OTTAWA — Quebec Premier Francois Legault says the University of Ottawa should have defended a professor who used a derogatory word for Black people in class.
A student complained that part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the notorious word late last month in class to explain how some communities had reclaimed terms over time.
The incident 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.
Lieutenant-Duval apologized upon receiving the complaint and invited her students at the university, attended by many francophones, to discuss the issue in their next class.
Legault said Tuesday that in places of higher learning it is important that all subjects be open for debate.
"Of course, also when you look at what happened exactly, the professor didn't insult anybody, she just wanted to raise an important subject," he said.
"It's unacceptable to see that the Ottawa university didn't defend the professor."
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said while the well-known term Lieutenant-Duval used was "extremely charged" and makes people uneasy, there must be environments where people can discuss it and explain the history.
Anglade, who became the first Black woman to lead a provincial political party in Quebec in May, said she also understands "the reaction of people saying that there’s been systemic racism, there are issues, and people need to be sensitized to that and they want to have safe spaces where they can have those conversations."
The University of Ottawa Students' Union tweeted on Sunday that the derogatory term has long been used to dehumanize Black people.
"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."
University of Ottawa president and vice-chancellor Jacques Fremont told the school's Senate meeting Monday that what might appear trivial to a member of the majority may be perceived as profoundly offensive to members of minority communities.
The leadership of the Faculty of Arts proactively met with students and established a new section of the course in question to serve students who did not wish to continue their classes with their original professor, Fremont said.
"This was a necessary step to accommodate and respect the rights of all."
Fremont also stressed the importance of academic freedom but added it should come as no surprise if students are unwilling to join the professor in a followup discussion about her choice of language.
Many colleagues have supported Lieutenant-Duval, with more than 570 college and university professors, almost all from Quebec, signing a letter this week saying it is possible to denounce racism while sometimes using objectionable words in an educational context.
They said the fight for diversity and against racism should go hand in hand with the free flow of ideas and knowledge.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2020.
— With files from Jacob Serebrin and Morgan Lowrie