Maïtée Saganash should have felt safe at university, but instead it became a stalking ground for the men who hated her.

Saganash was a star pupil at Université du Québec à Montréal, the only one of her classmates to have a column in a daily newspaper, the kind of magnetic public speaker who was invited to appear on panel discussions and radio shows.

But her notoriety also made her a target. She says it rubbed some people the wrong way that a Cree woman could be so outspoken about Quebec society.

Saganash dropped out in 2016 because she no longer felt safe on campus. She’d been repeatedly harassed by members of Quebec’s far right, people who would show up to her speaking engagements to stare her down, men who would deride her on a podcast popular among extremist groups like La Meute and Atalante Québec.

Two of those men attended classes in the same building as Saganash.

“I’m not asking for anyone to whitewash history. I just think it would be nice not to hear the words out loud.”

“They would talk shit about me, use threatening language,” said Saganash, who studied political science. “They were pretty open about their hatred for me. There was a time where I would have said, ‘Yeah, it’s these fuckers. Let’s fight back.’ But I had nothing left to fight them with.

“I had always loved school. I miss it, but I’ll never go back to school in Montreal.”

By the time an administrator offered to help, it was too late. Saganash was stuck in a deep depression, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Things are much better for her these days. She’s sober, she still writes columns in Métro Montréal and The Nation, but she moved back to Cree territory to be closer to her family. Saganash now works in communications for the Cree Nation Health Board.

‘Cancel culture’ on campus?

We’ve been hearing a lot about “cancel culture” in Quebec lately.

Last week, La Presse ran a five-part series about academic freedom, featuring interviews with white professors censoring themselves in the face of unprecedented scrutiny from student activists.

There’s the professor who was called a homophobe on social media because she was too scared to teach a class about homosexuality during antiquity. Or a history teacher who no longer wanted to address slavery for fear of being the victim of an online mob accusing him of racism.

“One teacher said students no longer go to school for an education, they go to school looking for a revolution,” said La Presse columnist Isabelle Hachey in an interview on Radio-Canada.

“People talk about cancel culture, but what do you call it when someone has to leave school because it’s such a hostile place?”

It all began at Ottawa University last year, when a white professor used the n-word in a clumsy attempt to disarm the slur.

The professor faced a torrent of online abuse, was reprimanded by her university and had her personal information leaked on social media. All because of a slip of the tongue, according to the prof.

Quebec’s right-wing and centrist politicians seized on the Ottawa U scandal as an example of political correctness run amok. It has been the subject of countless newspaper columns and debates on Radio-Canada, TVA Nouvelles and the CBC.

Premier François Legault took it a step further last week. In the midst of a pandemic that’s claimed over 10,000 lives in Quebec, he said his government is considering legislation that would protect academic freedom in the context of controversies over use of the n-word and other sensitive subjects.

But it hasn’t focused on people like Maïtée Saganash, people for whom school became a hostile place because of the colour of their skin.

I decided to take a look at the other side of the issue, and talk to people for whom the n-word, slurs and outdated attitudes about race and religion have made university a hostile and even dangerous place.

These are their stories.

Isolation and intimidation

Michèle Audette says some students at Université Laval try to hide their Indigenous ancestry.

“They don’t want to be treated differently, they don’t want to be bullied, they don’t want to draw more attention to themselves,” said Audette, Assistant to the Vice-Rector, Student and Academic Affairs and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation and Aboriginal Education at Université Laval, and a member of the Innu nation. “People tell me, ‘I don’t want my classmates to think I got into university through the back door. Like I got in just because of a diversity quota.’

“They’ll tell me they’re worried their accent or the colour of their skin will give them away. They’re afraid because French isn’t their first language. It’s intimidating.”

There are some 386 Indigenous students on the Quebec City campus, and Audette says every week she has to help a student or a professor with a “challenge” they’re facing.

But while much of the media discourse in Quebec points to students striking fear in the hearts of their teachers and flooding administrators with complaints, Audette says that’s far from reality.

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That conversation has centred on white voices thus far — professors, university administrators and white pundits claiming they’re afraid of teenage activists “cancelling” them.

“You know, 95 per cent of the time, we arrive at a solution without a formal complaint,” said Audette, the former head of Quebec Native Women. “People are open to learn, they’re open to doing the right thing.”

Kayla (not her real name) is all too familiar with the problems Audette describes.

