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U of O president Jacques Frémont on Thursday. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

Mental health town halls to be held in coming months, second part of racism investigation being released soon, president says

Content Warning: Suicide

The Fulcrum sat down with University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont for 30 minutes on Thursday to dig into some of the major issues facing the school. 

Frémont touched on the university’s approach to mental health after four students died last year, leading to a wave of student activism and thousands of petition signers demanding the university do better, along with what’s being done to address racism on campus after two Black students were carded in 2019. Frémont also spoke about the widely condemned and protested Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit that was set up on campus this week, accessibility, and the Student Choice Initiative.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

The Fulcrum: Let’s start with an issue many students are protesting on campus right now — how did a Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit end up on campus?

Jacques Frémont: I can’t say I was not expecting your question. They (the presenters) applied to do an exhibition and it was not Scientology, it was under a different name. We didn’t necessarily realize what it was all about, and then we discovered what it’s all about. Many of the things they say are plainly outrageous and are not shared, neither by me, neither by the community. It is hurtful to many members of the community, so I’m really disturbed by that. 

But this being said, I’ll be frank with you, there was pressure to terminate the exhibition, we have a policy about freedom of expression on the campus and to not necessarily shield the community from any language they disagree with. We disagree really strongly with the exhibit, but to be frank, if we had terminated the contract, it would be front-page news nationally, it would be in all the newspapers, all media, and then it means that their propaganda would have had a much larger audience. That weighed a lot on our decision to let the week go. 

We understand how offensive it is, I mean, a week after the wellness week while our medical students are studying psychiatry, while we have so many challenges in terms of mental health, it is disturbing to hear what they had to say, the message is extremely disturbing. We are learning, we’ve learned. I think we will be much more careful in the future when people from outside of the community want to do exhibitions on the campus, we’ve learned a few lessons.

The Fulcrum: What do these lessons look like? Are you looking to change university policies? 

JF: It will certainly impact the policy about welcoming organizations from outside who want to get on our campus to exhibit. It is important that our campus remains a place where there’s full freedom of expression, there’s the full expression of even ideas we don’t share, it’s very important that all members of the community enjoy that whole freedom, but it’s also very important that members of the community are not aggressed by that expression. It’s an art of balancing things, but in this case the fear of providing a national platform, that’s what these people want, that’s what they’re after, and I was not going to give them. We will certainly look very closely at our policies regarding exhibitions.  

The Fulcrum: This exhibit is still up for today and tomorrow then — do you worry this exhibit could have a really negative impact on someone with mental health issues, even someone just walking by? 

JF: I know it is the case. I’ve met some students who were profoundly disturbed by the exhibit, I’ve met a few of them throughout the week. That’s part of the lesson we’ve learned.

The Fulcrum: On the topic of mental health, four U of O students died last year, and then in December, thousands of people called on you through petitions and activism to take action. What concrete changes are coming this year in terms of mental health?

JF: Well first, again, let’s be frank, some people talk as if we’re doing nothing in mental health. A  report was provided to the Board of Governors earlier this week, and please have a look. I mean, the amount of work being done is astounding. Are we there yet? Are we satisfied with that? Clearly no, there’s a lot more to be done or things to be done differently, we’ll all agree on that. That’s why on Monday (Jan. 27) at the Board of Governors meeting, I announced that we are setting up a task force, which will include students, to listen. Many people have a lot to say about mental health and how it should be tackled on campus, so to listen to these voices and to also to benchmark, because all universities in Canada are fighting with mental health issues and what is the best way of doing things and how far can we go? 

So, the task force will listen, they will benchmark, and I hope to have at least an interim report by May, so that whatever adjustments that have to be made, the quick ones, will be in place for September. Believe me, it would be worth it for you to meet with the people who intervene day after day, 365 days a year. We will adjust the system and we’re trying to be better.

Of course, suicides are always very difficult moments in our collective life. It sort of symbolizes the certain failure, but there’s a lot more to mental health and people are being supported in all sorts of ways, and I think the report testifies to that. It is very difficult — we’ve added resources, we’ve increased the budget, we’ve hired I think between five and seven new therapists and we’re keeping a close eye on the residences and our ways of doing things. If there was an easy answer, we would have it.

We’re trying, the teams are really doing their best, and I think contrary to what many people say on social media, I’m sorry, we’re doing a lot. Could we improve? Yes. Could it be better? Yes. Could the standards be better? Yes. That’s why we’re listening. Ultimately, medical services in Ontario are the responsibility of the government, so it’s about trying to find this sort of balance between where the general provincial system should take up from our system. 

But what kills me is the fact that there’s so much need and we’re trying to be as present as possible, but I mean, sometimes it’s impossible to cope and people have to wait. I can understand that the wait times can be very tough on our students and on members of our staff in our community. We will listen a lot in the next few weeks and months, there will be town halls around mental health and everyone will be invited to participate. There will be meetings between the task force and all those who want to get involved or provide pieces of advice, we will try to be better. They’re looking for dates (for town halls) in February or early March. 

