Quebec tables bill on academic freedom, says no words off limits in classrooms

The Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM) downtown campus is seen in Montreal, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

A new bill tabled Wednesday in Quebec would allow “any word” to be uttered in university classrooms as long as it’s used in an academic context, the province’s higher education minister said.

Bill 32 is great news for Quebec students, including racialized students, because it preserves a high-quality learning environment in the province’s universities, Danielle McCann told reporters.

“Classrooms are not safe spaces; they are spaces for debate,” McCann said, rejecting a common notion championed on university campuses across North America that students should not have to be exposed to certain kinds of hateful speech.

The bill is needed, McCann said, because academic freedom for university teachers must be better defined and protected, adding that a legislative framework will help prevent teachers from censoring themselves.

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“Censorship has no place in our classrooms. We must protect the teaching staff from censorship,” she said.

“In fact, we will be able to use any word in the pedagogical, academic context, and obviously according to ethical standards, scientific rigour,” McCann added.

The bill draws on a committee report last December requested by the government in response to a scandal at University of Ottawa in 2020, when a professor was suspended for using the N-word during a class lecture.

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A student had complained that part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the notorious word to explain how some communities had reclaimed certain terms.

Click to play video: 'Legault says university should have defended professor in debate over offensive language'
Legault says university should have defended professor in debate over offensive language

At the time, Quebec Premier François Legault and Liberal Opposition Leader Dominique Anglade both said the university should have defended the professor for using the word in an academic context.

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Jonathan Desroches, interim president of the Quebec Student Union, which represents 91,000 university students across the province, says the bill is not necessary and reflects a deeper problem: a generational gap between students and teachers.

“There must be training for not only staff, but also the student community to ensure that everyone understands the elements of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Desroches said.

“A law will not ensure that discussions will take place in a respectful manner.”

Bill 32’s preamble defines academic freedom as “the right of every person to engage freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint in an activity through which the person contributes, in their field of activity, to carrying out the mission of such an educational institution.”

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The bill enshrines the right to teach, conduct research and share results, critique society and freely take part in the activities of professional university organizations. It also requires universities to adopt an academic freedom policy and appoint a person responsible for implementing the policy.

Close to 30 student unions across Quebec signed a joint statement on Wednesday calling the bill an “attack” on educational institutions.

“It’s a call for repression of the student community and a populist means to rally the population against progressive ideas,” the statement said. The student unions said the bill instrumentalizes academic freedom in order to claim the right to make discriminatory or provocative remarks.

“Academic freedom doesn’t protect the right to say anything,” the statement read. “Rather, it protects the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society, and the challenge of power by scholars.”

— With files from the Canadian Press’ Jocelyne Richer 

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