Quebec’s ‘cancel culture’ debate misses the point

Persistence of systemic racism at post-secondary institutions lost amid media and political furor
Photo: Entrace to McGill's main campus. (Neil Howard / Flickr)
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Cancel culture, McGill professor Samuel Veissière told La Presse last February, “is linked to a generation of child kings. Their parents have always solved their problems and they’re demanding the same from universities. If we give them what they’re asking for, we’re not doing these students any favours.”

Since late 2020, Canadian universities have been locked in a debate about censorship. Several incidents of white professors using racial slurs have led students to question their instructors' handling of sensitive course material. These debates are nothing new, and students are asking for simple changes, including content warnings and sensitivity training. But that hasn't stopped professors across the country from spreading concerns about “cancel culture” and the future of academic freedom. Quebec’s mainstream media — especially francophone outlets — latched on to the debate, and they haven’t let go.

In January, McGill University’s Religious Studies Undergraduate Society (RSUS) published an open letter alleging that Professor Douglas Farrow had violated the university’s equity policies. The RSUS argued that Farrow’s refusal to follow McGill’s Preferred First Name Procedure, implemented four years ago to allow students to declare for any reason what first name they want on record, “forces students into an environment that denies the dignity of their identity and personhood.” This criticism isn’t new: Farrow was the subject of student protest in response to his persistent misgendering of trans women on a panel about gender in 2017.

The RSUS letter asks McGill to support its students by “affirming that marginalization on the part of professors will not be tolerated.” One RSUS executive member, Mateya Burney, clarified that Farrow’s right to his opinions was not in question. But “students have attempted to debate/critique these opinions, and have received no room for discussion or critical analysis from the professor,” she told the McGill Daily.

Although a town hall was held on the issue, McGill has yet to take any concrete action in response to student complaints, according to the RSUS. And no major news outlets have reported on the controversy surrounding Farrow.

There has, however, been extensive coverage of professors like Verushka Lieutenant-Duval.

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The premier stokes the flames

In late 2020, Lieutenant-Duval, a white professor at the University of Ottawa, was briefly suspended for using an anti-Black racial slur in a classroom discussion. This sparked debates across Canada regarding the use of racist and derogatory language in universities. Premier François Legault commented on the issue, accusing “radical activists” of instigating a censorship movement. His statement emboldened professors to speak out against “outside pressure,” despite the fact that the discussion began when students raised concerns.

One such student, speaking anonymously to La Presse, described a near-identical situation at McGill. A professor assigned a novel containing a racial slur, and two students objected. Similar situations have also occurred at Concordia University. McGill’s principal and vice-chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, released a statement on the importance of balancing academic freedom and inclusivity. Noticeably absent from the statement was any direct reference to systemic racism.

When students are given a platform, the demographics often skew white.

Then, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released an open letter asking the university to revoke a former professor’s emeritus status. The group argued that his “racist and Islamophobic” opinions were being presented as facts and bolstered by his association with the university. This letter again emphasized the importance of McGill standing with its marginalized students.

The conversation quickly shifted from appropriate usage of historically located terms to a reawakening of “cancel culture” anxieties.

No profs reprimanded, let alone cancelled

La Presse columnist Isabelle Hachey has written extensively on the issue, and faced criticism for presenting an “unbalanced” narrative. Her coverage has been accused of “reversing the real power dynamic” between professors and students. Many publications, La Presse included, have spoken primarily to white professors. This focus on white academic perspectives has been criticized by several francophone journalists, but the dominant narrative still prevails. In one piece, a subheading reads, “Facts don’t matter here. Only feelings count.” But what are the facts?

In an interview with Hachey, an anonymous McGill professor explained that her students reported her for reading a slur out loud. When asked how the school’s administration treated her, the professor said they were “very nice.” Still, the professor chose to stop teaching books containing the slur “to avoid problems.” Other faculty have done the same — University of Ottawa professor Jade Boivin has said she isn’t willing to “sacrifice her career” to discuss colonialism. But even her infamous coworker, Lieutenant-Duval, only suffered a brief suspension. So, Hachey has argued, “the problem is elsewhere.”

For a situation to involve “cancel culture,” someone must actually be cancelled. For “the freedom to teach” to need protection, it must first be in danger. But McGill’s administration seems to be siding with its tenured staff. None of the McGill professors cited in La Presse have faced repercussions.

In the absence of consequences, professors seem to be frustrated that their students are pushing back against isolating and hostile learning environments. It’s easier to avoid talking about sensitive subjects than it is to speak carefully. “The truth is, this whole controversy could have been avoided had the lecturer simply used the abbreviated ‘N-word,’” wrote the editors of The Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s independent student newspaper.

Throughout this coverage, the organized demands of university students are absent. When students are given a platform, the demographics often skew white. In one article from La Presse, eight McGill students spoke on the issue of “academic freedom” and racist language. Only one of them identifies as Black.

As journalists rely on white students and professors to explain the issues, they have overlooked the statements made by SSMU and RSUS, among others. SSMU’s open letter expressed concerns about “conflat[ing] the utterance of a racial slur with the teaching of material featuring racial slurs.” This careful point has been addressed in only a handful of op-eds in La Presse and Le Devoir.

