Words by Ewan Vellinga

Premier François Legault has criticised the University of Ottawa following their decision to suspend a professor after she used the N-word in class, saying that it has led to a “slippery slope” concerning academic free-speech.  

Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended on 23 September after a student complained about her usage of the term in a class on how marginalised communities have reappropriated words over time.  

Legault is quoted by the Montreal Gazette as saying “when you look at what happened exactly, the professor didn’t insult anybody”, arguing that “she just wanted to raise an important subject” and that the reaction typifies an “exaggeration of rectitude.”  

His comments follow weeks of controversy regarding Lieutenant-Duval’s suspension, during which fellow academics, students and politicians have all voiced their opinions on whether the suspension was justified.   

Lieutenant-Duval initially apologised following the complaint, and asked her students to discuss how the term should be used in their next class. However, the university still decided to temporarily suspend her, and her students were given the option of transferring out of her class once she returned.       

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) criticised the decision, with Executive Director David Robinson arguing that “an institution of higher learning fails to fulfil its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial, expressed in the classroom.”

34 fellow professors also criticised the suspension in a public letter signed on 16 October, arguing that universities should be places in which “to explore the realities of history, notably the history of ideas, many of which will conflict with current popular opinion.” 

However, academics and students have also defended the university, with a contradictory statement, signed by more than 25 faculty and staff, stating that “being prohibited from using racial slurs, even in discussions about racism, is not a violation of academic freedom.”

This mirrored the stance adopted by the University of Ottawa’s Student Union (UOSU), with President Barbacar Faye quoted by Vice News as saying “the word has been used to demean and repress people for centuries. There is no other use of the word.” Faye also pointed out that the incident ignores the context of the school, since “black students especially have been repeatedly victimized and affected by instances of racism on campus.”  

His comment refers to a number of recent race-related incidents at the University of Ottawa, including the use of racial slurs by students during a class in the Faculty of Law, and accusations of racial profiling being used by campus security, with VICE News noting that an independent report linked a specific incident at the university to a lack of diversity training. 

University President Jacque Frémont tried to accommodate both sides of the debate by arguing that free expression and the right to dignity are not contradictory principles, and that “members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a micro-aggression.”

The recent engagement of Legault in the controversy signals an escalation in interest in the debate as a number of politicians from across the political spectrum in both Ontario – the state in which Ottawa lies – and Quebec have voiced their opinions on the matter.  

Notably, Paul St-Pierre Plamandon, leader of the Parti Québécois, came out in support of the professor, while Dominique Anglade, leader of the Quebec Liberals, similarly voiced her support for Lieutenant-Duval, but also called for the acknowledgement of systematic racism, something which CBC News points out Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has refused to do. 

Legault also said that he was concerned with the fact that Lieutenant-Duval and a number of other professors were attacked because they are francophone, quoted by the Montreal Gazette as stating “I think I have a certain responsibility (to speak out on this matter) even if it is happening in Ottawa.” 

As such, the debate has taken on new proportions since the incident initially occurred back in September. This was partly the reason for an extended apology by Lieutenant-Duval, as she expressed her pain at having caused offence, and noted that she is worried the resultant controversy has facilitated extreme positions on the issue of academic free-speech. 

She also noted that hateful remarks made towards her on social media had been painful and disturbing, and that the spread of her personal details across the internet made her fear for her public safety.

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