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Painting students as “militants” only creates further division

On Feb. 9, La Presse, an online publication in Quebec, published a piece written by columnist Isabelle Hachey outlining an interview she had with University of Ottawa president, Jacques Frémont, on academic freedom. 

Hachey is the columnist who originally introduced francophone audiences to the events at the University of Ottawa in the aftermath of a professor uttering the ‘N-word’ in a virtual lecture. 

In her Oct. 15 column titled “L’étudiant a toujours raison” (English translation: the student is always right) Hachey summarized the situation and then took a hard stance defending the professor while accusing the University of Ottawa of “clientelism.”

Despite Hachey’s criticism of the university’s response, Frémont sat down for an interview, mere weeks after a week-long sit-in organized by student leaders ended without any meeting with administration.  

In her recent interview with Frémont, Hachey began by asking the U of O president if he thought the professor committed a “fault” by using the ‘N-word’ and if it was racist to use the word to describe a concept. These answers have been translated from French.

“Words have meaning. Words carry weight. Madame Lieutenant-Duval testified to this, she did not do it on purpose, she did not understand the meaning of the word,” said Frémont.

The professor holds a PhD in humanities. How did she not know the meaning of this word?

Furthermore, when speaking with the Fulcrum back in October, the professor said she used the ‘N-word’ while explaining it was an example of “subversive resignification.”

“I think very clearly what happened was the students were insulted and didn’t take it,” continued the U of O president in the interview with Hachey. “It’s a loaded word, it’s a hurtful word, it’s a word that hurts, and I hope that in the future, members of the university community will understand that.” 

Over the last two years, there have been multiple instances of racially discriminatory events happening at the U of O. In this case, students weren’t simply insulted, they were disappointed. Disappointed to see another incidence of the university’s lack of optics coming at the detriment of its Black students. 

Instead, the president should have stepped up and explained why this incident caused outrage on campus and explained the weight of it in light of other discriminatory events that took place on campus such as the cardings of Black students

However, as anybody who has followed the events of the last few years on the University of Ottawa’s campus knows, the university and its president will never be this frank with the media or its students. Hachey was not wrong to call out Frémont for “clientelism,” his answers are an attempt to tame the situation. 

But, this accusation of “clientelism” is the opposite of how students have perceived the university’s attempt at appeasement. Hachey believes Frémont and the U of O have bent the knee to a “militant” faction of the U of O’s student body. This is reflected in her questions.

“You are accused of giving in to an ideology coming from American campuses to student activists who say they are hurt, but who rather respond to dogmas. Either way, there are real abuses on campuses that worry professors,” said the columnist. 

“Shouldn’t we put our fist on the table and tell these students that their teachers have concepts to teach, that these concepts are important, that they will be confronted with them later in their lives?”

“At McGill University, students were allowed not to read works containing words they considered offensive,” continued Hachey. “It seems to me that it is nonsense in a literature course to offer students not to read the works on the curriculum. Where does it end?” 

Students are not “militants.” They just want their professors not to use a racial slur that is used to hurt the Black community. It’s not about restricting free speech nor is it about restricting academic freedom. At the end of the day, there was absolutely no reason for the professor to use the slur. No arguments or statements in response to the events have presented one convincing argument as to why the ‘N-Word’ should have been used. The truth is, this whole controversy could have been avoided had the lecturer simply used the abbreviated ‘N-word.’ 

President Frémont, as has been the case since his first statement, continues to satisfy both sides. He will continue stating over and over that academic freedom is valued at the university, but that students’ feelings are also important.  

Both sides believe the university’s inaction favours the other side. This isn’t going to change.

It is important to understand that all of this arguing will result in nothing. It is too late for the university to choose a side. If they publish a statement in favour of one side, the other will be further angered, and the chosen side will believe it took too much time for the institution to come to its senses.     

At this point, the continuous arguing through interviews and public statements serves no purpose and only brings more trauma to Black students creating a further divide in the U of O community. 

We need to stop painting each other as militants, instead, we need to work together to ensure that we can create a better learning environment to prevent an incident like this from happening again.

The university will not build it for us, we need to come to a mutual understanding as a community.

This will not come at the expense of academic freedom — so to those professors who signed the letter about academic freedom, there is no need to worry.

No concept requires you to use the ‘N-word.’ 

This is not a question of academic freedom.

It’s a question of decency and respect — which are two factors that also need to be considered in future discussions.

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.