What’s more, both SSMU and the RSUS have presented solutions that can’t be reduced to “cancel culture.”

SSMU suggests that teaching sensitive material should come only after “robust equity training, serious consideration, and the input of students from the directly affected group.” The RSUS asks that students simply be given “greater flexibility in their course choice” by allocating some mandatory courses to other professors alongside Farrow.

Neither group has asked that any professors be blacklisted, fired, or even suspended.

Learning from l’affaire Hérouxville

This isn’t the first time Quebec media have fixated on one small facet of an important conversation. In the late 2000s, Quebec was in the thick of an ongoing debate on “reasonable accommodations,” centring on “the extent to which minority and immigrant cultural practices could be accommodated.”

In the midst of this contentious conversation, enter Hérouxville. The small town became the subject of widespread media attention after its council issued a now-infamous code of behaviour. The code was supposedly intended to prevent undesirable behaviours by immigrants, including the stoning of women. This crime has never occurred in the history of Hérouxville, a town with an immigrant population of three at the time. Stories about the code spread through news outlets, stirring the reasonable accommodations debate to a frenzy.

Quebec’s news outlets, and media across Canada, gave Hérouxville the boost it needed to co-opt the debate.

The Hérouxville controversy is firmly entrenched in the public conversation around secularism in Quebec, and is a mainstay of retrospective coverage. City councillor André Drouin later claimed that the entire code of conduct was a ploy intended to draw media attention. If this is true, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Soon after the code was passed, the Montreal Gazette published an article stating that its “intention appears to be to scare off newcomers with a code that presumes the worst of them.” In late January 2007, the National Post paraphrased Drouin as saying, “the more accommodations made for minorities, the greater the divide” between immigrants and non-immigrants.

But by drawing so much focus to the invented “issue” of immigrant (read: Muslim) cultural practices, the Hérouxville council diverted attention from the ongoing struggles faced by racialized and non-Christian Canadians. They could not have done this alone: as Drouin himself admitted, the code of conduct needed the press. Quebec’s news outlets, and media across Canada, gave Hérouxville the boost it needed to co-opt the debate. Current conversations around “academic freedom” in universities risk overshadowing racism, and anti-racist activism, in a similar way.

An overdue reckoning

Universities like McGill are notoriously unwelcoming for Black and Indigenous students. Though McGill, like any university, has established avenues for students to seek help when they have concerns with their professors, these avenues are necessary precisely because professors hold power over their students. White professors who present any other dynamic are telling a misleading story.

The entire conversation comes on the heels of McGill’s new Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, a significant undertaking that would not exist without the work of student groups like McGill’s Black Students Network and organizers like those behind Take James McGill Down,” an initiative seeking to have the statue of the university’s namesake replaced with a memorial to the people he and other Montrealers enslaved. While students say it is far from perfect, the Action Plan signals a reckoning at the university. Not only does it incorporate several student concerns, but it establishes a metric by which Black and Indigenous students can hold the administration to its promises.

Though the Action Plan has received some mainstream coverage, as have demonstrations organized by the Take James McGill Down initiative, the platform afforded to white McGill professors threatens to drown this reporting out. Also hidden in the noise are the constant barriers faced by racialized students at McGill. The students marginalized in public forums are those who have the most to say.

“Concerned” white professors at McGill are ignoring the glaring inequity that led to the Action Plan: the overwhelming lack of Black professors at McGill. When Black students express their discomfort as their white professors use uncensored slurs in class and teach material that includes racist rhetoric, they are doing so in the context of a university whose permanent academic staff is 99.2 per cent non-Black.

Dr. Mbaye Diouf, one of only 14 Black tenured or tenure-track professors at McGill, works with Dr. Isabelle Arseneau, a white professor who is quoted repeatedly in La Presse. Diouf does not appear in any mainstream articles on the subject of censorship, though he has spoken to McGill’s only francophone student-run paper, Le délit. He speaks carefully, arguing that the total censorship of works containing anti-Black slurs is counterproductive for a variety of historical and social reasons. Diouf is clear, though, that it is important to take student concerns, and requests for accommodation, seriously.

One former McGill professor, Dr. Charmaine Nelson, has spoken extensively about the racism Black staff and students face at McGill. It's “not a safe place for people of colour,” Nelson told the Montreal Gazette in 2020. McGill expected Nelson to lead the charge on studying the university’s history of slavery and colonialism, but she ultimately left McGill for NSCAD University in Halifax. In 20 years at McGill, Nelson was never nominated for a Canada Research Chair. At NSCAD, she has a Tier-1 Canada Research Chair and is building the inaugural Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery in Canada.

This context is largely absent from reporting like Hachey’s. Although student activism thrives at universities like McGill, Black student organizers are missing from the conversation in mainstream reporting. As McGill slowly begins to acknowledge a long history of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, the consequences of that history are often omitted. While white professors protest the censorship of a word that does not affect them, their racialized students are left to advocate for themselves.

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