Quebec moves to shore up academic freedom with controversial bill

In an attempt to address perceived issues of censorship in Quebec universities, the CAQ government has introduced a bill to enforce new rules around academic freedom across the province.

Quebec’s minister of higher education, Danielle McCann, tabled Bill 32 at the National Assembly Wednesday morning, defining academic freedom as “the right of every person to engage freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint” in all school-related activities.

McCann said “any word” can be spoken in a university classroom, provided it’s used in an academic context.

“The question of academic freedom is fundamental,” McCann said in a statement. “In the last few years, several troubling events brought our attention to this subject and one thing is clear: censorship has no place in our classrooms.”

The bill gives universities one year to adopt a policy to enforce this definition and to create a council to handle complaints and oversee the policy’s implementation. They also need to appoint someone to be in charge of the whole process. If they don’t do enough, the law would allow the minister to order schools to bolster their academic-freedom policies.

The debate that sparked the bill started in October 2020, when Premier François Legault criticized the University of Ottawa for suspending a professor who had used the N-word during a lecture.

A student had complained the derogatory word for Black people was used by the teacher, who was explaining how some communities had reclaimed certain terms over time. Legault blamed the suspension on “censorship police.”

Over 30 of the professor’s francophone colleagues penned a letter arguing the punishment violated her academic freedom, sparking a lively discussion in Quebec media — a discussion which members of the Black community said was dominated by white people.

Questionable questionnaire

In March 2020, the CAQ created a committee on academic freedom that held public consultations from Aug. 24 to Sept. 1, in response to reports of professors who had stopped teaching controversial topics to avoid offending students.

A report tabled last December concluded that Quebec university classrooms should not be safe spaces and post-secondary institutions should not be imposing the use of so-called trigger warnings — statements that warn students about potentially offensive or traumatic classroom material.

The bill tabled today follows through on all of the recommendations in the committee’s report and leans heavily on the results of a survey of 1,079 professors and 992 students.

Sixty per cent of professors who filled out the questionnaire said they had engaged in self-censorship and had avoided using certain words, and 82 per cent of those teachers said they were in favour of lifting all restrictions regarding what they could teach or say in class.

But almost 20 per cent of students who were surveyed said they had at some point felt personally attacked by the remarks of a professor or teaching assistant.

In its statement on methodology, the committee said 13 per cent of the students who were surveyed identified as being part of a minority group.  It’s unclear how many of the professor who responded to the survey were members of a minority group.

McGill law student Wisaal Jahangir says the notion of academic freedom implies that the government shouldn’t be imposing regulation on universities. (CBC News)

Differing opinions

McGill University law student Wisaal Jahangir says she finds it ironic that, in its push to protect academic freedom, the Quebec government is imposing regulations on universities.

“Personally, I feel the whole question of academic freedom, that means universities should be entirely separate from the political and philosophical opinions of administration, of politicians,” she said. “And the bill completely counteracts that.”

Jahangir says professors should be responsible for creating spaces that are conducive to learning and where students feel comfortable expressing themselves but she says they also have a responsibility to those students.

“This professor saying the N-word in a classroom, it’s going to have a different impact on Black students in the classroom than it will on non-Black students. Especially coming from a white professor.”

Myrna Lashley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill, says academic freedom and academic responsibility go hand in hand, though the latter is noticeably absent in the new legislation.

“If I’m going to teach something, especially if it’s something that has offensive words in it, I have to put them into a context,” said Lashley. “Preferably within a historical context, so that students understand why the words were written and why they’re being repeated today.”

Lashley says the bill’s wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation. She hopes the councils that universities create to tackle the issue are diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender.

She also she says it will be important to monitor the government to make sure it doesn’t overstep.

“Once you start letting the government start putting their hands into what you teach and what academic freedom is and how it’s defined, you’ve got to be careful you’re not going down a slippery slope,” Lashley said.

Myrna Lashley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, says professors need to ‘be compassionate’ with their students. (Naskademini)

Jean Portugais, president of the Quebec Federation of University Professors, says the spirit of university is to create a place where professors and students are confronted with every possible point of view, even ones that are contradictory.

He believes professors are capable of tackling difficult subjects with respect.

“I have confidence in our professors,” said Portugais. “They show proof of good judgment every day, with a sense of rigour and morality. They know how to choose the exact words so people aren’t hurt.”

Portugais said he’s pleased with the bill but wishes Quebec had gone further, for example protecting professors and students from potential lawsuits related to their research.

He says requiring trigger warnings in the classroom “isn’t manageable” because it would force professors to systematically review every text and body of work they draw on to teach to look for words that could potentially set their students off.