Memoire to the Committee on Academic Freedom – University of Ottawa

June 26, 2021
Jean Delisle

By Jean Delisle, Translation Professor Emeritus of the University Ottawa.

The Honourable Justice Michel Bastarache, President

Committee on Academic Freedom

University of Ottawa

Monsieur le Juge,

            Thank you for the opportunity to share my views on academic freedom and freedom of expression. I am a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, where I spent my entire career. My two fields of specialization are teaching and the history of translation.

            Let us say, by way of preamble, that the study of translation and its history teaches us that to translate is to make a detour through the Other. This impulse towards the Other is antithetical to the tunnel vision inherent in “cancel culture” and “safe spaces” which build partitions, enclose in the sameness and ban critical thinking. A safe space is a warm greenhouse, a place where people can be safe and secure. A safe space is a warm hothouse, a narrow place where monoculture is practiced. However, the translator is open to the Other and to the exploration of new horizons, practises polyculture, which makes it possible to confront ideas and enrich culture. This is the raison d’être of the collections of translated foreign works published by the major publishing houses.

            My testimony is based on these prerequisites of openness, exploration and respect inspired by my fields of research as well as the fifty or so years I spent in academia, first as a student (Montreal, Paris), then as a professor (Ottawa). I retired in 2007.

            At the outset, I would like to express my deep aversion to the culture of denunciation, gagging, victimisation and clientelism.

            As there is no point in reinventing the wheel, let me quote the following two definitions from Wikipedia in full:

Academic freedom is the freedom that students and academic staff have the right to research, teach and express themselves without economic, political or other pressures. » (Translated from the French entry in Wikipedia)

Freedom of expression includes the right to express controversial and inconvenient opinions, and to criticise ideas and values without fear of reprisal. It is one of the fundamental rights and freedoms protected by the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Although fundamental, freedom of expression is not absolute and does not take precedence over other Charter rights: it cannot be used to justify racist, sexist or homophobic speech, for example.  Indeed, freedom of expression, even artistic or humorous expression, can be limited. This is the case if it undermines a person’s right to image and privacy or their right to dignity, for example. ” (Translated from the French entry in Wikipedia)

            While I recognise that a professor has a strong contractual relationship with the university that hired him or her on the basis of his or her academic credentials, specialised knowledge and proven skills and qualifications, this does not mean that the administrators of that same university can dictate the vocabulary that he or she should or should not use in the classroom. I see this as an abuse of authority. In a free and democratic country like Canada, the only obligation of a teacher in his or her job of guiding students in their learning is to exercise good judgment and not to use expressions that are intended to deliberately offend or humiliate a student or group of students. On this point there is no debate. The case is well made.

            I also recognise that not all students (nor all professors, for that matter) have the same sensitivity to certain words, concepts or theories (e.g. creationism, or atheism), but reflection and the transmission of knowledge must always take precedence over the sensitivity of the students, those who claim to be victims of “micro-aggressions”, a notion that is as subjective as it gets. In other words, course content and delivery should not be subordinated to the individual sensibilities of students.

            This principle seems to me to be fundamental and is part of the academic freedom enjoyed by the professor, a freedom which in this case overlaps with freedom of expression and the duty to transmit knowledge. Otherwise, teaching is locked into arbitrariness, relativism and a paralysing subjectivism, and the transmission of knowledge is compromised. And this is without taking into account that one student will be sensitive to this, another to that. Where to draw the line? Teaching is not an obstacle race (to be avoided). Let me illustrate my point with a concrete example, which I hope will be more illuminating than a long theoretical essay.

            In my practical translation classes I had the opportunity to deal with the words nigger and nègre. When I discussed the English equivalents of the expression “il y a anguille sous roche – I would point out to my students that the American language also has the expression “There is a nigger in the woodpile“.

            I was careful to point out that the origin of this Americanism goes back to the time when runaway black slaves had to hide to escape their pursuers. Common until the beginning of the 20th century, the expression was rightly perceived as racist and is no longer used, although it is fixed in American literature.

No one in the class, including the black students, reacted violently to what I said. No one made a fuss about me. No one accused me of insulting them. No one threatened me with expulsion. No one asked for my doctorate to be taken away from me. No one reported me to the authorities for saying the word nigger. (Several of my former colleagues went through all this in the so-called “Lieutenant Duval affair”).

