A new bill introduced in Quebec on April 6 allows “any word” to be used in university classrooms under academic context, the province’s higher education minister said.
“The bill defines the right to university 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.”
Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann said Wednesday that the bill is good news for all students, including racialized students, because it preserves a high-quality learning environment in the province’s universities.
“I’m very sensitive to those students. It’s in their interest to have this bill because I think universities have a very important role in society and the students. … I meet them regularly and I understand. But at the same time, we have to preserve the learning. It has to be of high quality. They have to be able to debate and that is why academic freedom is so important for them also to debate those subjects,” McCann said.
“When you talk about a book where there’s a word that may shock you, well, there should be a dialogue about that,” she said, adding that “classrooms are not safe spaces” but rather “spaces for debate.”
The bill draws on a committee report from last December requested by the government in response to a 2020 controversy in which Verushka Lieutenant-Duvala, a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa, was suspended for using the N-word during a class lecture. Lieutenant-Duval later said in an interview with CBC News that the word was used during a discussion about groups who “re-appropriate” or reclaim words and phrases previously used to disparage or oppress.
McCann said the bill is needed to better define and protect academic freedom for university teachers, adding that a legislative framework will help prevent teachers from censoring themselves.
“Censorship has no place in our classrooms,” she said. “We must protect the teaching staff from censorship.”
“In fact, we will be able to use any word in the pedagogical, academic context, and obviously according to ethical standards, scientific rigour.”
The bill, once passed, gives university-level educational institutions one year to adopt an academic freedom policy and council to review complaints about violations of such freedoms.
On Wednesday, roughly 30 student unions across Quebec signed a joint statement in opposition of the bill, saying that it is using academic freedom as an instrument to claim the right to make discriminatory or provocative remarks.
“It’s a call for repression of the student community and a populist means to rally the population against progressive ideas,” the statement said.
“Academic freedom doesn’t protect the right to say anything,” it reads. “Rather, it protects the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society, and the challenge of power by scholars.”
The Canadian Press contributed to this article.