She’s heard classmates say she only got into McGill University’s prestigious law school because she’s there to fill a quota. Or that she had it easy because the federal government paid for her education.

No one ever bothered asking her if any of that was true.

“I worked four jobs to get through school, the band council didn’t pay for my education,” said Kayla, a Mohawk from Quebec. “Maybe they don’t realize it but when people talk to you like that, what they’re really saying is you don’t belong. When you’re the only Indigenous student in your class, it can feel pretty isolating already.

“Add the constant insinuations that you’re just not as good as everyone else … it can be pretty brutal.”

Ultimately, Kayla left McGill because it was an overwhelmingly negative experience.

“People talk about cancel culture, but what do you call it when someone has to leave school because it’s such a hostile place?” she said. “I tutored an Indigenous student who dropped out because it was too much to deal with. I’ve known lots of people who left for the same reasons.”

Kayla is a grad student in Ontario now, but a new school and program haven’t made things much easier. She says that her work in history is sometimes taken less seriously because she’s Indigenous.

“Sometimes, there’s this idea that in order to properly analyze Indigenous history, you have to be an outsider, a neutral observer. And neutral, in this context, means white,” said Kayla.

“That perspective has been accepted as historical fact for centuries. Now when some of us challenge that, it’s not censorship, we’re bringing a critical perspective. That’s what university is supposed to be.”

“I can’t remember a single year of my life where I didn’t hear the n-word in a negative or hateful context. We haven’t moved past it.”

Like a lot of her peers, Kayla doesn’t want to hear racial slurs out loud in her classroom. But she doesn’t believe anyone should rewrite history either.

“There was a situation with a white professor, where she censored the n-word and other words associated with Black identities,” said Kayla. “However, she didn’t censor slurs against Indigenous and Asian peoples. She said those slurs weren’t as bad. So she used the slurs out loud.

“I approached her with another student — she was the only Chinese student in class — and we told her it’s really upsetting to hear that. It’s dehumanizing, it reminds you that your identity can be reduced to this one hateful thing.

“I’m not asking for anyone to whitewash history. I just think it would be nice not to hear the words out loud. It’s in historical documents and there’s nothing we can do about that.

“Let’s just maybe warn students that certain words will be in the text but not have to say them out loud. It’s really not that hard.”

Realities of Black people ignored

Until the day Philippe Néméh-Nombré gave his first lecture in university, he’d never encountered a Black professor before.

That was less than two years ago.

When Néméh-Nombré hears pundits describe academic freedom under siege, he can’t help but chuckle.

“Everything is backwards right now,” said Néméh-Nombré, a PhD candidate at Université de Montréal. “We’re framing the words of minorities as though they’re in power, as though they’re the dominant group. It’s an obvious contradiction there. It’s almost funny.

“But it’s not funny, it’s aggravating to see people fighting so hard to have the right to use the n-word. It’s strange. My first reaction, with that word, is the people I’ve seen fight hardest for the word are people who don’t even work on issues relating to the Black community. That’s remarkable.

“Second thing, these people have no imagination. How can your reaction to someone saying, ‘This hurts me’ be ‘Well, I have the right to hurt you’? When I hear people tell me no one uses that word anymore or that they just want to use it in an academic setting it’s astounding.

“You know, I can’t remember a single year of my life where I didn’t hear the n-word in a negative or hateful context. We haven’t moved past it.”

“It’s exhausting. You find yourself making the same arguments or trying to find new ways to say the same thing again and again.”

While pursuing his master’s degree, Néméh-Nombré explored the idea of intersectionality — a theory that says social categorizations like race, gender and class overlap to create unique identities, with certain groups disadvantaged. In other words, if someone is Black and a woman, she experiences not just racism as a Black person and sexism as a woman, but specific kinds of oppression particular to Black women.

Though the study of intersectionality is common in sociology, Néméh-Nombré’s white professor refused to acknowledge the theory could be valid.

“It wasn’t a case of ‘You’re not welcome here’ but it felt like my labour, my own experience and my knowledge weren’t welcome,” said Néméh-Nombré. “When you devote your life to something, you want to feel like you belong.”

Néméh-Nombré has tried to be a part of the solution. He’s sat on committees, worked on anti-racism plans and done his best to sensitize his university to the reality of being Black in Quebec. He says nothing ever changes.

“You give hours of your labour, often for free and then it’s just pose for a public relations photo and the university moves on,” he said. “It’s exhausting. You find yourself making the same arguments or trying to find new ways to say the same thing again and again. You’re fighting … and then one day you realize maybe no one is listening.”

