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Heated debate over offensive language in academic setting continues in Quebec

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 4:59 pm MST

MONTREAL (CITYNEWS) – Quebec politicians and professors are showing support for a University of Ottawa professor who was suspended for using a derogatory word for Black people in class.

Verushka Lieutenant-Duval of Montreal was suspended Sept. 23 after a student complained she used the N-word during a lecture. The part-time professor tried to apologize but faced backlash.

The incident is alleged to have happened in September during a class about how marginalized groups like people of colour, LGBT communities and the disabled can reclaim offensive terms over time.

It has sparked vocal disagreement between some students and faculty in a case that pits academic freedom and open dialogue against the rights and sensitivities of those in the classroom.

Now Quebec politicians – including Premier Francois Legault –are denouncing the university’s decision to suspend Lieutenant-Duval.

“First, it’s unacceptable what happened,” said Legault on Tuesday. “Because in places like universities, you have to be able to have a debate about everything. Also when you look at what happened exactly, the professor didn’t insult anybody. She just wanted to raise an important subject.

“So it’s unacceptable to see that the University of Ottawa didn’t defend the professor, and also people being quite aggressive on social media.”

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, who became the first Black woman to lead a provincial political party in Quebec in May, also defended the use of the word in a university environment.

“It is necessary to be able to distinguish the use of a word as an insult from the use of the same word in an academic setting to evoke one’s history, one’s journey,” said Anglade.

Meanwhile more than 600 college and university professors signed a letter this week saying it is possible to denounce racism while sometimes using objectionable words in an educational context.

But not everyone is defending the professor.

In a tweet, the University of Ottawa Student Union complained the N-word remains offensive, hurtful and reprehensible and should not be used lightly.

“It reflects and represents a violent and brutal process in which they were made to feel less than human and attempts to legitimize their inferiority,” the statement said.

“It is offensive and should not be used by professors.”

McGill University professor Myrna Lashley says people need to understand the “pain that the word brings about.”

“This is a word that’s used to hurt people,” she said. “When people use that word deliberately, they want to hurt you.

“That word brings up a bunch of things for Black people. It’s not enough to say, ‘don’t use it.’”

Lashley says there should be university courses on the N-word, but they should be taught by people of colour who can understand the pain and convey that to students.

“I need people to understand why that word is hurtful. They need to understand.”

The University of Ottawa did not return a request for comment.

–with files from The Canadian Press.