Prominent Quebecers ‘alarmed’ by CRTC ruling that criticized Radio-Canada segment with ‘n word’

‘In our view, this is an indefensible position, contrary to the very idea of freedom of expression’

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OTTAWA — A host of politicians, former and current Radio-Canada employees and journalism advocates are calling on the public broadcaster to fight back against a new CRTC ruling criticizing a radio segment that featured the “n word” four times.

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In a radio segment on Aug. 17, 2020, Radio-Canada commentator Simon Jodoin and host Annie Desrochers spoke about a new petition calling for the firing of a Concordia University professor who created discomfort in class by reciting the title of a well-known political book by Quebecois author Pierre Vallières, “N—–s blancs d’Amérique” (White n—–s of America).

The book, an influential political treatise published in 1968, compared the plight of French Quebecers, whom he described as “slaves” to the dominant Anglo-Saxon elite, to that of Afro-Americans that he said were still considered slaves in the United States.

During the segment, they referred to the book’s title — including the “n word” — four times. In a ruling published last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) now demands Radio-Canada, the French arm of the CBC, apologize.

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The situation is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding former star CBC host Wendy Mesley, who was removed from her position as host of The Weekly in 2020 after repeating the same book title during work meetings.

But in this case, a drove of influential Radio-Canada current and former journalists, star hosts and even ombudsmen are pushing back, saying they are “alarmed” by the CRTC ruling, which they view as an attack on journalism and freedom of expression.

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On Thursday, the CRTC published a ruling (which contains the book’s full name) demanding that Radio-Canada publish a public apology to a complainant, social worker and artist Ricardo Lamour, who took offence to the repeated use of the “n word.”

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A majority of CRTC commissioners said they were “dissatisfied” by the way the subject was treated during the radio segment, that Radio-Canada did not take sufficient steps to “mitigate the impact of the word” (including not repeating it or sharing a warning at the beginning of the conversation), and that the broadcaster did not sufficiently consider the social context at the time.

Lamour, a Black Montrealer, said Monday that he appreciates the CRTC’s ruling, but that he has since received “violent blowback” to it personally. During the interview, he received an email calling him a “woke complainer” that people are getting “very sick of.”

But the first dissent came from within the CRTC, with two commissioners, Caroline J. Simard and Joanne T. Levy, publishing their own dissenting opinions disagreeing with the majority.

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Simard namely criticized her colleagues for failing to note the cultural differences between the single “n word” in French and its various versions, meanings and histories in English.

“The majority decision is based on the premise that the use of the word ‘nègre’ (the “mot ‘n’ “), as used in this book title, has evolved in the French-speaking world in such a way that it deserves the same treatment that the ‘N-word’ receives in the rest of the country in the English language,” Simard wrote. “The majority decision has taken a step I cannot take.”

Over the weekend and on Monday, a growing number of Quebec media and political voices expressed their opposition to the ruling.

In an open letter published Sunday, nearly a dozen former Radio-Canada executives or ombudsmen called on the public broadcaster to appeal the CRTC’s ruling.

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“That Radio-Canada would therefore have an obligation to broadcast content that is in line with the majority and dominant opinion? In our view, this is an indefensible position, contrary to the very idea of freedom of expression,” reads the letter signed by the likes of senator and former ombudsman Julie Miville-Dechêne and Bernard Derome, former star host of the broadcaster’s flagship news show.

The Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec, the province’s largest journalist association, also published a statement calling the decision a “dangerous precedent.”

Then, on Monday, a group of over 50 current Radio-Canada “headliners” published their own letter demanding Radio-Canada “disavow” the “concerning” ruling and “contest it vigorously.”

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“It calls into question, on the one hand, the principles of freedom and independence that our profession requires and, on the other hand, opens the door to the dangers of censorship and self-censorship,” reads the letter.

On Twitter, Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy voiced her support for the letter and opposition to the ruling, and her message was even echoed by Premier François Legault.

In an interview, radio host and one of the letter’s instigators Alain Gravel said he is very aware of the heavy significance carried by the “n word,” but that the CRTC’s ruling is “dangerous” because it creates a jurisprudence going forward.

“I’m afraid the CRTC will become the censorship police,” he said, adding that he and many colleagues did not understand why Mesley was removed from her post years ago for quoting the book title at work.

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During the interview, Lamour referred to opponents of the ruling as the “elites,” “wealthy” and “hack jobs” who hold all the power and are fighting to maintain the status quo, at the detriment of racialized Quebecers.

“If a black person is saying that the usage of a term that was historically used to dehumanize his family, his ancestors, his people; if a black person is standing up to them and saying, ‘I have an issue with this,’ they’re not even listening and contextualizing it, they’re just like, ‘you’re attacking our freedom of expression,’ ” he said.

In a statement, Radio-Canada spokesperson Julie Racine said the ruling and the dissenting opinions “illustrate the complexity of the issue well” and that the broadcaster recognizes that the use of the “n word” is “offensive” so it limits its use on air.

She also said the broadcaster was still studying the CRTC’s decision and how it will respond.

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