The Fulcrum: When you look at the U of O’s mental health system, what are some of the biggest areas that need improvement or what are some of the major weaknesses you can point to in the system?

JF: I’m not a health professional, it’s difficult for me to answer your question. But one thing is clear when I meet with the teams on the frontline, who intervene 365 days a year, who work with students and members of the community, I must say I have much admiration for these people. Sometimes I feel that they’re treated a little unfairly, it as if they’re doing nothing and god knows they do a lot. Part of the challenge is to be as efficient as possible and to provide our support in real-time when support is needed.

The Fulcrum: Going back to December, when you saw these petitions with thousands and thousands of people signing them demanding changes and saying the system as it is isn’t enough, how did that impact you? How did you react to that?

JF: I would have signed these petitions, I am also uneasy. People sometimes write and say ‘I have a solution,’ but it’s just more complex than that. When you meet with the teams, it’s clear the challenge is huge. There are many voices that are unheard in that conversation — not to say that they’re happy, but they will tell you ‘we need something else,’ and these are the voices which are sort of drowned out under the other voices. That’s why the listening here is very important for me, to hear all voices and all perspectives because everybody is not on a suicide track. But of course, when things are difficult to that extent, they need full support immediately. 

We listen to these voices, and we listened to them this week (in relation to the Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit). I did go a couple of times and I met with protesters and I agree with them. It’s always very healthy to hear these voices, to hear people who criticize, who take the time to criticize, because it means that they care, it means that they want the system to change. This engine of change, it’s pressure for change, and it’s very important.

Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

The Fulcrum: Racism on campus has continued to be a major issue for many students. Can you tell us what your next steps are to start addressing this issue? 

JF: As you know we have a committee going on and I think the committee, we’re learning to work together. We have fabulous students and members of the community on the committee and I think we’re learning a lot from each other. Very clearly, there’s no messing around, we will need to change.

We are planning many things, but we have to work in coordination with the committee. But very clearly, the messages which came from the two town hall meetings we’ve had were consistent and very well put, very elegantly put even though it was difficult for many participants. Among these issues is a certain lack of sensitivity and we will need some training, will need to make sure that people understand that sometimes they do things they think do not have much meaning, but for the people involved it’s received as microaggressions.

There’s the issue of curriculum, it does not reflect the very idea of cultures and realities and identities we have on campus. Of course, training is much easier to do and can be done in a much shorter period of time than hiring a certain percentage of faculty members, which takes a long time. We’re working with the committee on that, but there will be a series of gestures, small and big, in order to eliminate racism. We have to have a campus better than society as a whole. The standards for us should be higher.

The Fulcrum: The second half of investigator Esi Codjoe’s report into racism on campus was supposed to be released in November?

JF: We just received it yesterday.

The Fulcrum: What was the cause of the delay? 

JF: My understanding is that the investigator wasn’t ready to release. Now it’s I received, I’ve not read it yet. It was sent to translation and we’ll make it public as soon as it’s translated and the translation has been checked. But we will release it and we will discuss that report with the members of the committee and the report will be made public, there’s no hiding there. We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible in the last year and we will keep being transparent.

The Fulcrum: Can you go over what the goal of this second report is and how it will be applied?

JF: The first report dealt with the incident itself (when Black student Jamal Koulmiye-Boyce was carded and handcuffed by Protection Services for over two hours in June 2019), and it was urgent to get the report out. The second report is a more difficult report conceptually, it’s about the systemic dimensions of that incident. So what is it that we do in the U of O which might be neutral, but in fact encourage racist behaviour.

I have not read the report, I don’t know what the conclusions are, I’ve just been told that the report arrived. It will certainly feed the committee and its work and it will feed me, in order to know what the logical next steps should be. If we can find a positive of the incident it’s that it forced us to go through and examine racism throughout everything we do. It’s a humbling experience, there are issues that were clearly not on the radar, and now they’re on the radar. We have to deal with those issues.

The Fulcrum: Some students have raised concerns about the possibility of a former police constable named Dan Delaney, who shot and killed an armed suicidal man in the 1990s, being hired as a security advisor for the university. Can you comment on this?

JF: Yes, my understanding is that someone has been hired, and my understanding is that he is a specialist in these issues. But I was not privy to the hiring and I’ve not met that person and I don’t know the terms of the contract. You can understand that we are careful in these matters and it’s important to work with our group of employees in protection, and I think they’ve done a great deal. They’ve evolved a lot, they’ve learned a lot from the incident, and for us, it’s important that we keep working with them. But they have to identify with the person who will come as a model or as a mentor, so that was all taken into account.