            Students, it seems, knew the difference between ‘activism’, ‘learning’ and ‘insults’. It seems that this is no longer the case today, judging by the attitude of some individuals. Professors who have the misfortune to use these words, without the slightest intention of offending anyone, are perceived as blasphemers or racists by those I do not hesitate to call ‘language Islamists’. I see this as an impediment to academic freedom.

            Should professors now fear being beheaded every time they call a spade a spade or use a word that does not make consensus?

            In the current toxic, anti-intellectual climate in some quarters, I wonder if I could still warn my students against certain criticized or proscribed usages. Could I tell them, for example, to avoid using the word ‘nègre‘ (ghostwriter) to refer to the person who anonymously writes works signed by someone else, even though this meaning is recorded in the usual dictionaries and the word appears in relatively recent[1] novels? That it is better to avoid such depreciatory expressions as ‘parler petit-nègre‘, ‘plan de nègre‘ et ‘travailler comme un nègre‘?  Could I tell them that ‘tête-de-nègre‘ is a colour?

            Should I practice what I call the self-censorship of ignorance, because that’s what it is?

            I invite those who want to put certain words on the index and who advocate lexical censorship in universities to meditate on this thought by the Chinese poet Wou Tsien Ki: “If someone takes the words out of your mouth, don’t shout at the thief, language belongs to no one – unlike silence”. How many words will be blacklisted in this way? Which ones? Will they have to be designated by the absurd process of replacing them with their initial letter (n-word, … h-word, … p-word, …s-word)? Who will decide? The university setting is not a closed place like a national assembly, where there is a list of words to be banned so that debates remain respectful and MPs maintain decorum.

            In the Lieutenant-Duval affair, which has tarnished the image of the University of Ottawa, what was violated was not so much academic freedom as the right of the entire class to reasonably debate a sensitive subject, to calmly reflect on a problematic situation. The complaint of a single student and the blunders of two university administrators had the effect of locking down the debate. The lecturer’s academic freedom was clearly impeded.

            Is it not the mission of the university to provoke debate, to open minds? If education is the midwife of democracy, according to John Dewey, then the university must be the “birthing house”, to use the philosopher’s metaphor. The exact opposite of a forum for activists, an arena for political struggles.

            If the university blindly submitted to the diktats of victimised minorities and allowed them to define “political correctness”, in this case “academic correctness”, it would open the door to the worst excesses. The proof of this is the professor at an English-language school in Montreal who demanded the withdrawal of a Quebec history textbook that mentions Pierre Vallières’ book ‘Nègres blancs d’Amérique‘(1968). You would think you were hearing Tartuffe crying out:

“Cover this nigger (breast) that I cannot see.

By such objects, souls are wounded,

And this brings up guilty thoughts.”

                                               (Act III, sc. 2) (Molière’s play: Tartuffe)

            Tartufferies, indeed. Are we going to remove from libraries all books containing the words nègre, nigger, savage or faggot, on the pretext that certain individuals see them as “microaggressions”? Are we going to burn all the dictionaries containing these words? To ask the question is to measure the absurdity of the whole thing. Books are adapted and expunged ad usum Delphini[2], not a university library!

            Like all teachers, I am obviously against racism in all its forms, but unfortunately there is a tendency to see racism where it does not exist and to pillory teachers who do their jobs without any racist undertones. In the Lieutenant-Duval affair, the debate has more or less surreptitiously shifted from a case of the use of the word ‘nègre‘in an academic discussion (following a complaint by a single student, it must be remembered) to a situation of ‘systemic racism’ on the whole campus.

            What is most surprising is that this shift was endorsed (or indirectly provoked) by the very people whose job it was to defend academic freedom, the university administrators, who spontaneously sided with the students. As the case gained momentum, many professors were harassed and threatened (see above) by the same students who claimed to be victims of aggression. This is a paradoxical, even Kafkaesque, situation.

            There was also a split between the French-speaking professors, who took up the cause of academic freedom, and the English-speaking ones who, no doubt steeped in multicultural values[3], remained strangely silent, as if it did not concern them. Multiculturalism is “every man for himself in an empire of respected differences[4]“. Community groups in such a system rub shoulders without really mixing. While multiculturalism, as an official policy of a country, can convey a strong image of tolerance and cultural diversity and can be seen as a bulwark against racism and discrimination (which is not necessarily the case, there are 30% more cases of racism in Ontario than in Quebec), it also risks reducing a culture or race to its folklore and, in this case, to its social demands and struggles, sometimes to the neglect of other values, including academic freedom. Multiculturalism is distinct from interculturalism, a system of social organisation to which the Francophones of the Quebec nation seem as attached as they are to the French language, secularism and equality between women and men. Much could be said about this difference in perception at the University of Ottawa, which in this respect is a reflection of Canadian society, but that would take us away from our subject.