Hiding behind academic freedom

Amaria Phillips says she’s tired of being “the representative of all Black students” at Concordia University.

She says that while she appreciates that some teachers are scrambling not to say the wrong thing, they tend to go about it in the worst way.

“How it happens is a professor will ask you — a Black person — if something is or isn’t offensive,” said Phillips, who co-founded the Black Student Union at Concordia last October. “At that moment, you’re not a student, you’re some sort of ambassador for all Black people. You’re just Black. Nothing else.

“Some of the most racist people I’ve ever come across have PhDs.”

“We’re not all the same. What offends me might not be what offends someone else. And not everyone has the energy to just be singled out and asked to make this major judgement call.”

Following an incident where a white lecturer at Concordia used the n-word during class, Phillips called on the university to crack down on the slur.

“It was a class about feminism, not race. She just used the word to shock the students,” said Phillips, who spoke to several students present at the time. “We don’t need to hear that word spoken out loud. There should be consequences when it’s used so recklessly like that.

“People can’t keep hiding behind academic freedom. We’re adults. If you just say ‘n-word’ people know what word you’re talking about. The word is traumatizing. We’ve all been called that word. It brings up some of the worst memories of your life. It’s not radical to not want to experience that.”

Playing hot potato with hate

Not everyone in the Black community agrees that white academics shouldn’t be allowed to utter the n-word in class.

Dany Laferrière is one of the most celebrated writers in Quebec history. The title of his first novel, which contains the n-word, has come up again and again in the debate over academic freedom. (In the English version, the word has been euphemistically translated as “negro” instead.)

The book is a cornerstone of modern Quebec literature. Those defending academic use of the n-word worry an important piece of cultural history will be erased because of it.

In a blog post written last October, Laferrière said we shouldn’t rush to ban the word without knowing its full history. He wrote that to allow oneself to be so offended by the word is to give power to racists.

There have been other high-profile Black men in Quebec — like comedians Boucar Diouf and Normand Brathwaite — who have also called on people not to outright ban the word from public discourse. Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade said universities need to be a forum where people can explore the n-word in the right context.

Anglade is the first Black woman in Quebec history to be the head of a major political party.

But Laferrière’s words are also weaponized by white people to criticize Black journalists and intellectuals who disagree with the author.

Le Devoir columnist Émilie Nicolas is a regular target of theirs. Last week, a white man tagged her on Twitter and suggested Le Devoir fire her and replace her with Laferrière.

She decided to brush it off with a joke.

“I’m not racist but I think we should be able to trade Black people like Pokémon,” Nicolas wrote, in response to the tweet.

Within a few days, an online mob decided to swarm Nicolas’ profile by repeatedly reporting her to Twitter. Her account was suspended because of the Pokémon joke.

“Something like this happens every week,” said Nicolas, who is also a columnist at the Montreal Gazette. “They’ll contact (Le Devoir editor) Brian Miles and demand that he fire me, they’ll photoshop my face on Aunt Jemima, there’s personal insults and attacks.

“I’m just an example of a much larger phenomenon. It’s not about me, it’s about what I represent. Looking at it that way makes it easier to live with.”

If there’s a censorship crisis in Quebec, Nicolas says it isn’t just one being waged by whiny students. And the fight over free speech is spilling over into public discourse.

“When one of us gets mobbed online or we get threatened, it makes the other Black women I know think twice about speaking out,” said Nicolas. “We talk about censorship. Well what do you call that? When you know you’ll be targeted by hate, sometimes you decide not to say anything, to stay on the sidelines.

“It’s hard for new Black voices to emerge because the existing ones get railroaded in public. A conversation we’ve had — when I say we I mean Black, Muslim, Indigenous women — is we ask ourselves, ‘Okay who has the energy to take this on this week?’

“It’s like hot potato. We pass each other these issues because it’s so exhausting to carry other people’s hate all the time.”

Saganash thinks back to her days in school and her decision to leave.

“I left the city because my opinions didn’t please certain people,” says Saganash. “Looking back, you know, they weren’t dumb rednecks.

“Some of the most racist people I’ve ever come across have PhDs.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect job title for Michèle Audette. She is Assistant to the Vice-Rector, Student and Academic Affairs and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation and Aboriginal Education at Université Laval. Edits were also made to clarify the use of the n-word in the French title of Dany Laferrière’s first novel.