The Fulcrum: Going back to the first report released in October (2019), it did find Jamal (Koulmiye-Boyce) faced racial discrimination and it did clearly say that faulty and outdated practices and procedures played a role in what happened. How were those findings applied? Are those security officers who were involved still employed by the university? 

JF: Honestly, I can’t answer that. Legally, we’re prevented from sharing these details for many reasons. So I’m sorry, I can’t answer that, but I can certainly reassure people that I do hope these incidents will not happen again. We’ve done the utmost and that’s it. Culture is changing. I’d love to be able to answer your question, but I can’t.

The Fulcrum: Accessibility issues have also been on our radar recently. We’ve talked to students with disabilities who say that the university isn’t doing enough to accommodate their disabilities. Are there any plans or changes in the works to better accommodate students and their disabilities?

It’s another difficult file. I think we’re doing a lot. There are many teams of people working on accessibility. If it’s not enough, it’s possible. We’re trying to do the utmost. Again this week I’ve met with a group of students and I can tell you that they weren’t critical (of the university), they were very happy. But they said yes, we still experienced sometimes some insensitivity — some people, some professors, don’t always understand what it’s all about. But then the teams are there to speak with the professors to make sure that accessibility is important. Accessibility, in physical terms, is also very important. 

You have no idea of the costs involved. We’re pushing to have more services in mental health. If I spent for this building, Tabaret Hall, to make it accessible, that’s $65 million. So that’s money I will not invest in mental health. So the problem and the challenge is, we’d like to be good everywhere, we’d like to smashing (barriers), but it’s always a sort of matter of equilibrium. Let me just give you an example. We’re being attacked by cyber-attacks for our networks — can you imagine a university without a functioning network? Where do I draw the line if I have $1 million? Is it in cybersecurity? Is it in accessibility of buildings? Is it in mental health? Is it in anti-racism measures? All of these issues are so damn important.

Accessibility, I’m very sensitive to that, I was head of the Quebec Human Rights Commission before I was appointed (to U of O president). I could write a book about (accessibility). Mind you, I’ve met students earlier this week with mental health issues and it’s terrific that they’re at the university and they’re succeeding, many of them will graduate, and it was partly thanks to the support they got in terms of accessibility. Are we perfect? No. Do we want to improve? Yes, and we will have to improve. But the issue in my day to day life is how can I establish priorities when it’s morally impossible to establish priorities? All these issues are crying, they’re so pregnant. So I refuse to prioritize racism over mental health or mental health over accessibility. It’s all part of the same spectrum of issues that are extremely important for the university, and we can’t say ‘While, I will leave mental health aside to deal with racism,’ or the other way around. Accessibility is part of that.

We’re trying to do better. Nothing’s perfect. Do we need more? Yes. Could it be done? Could it be improved? Probably, yes. But go and meet with the people (employees on the ground) and they can explain the challenges and how they intervene and what they do. It will just give you a certain pause, on terms of, well, it might be a little more complex. I admire these people. They’re really terrific and their life is their students and the well being of their students. 

The Fulcrum: So as of now, the Student Choice Initiative has been deemed unlawful and fees are mandatory again this semester, although the province is appealing the decision. Are there any other updates you can share about what’s coming next? Maybe for the upcoming fall semester? 

JF: From the government side? We’ve heard nothing. We only know that they’re appealing the ruling. I have a little idea of where the appeal will land. If I were them, and they wanted to restore that regime, I would pass a law. Right now we’ve taken the decision to go back to the regime where it (fees) were compulsory. For me, it was an easy decision to make. I know it has not been shared by all universities, but for me, the financing of student life is crucial to our community. I can’t imagine a community without strong student newspapers, strong voices over and above social media. It is necessary to hear your voices. Of course, some clubs might be less popular. I know very few clubs and associations that do not have a relevance and I think one of the strengths of your generation is precisely that you want to get involved, you want things to change, and it’s about time things change in many respects.

So your clubs, your associations are crucial, and you need financing. I would like to be associated with a campaign to stress the importance of student clubs and associations and media, and so on and so forth.

The Fulcrum: Is there anything else you want to add or expand on?

JF: The year has started in a difficult way with the death of three of our Iranian students. There’s always a positive aspect of any incident, and I think one of the very positive aspects of that is that Canadians have discovered that we have foreign students. We have foreign students from 145 countries on this campus, it’s very impressive. What’s interesting is that people from various countries are in the newspapers, in the western newspapers, they’ve discovered that our students were formidable students, that they are formidable human beings, that they’re making a difference in their community, that they were friendly, that they had friends, they had family, they had relatives.

So it was a sort of opener for many Canadians to understand that people come in from abroad to study in Canada, an immense richness for a campus like ours and for Canada as a whole. So there’s a little lesson there and I hope that foreign students will have more support in the future from the general population.