Warning: This story contains a reference to a literary work by Pierre Vallières that contains a racist slur in the title. UKTN has decided to fully publish the name of the book without the offending word.
During the first leadership debate of the election campaign, two white men who wanted to become prime minister of Quebec suddenly blurted out the N-word.
Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon used the slur last Thursday while referencing the book by a famous Quebec author, and then he challenged Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois to do the same.
Québec Solidaire’s co-spokesperson explained the need for academic freedom in schools and universities when TVA presenter and the evening’s moderator, Pierre Bruneau, intervened. He asked Nadeau-Dubois if the title of Pierre Vallières’ 1968 book, in which the N-word, can be said in the classroom.
Then Plamondon collapsed.
“N—– blancs d’Ameriquecan we say the title of that book?” said Plamondon without warning, before shoving Nadeau-Dubois into a corner.
“It’s a book about the history of Quebecers. Can you name the title of that book?’ asked Plamondon.
This exchange took place on live television with reportedly 1.5 million Quebec residents and Liberal leader Dominique Anglade, the first black woman to ever lead a provincial party in Quebec and participate in such a debate, stood there.
It was a damn-if-you-damn-if-you-not moment for Nadeau-Dubois, one of the few prime ministerial candidates to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the province.
“Of course we can say the title of the book by Pierre Vallières, N—– blancs d’Ameriquethere’s no problem,” he said before criticizing his opponent for using the word as part of a personal crusade.
The use of the N-word that evening was perceived by many people as careless and gratuitous.
“What happened during the leadership debate scares me,” lawyer and columnist Fabrice Vil wrote in a Facebook post last Friday.
“On a television channel watched all over Quebec, during a leadership debate with key parties, while we have important social issues, men are pushing for their right to cite a work with the N word?”
After the debate, Nadeau-Dubois faced several questions from reporters about why he succumbed to Plamondon’s pressure. According to a Journal de Montréal columnist, it was a “clever” move by Plamondon to “put a forbidden word, the N-word, in Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’s mouth.”
The back and forth between the two candidates showed just how politicized the N-word has become in Quebec. One candidate used it for political gain, and the other seemed pressured to say it, as if he risked scaring off potential voters if he didn’t.
Over the past two years, the N-word has been at the center of several controversies, sparking debates about academic and journalistic freedoms and racism, with many people, including politicians, taking sides.
Politicizing the N-word
One of those controversies reverberated in Quebec, even though it was set in Ontario.
In 2020, a professor at the University of Ottawa was suspended for using the N-word in an art and gender class. Quebec politicians, including Legault, seized the opportunity to voice their opinion.
“It’s like we have some kind of censorship police,” Legault said at the time.
As a direct result, Legault’s party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, managed to academic bill of liberty into law last June.
Later that month, the Canadian Radio-Television And Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a majority decision that immediately sparked the ire of journalists, pundits and politicians.
The CRTC ordered Radio-Canada to publicly apologize to Ricardo Lamour, a black Montrealer who filed a complaint after the N-word was used several times on the air in both French and English regarding Vallières’ work. .
The statement criticized Radio-Canada for failing to give listeners a warning before using the word. For many commentators, however, the CRTC’s decision was an attack on journalistic freedom. Legault said the committee, not Radio-Canada, should apologize.
References to the N-word, censored or not, became more common in the media in Quebec and elsewhere.
In some cases, the use of the word seemed to be a sign of defiance: a way of not giving in to a culture of political correctness that was considered too far-fetched.
This summer, pressure on UKTN/Radio-Canada not to apologize for using the N-word on the air picked up.
Big names from Radio Canada past and present signed open letters. One, signed mainly by his former ombudsman who handled Lamour’s complaint before it reached the CRTC, described the ruling as an “indefensible” violation of the freedom of expression and journalistic independence of the public broadcaster.
The letter describes the decision as one that “denies Quebec’s history” — an argument similar to the one the PQ leader used to prompt Nadeau-Dubois to take the slur during Thursday’s debate.
The next day, in an interview with UKTN Montreal’s Debra Arbec, Nadeau-Dubois said he didn’t want to use the word and wouldn’t have done so “if circumstances had been different.”
Debate is not going away
Quebec’s recurring discussions about the N-word have left many in the province’s black communities astonished, annoyed or hurt.
Vil, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Pour 3 Points, says the debate about the word is oversimplified and not really about whether the word can be said in an academic or journalistic context.
“There are some black people in Quebec who just hope for sensitivity from people who have the privilege of… [access] to the media, who hope to get the impression, while watching television and radio, that they are also thinking of their dignity,” he wrote.
Last summer, UKTN/Radio-Canada chose to appeal the CRTC’s ruling, but still offered a public apology — a compromise that was believed to have gone badly for people on both sides of the issue.
With the case to be heard before the Federal Court of Appeal, the debate about academic and journalistic freedoms and the N-word will not go away.
Expect politicians and experts in the province to be excited to let you know exactly where they stand.