            While I am vehemently opposed to racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism, I am equally opposed to students who are unable to think critically, because that’s where the problem lies. I think I can say that I share this view with a majority of teachers and observers in the education world. If we want to put an end once and for all to a situation that is rotting the university climate, students will have to understand and accept a) that using words like nègre, nigger, savage or faggot for teaching purposes is not an act of racism or an insult, b) that a work cannot be removed from a reading list just because it contains words that some members of a group do not like, c) the words ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of expression’ cannot be replaced by ‘censorship’ or personal preferences, d) the content of academic programmes should be developed by experienced professors and not according to the sensitivity of students. Anything can be studied and researched in a university in a free country like Canada, where both academic freedom and freedom of expression exist.

            A university education should teach the difference between an opinion (argued), a mood (felt), a belief (religious) or a rumour (whose veracity must be established). Uncritical thinking should not be a substitute for tolerance and respect. It has been claimed, for example, that criticism of religions is a hateful act! If one were to admit this enormity, one could not denounce the discrimination against women in most religions; one could not denounce the homophobia of the three monotheistic religions, etc.

            Academic freedom is being able to discuss such matters within the confines of a university; freedom of expression is being able to do so publicly and freely, without fear of reprisal.

            In the eleven countries that still condemn homosexuals to the death penalty, there is neither academic freedom nor freedom of expression on this very subject. Only dogma, prejudice and ignorance. Let’s not import from the United States what is most harmful to rational thought and ‘vivre-ensemble‘, and let’s free ourselves from the chancres of the ‘banning culture’ and the infantilizing ‘safe spaces’.

            If the university, an institution of higher learning that trains tomorrow’s elite, fails to instil in its future graduates a critical mindset in a pedagogical context, if it is unable to teach future leaders to make sense of things, then the university is cruelly failing in its mission. It is no longer a place of reflection, research and advancement of knowledge, but a ship adrift, tossed by the currents of emotionalism, subjectivity and obscurantism, the currents that overwhelm social networks, which have been said to ‘elevate tavern talk to opinion’.

There is currently a real malaise within the university and it is not a “beau malaise“. No one wants to experience the disgraceful events that took place in 2017 at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington[5]. It is chilling. There is still time to change course by giving a strong push in the direction of common sense. […]

            I am pleased that a committee is looking at the practical application of “academic freedom” and “freedom of expression” to ensure that the University of Ottawa once again has a peaceful learning and research environment worthy of a great university. I wish the members of the committee every success.

            I hope that these few considerations drawn from my personal experience and knowledge of the situation at the University of Ottawa may be of assistance to the members of the Committee.

                                                                                  Jean Delisle, FRSC

                                                                                     Professor Emeritus

                                                                                              University of Ottawa

Translated by Michel Virard, P.Eng. (retired) June 2021

[1] See Claude Bleton, Les nègres du traducteur (Métailié, 2004), Hélène Rioux, Âme en peine au paradis perdu (XYZ, 2009, p. 42), Le cimetière des éléphants (XYZ, 1998, p. 24).

[2] The Delphin Classics or Ad usum Delphini was a series of annotated editions of the Latin classics. The first volumes were created in the 1670s for Louis, le Grand Dauphin, heir of Louis XIV . The expression Ad usum Delphini was sometimes used on other texts which had been expurgated because they contained passages considered inappropriate for the youth, and has been used pejoratively to indicate any work expurgated for the sake of younger audiences. (Translator’s note)

[3] Multiculturalism views cultures as “autonomous” sets of values, intellectual and artistic references common to a given, easily identifiable group. It assumes that everyone is part of one culture and that their relationships with others are based on intercultural tolerance. Multiculturalism divides society into groups according to race, religion, country of origin of ancestors.

[4] Sherry Simon, Hybridité culturelle, Montreal, L’Île de la Tortue, 1999, p. 19.

[5] To view the documentary: (montage with French subtitles) ( For the English original sources, there are 3 videos: , , – Translator’s note)

Jean Delisle is a Canadian author, university translation professor, certified translator, certified terminologist, translatologist and historian of translation. He has written numerous specialized works on translation, including the history of translation and terminology in Canada. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa and a member of the Quebec Humanist Association.

As usual, opinions presented in this open letter are those of its author, Jean Delisle, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the New Enlightenment Project Board of Directors.

Michel Virard