Jacques Frémont
Jacques Frémont's updates on the academic freedom report were very different in both languages. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik/Fulcrum
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Everyone who speaks French or English should be able to attend Senate meetings and receive the same information word for word

On the last two Mondays of every month, Charley, our editor-in-chief (EIC) sits at his desk in his office at 631 King Edward Avenue and listens to the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors and Senate meetings on YouTube.  

The meetings are conducted in both the University’s official languages — French and English. Charley is bilingual and understands every interaction that takes place at the meetings, no matter the language that is spoken. 

Charley is in his last year at the Fulcrum, and arguably, the only person on the Editorial Board who speaks both languages fluently. On the surface, this shouldn’t be an issue — after all, the Fulcrum is the University’s English language newspaper. It is not a prerequisite to be fluent in Molière’s tongue to be the outlet’s EIC, albeit some of the writers of this editorial and some members of the U of O community may argue to the contrary. Nonetheless, the majority of people on our editorial board will argue the opposite, that the bilingual aspect of the University is covered by the Francophone outlet on campus. 

Setting this conundrum aside, and considering the reality that the Fulcrum’s next EIC will most likely not be fluent in French, it is a damning issue that the University’s administration delivers a separate message in both languages — one that suits the dominant opinion of that language at the University. 

On Monday, the University of Ottawa’s president Jacques Frémont delivered his president’s report, as he does at the beginning of every meeting. Although it is not uncommon for Frémont and others at the meeting to not repeat what they state in French in English — which is another issue in and of itself, one that could be solved with simple accommodations such as interpreters — this time the messages relayed about the Committee on Academic Freedom’s Report were totally different in both languages.

In French, the president first defended the role of the Senate, noting that some had criticized the decision to present the report at the Senate. He then proceeded to attack the U of O administration’s critics by slapping back at those who criticize the U of O for not commenting on “specific situations” that are in the courts — In other words, the Verushka Lieutenant-Duval situation — and those who have criticized the university for a lack of transparency when it comes to the committee’s retraction of annexes B and C

In Shakespeare’s tongue, Frémont spoke about how there is a consensus when it comes to the importance of academic freedom, but that there is also a similar consensus that exists about the importance of the mutual respect between students and teachers in the context of the classroom — essentially hinting that the non-use of words such as the ‘N-word’ in class is a question of mutual respect.

Frémont then went back to French, where he discussed the importance of the report to the University, how the administration was looking to implement the recommendations, and finally, addressed certain subtle threats to academic freedom such as the theft of university intellectual property by certain unnamed governments. 

These were drastically different messages. Not only were they different but nothing was said about the report’s criticism when it comes to the retraction of annexes B and C, as well as the University’s unwillingness to comment on “specific situations” was addressed in English. The same can be said about the importance of mutual respect between students and teachers in the context of the classroom, a topic that was not spoken about in French. 

Surprising, not really, this was most likely a written speech — especially given the cadence at which the president was speaking. The French portion seemed to be directly aimed at the University’s critics in the Francophone media, while the English portion was aimed at student leaders and members of the student body who have accused the report of giving professors free rein to use racial slurs

The message in English is one the University knows wouldn’t necessarily be well received by many of its Francophone critics, who for the most part understand English. The president’s message was the same as it had been since the Lieutenant-Duval incident — there was no news.

But in French, where the respect in the classroom point was never brought up, important updates were provided. Updates that students, who have been critical of the report in a different way than the Francophone media and professors, wouldn’t be thrilled about. These updates included the University’s unequivocal reaffirmation of its commitment to academic freedom, an important part of recommendation G in the report, and promising to enact its recommendations.

Making matters worse, after his report, Frémont handed the floor to retired justice Bastarache who presented the report only in French. 

Now, although it is understandable that the U of O is attempting to overcompensate for criticism it has received in the past month by some who have deemed the state of bilingualism at the institution appalling, it remains a bilingual university. This means that without the presence of interpreters, every word and message said in French should be said in English and vice versa. 

Make no mistake, we empathize with our Francophone colleagues who believe there is a lack of Francophone services at the University. However, speeches made almost entirely in French at the Senate aren’t going to compensate for that. 

To put it simply, not delivering the same messages, whatever they may be, in both languages shows a complete lack of transparency. It illustrates a clear public relations effort to limit the damage of fighting a war on two fronts when it comes to criticism of the report and the institution’s actions on academic freedom.

This needs to change. The U of O is a bilingual institution. Everyone who speaks French or English should be able to attend the Senate or Board of Governors meeting and receive the same information word for word. 

The irony of the situation is that in the end, it limits freedom of expression at the University. How is a unilingual EIC, may they be at the Fulcrum or la Rotonde, supposed to hold the Senate and the U of O’s administration to account if they don’t understand that the message being conveyed is totally different in the other language? 

Bilingualism should never be used as a tool to keep unilingual students in the dark.

Simply repeating the same message in English and French should not be something that defies the conventional at a bilingual university.

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s 14 person editorial board and express the shared views and opinions of the Fulcrum’s editorial staff. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca.