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Quebec university classrooms are not safe spaces, says academic freedom committee

Students can be seen sitting in a university classroom. File Photo / Getty Images

Quebec university classrooms are not safe spaces and post-secondary institutions should not be imposing the use of so-called trigger warnings, according to a report released Tuesday by a committee on academic freedom.

The provincial government created the committee in March, in reaction to reports about professors in the province who avoided teaching controversial material out of fear of confrontation with students. The committee is also in response to controversy at the University of Ottawa, where a professor was suspended in 2020 for using the N-word during a class lecture.

“Universities are specific institutions. It’s not high school — it’s a place where you advance knowledge through debates,” said Alexandre Cloutier, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister tasked by the government to lead the committee.

The report included results from a poll of 1,079 professors and 992 university students, indicating that 60 per cent of teachers said they engaged in self-censorship and avoided using certain words. Eighty-two per cent of teachers said they were in favour of no restrictions regarding what they could teach or say in class.

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Read more: Montreal students get a history lesson about the N-word

Cloutier, now vice chancellor at Université du Quebec a Chicoutimi, recommended the government adopt a bill that would create a universal definition of academic freedom and would protect that freedom on university campuses across the province.

“I think we forgot what is the mission of universities,” Cloutier told reporters Tuesday. “It’s taken for granted, but what we have seen is that it’s not the case. And a law would define it.”

The report makes several other recommendations, including against universities imposing so-called trigger warnings — statements that warn students about potentially offensive or traumatic classroom material.

In October 2020, Premier François Legault criticized the University of Ottawa for its decision to suspend the professor who used a derogatory word for Black people in class. A student had complained that part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the notorious word to explain how some communities had reclaimed certain terms over time.

Read more: University should have defended professor in debate over offensive language: Legault

Legault has said his government was considering issuing a statement to universities about academic freedom rather than adopting a law preventing censorship on campuses. But on Tuesday, Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann said the government would look into the committee’s recommendations.

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“Teachers must be able to exercise their freedom of teaching and researching,” McCann said in a statement. “This is what allows our society to move forward.”

Cloutier’s report frames academic freedom as the freedom to both say things and to teach and research subjects that go toward fulfilling a university’s mission. “In a classroom, people are not there to insult anyone, nor to indoctrinate the students,” Cloutier said.

He also recommended that each university in the province adopt a policy on academic freedom and create a committee that would monitor and oversee conflicts between teachers and students on issues related to controversial subjects.

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