use of the term in class could offer educational value.

El Mugammar disagrees.

Laila El Mugammar is a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ont. (Submitted by Laila El Mugammar)

"You can't just say things for the sake of saying them. That would never, ever be accepted in a dissertation or in a classroom discussion. So why are we accepting it here?" she said. 

"Why do you need to say the N-word to teach effectively? And the answer is you don't."

Priscillia Olawunmi, a first-year student at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, sees this incident as a sign that the fight for equality in Canada is not over.

"The idea that we're just sort of like coming into this era of, oh, we should be more reflective and more welcoming of a class within our community … it's just like, really sad to see how slow we're progressing," she said. 

Priscillia Olawunmi is a first-year student at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. (Submitted by Priscillia Olawunmi)

As a Black student, El Mugammar said she has in the past avoided roles or shied away from speaking out on certain topics for fear of being stereotyped.

"I've been exoticized and fetishized by my classmates because of my race," she said. "I can't say certain things in classroom settings or make certain requests because I'm going to be read as angry."

Koulmiye-Boyce shares the sentiment. He said it often falls on students of colour to "police these conversations to ensure that our identities are still being respected."

Until universities make institutional changes, "we're going to continue to see these issues reoccur every couple years," he said.

The students' advice to others who might be going through a similar experience is to find a community of people that can offer them support.

"It can be really exhausting having to constantly be fighting these battles," said Koulmiye-Boyce. "But I would just want to remind them that, like, we're young right now, these are [our] university years and like, don't forget to enjoy your Blackness."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Marc Apollonio and Isabelle Gallant.

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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