Whether or not news leaders’ responses to accounts of systemic racism at English media organizations have been sincere or proactive, a review of French coverage and stated policies suggests Quebec is behind the starting line

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Lela Savić is a managing editor at La Converse and board member of Canadian Journalists of Colour. 

As a “debate” rages on about the use of the N-word in academic settings, an analysis of stories across major French-language publications during October shows frequent usage of the slur. 

In Le Devoir, for instance, the word was written in full several times in each of 23 articles over the last month. 

And in Journal Métro, the word ran three times over the last month, including in a headline. 

At La Presse, the word ran several times in each of 36 articles. La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé used it repeatedly on air on his radio show Le Québec maintenant. (He later apologized in his column in La Presse after being called out by Black comedian, Renzel F. Dashington.) 

In the Journal de Montréal, the word was written in French in 23 articles and in English in five articles.

At TVA Nouvelles, the word was used in eight articles over the last month. (In 2015, an 99 word article about the name change of lakes and monuments containing the N-word mentions it in full seven times in English and eight times in French.) 

During a University of Ottawa class in September, Prof. Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the slur in full as what she described as an example of a word that had been “reappropriated” by the people or group it had historically denigrated. The incident was made public when a student published the professor’s apology email to Twitter with the text, “@uOttawa pls teach your professors to not say the n word so i don’t have to THANKS!!”

In response to the prevalence of the word in predominantly French news outlets covering the Ottawa controversy, one being framed as a pedagogic debate about academic freedom, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour (of which I am a board member) released a statement on Oct. 30 about the use of the N-word in Canadian media. 

“The recent events at the University of Ottawa where a professor used the N-word in class, serves as a reminder of how much change is needed in Canadian institutions. Many outlets in Quebec used the word to describe the events on television, radio and online,” said the organizations, which regularly collaborate to foster solutions and highlight issues surrounding systemic racism in the media industry.

In January 2020, we released a white paper with seven calls to action, including increasing representation of BIPOC journalists in newsrooms and in management, as well as formally consulting with “racialized communities about news coverage on an ongoing basis.”  

“Words have the power to shape narratives,” the statement continues. “Even when used within the context of this incident, it goes without saying how harmful and destructive this word — in both French and English — is for Black people. We are calling on news outlets to implement policies prohibiting the use of the word.”

While these issues are prevalent and entrenched across the sector, the practice of publishing and airing the N-word is far more commonplace in French-language media in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. What really explains this difference in practice? 

Criticisms of poor coverage of anti-Black violence, the problematic notion of objectivity and its role in journalism and discriminatory labour practices have all been sitting on the surface in the industry, with professional networks (including CABJ and CJOC) and BIPOC media workers working overtime to foster accountability and change. 

Whether or not news leaders’ responses to them elsewhere in Canada have been sincere or proactive, in the province of Quebec, the conversation has barely started. And it’s a gap put on stark display by an internal split at CBC/Radio-Canada.

Internal emails show the public broadcaster’s French arm explicitly condoning the slur’s use in news delivery, mirroring the same free speech arguments made by largely white university faculty and commentators in its defence.

The N-word has been used in full countless times in coverage at Radio-Canada on radio, television and online. 

“Whether it is yesterday, today or tomorrow, we will always defend the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It is crucial to our job and our journalistic independence. Nevertheless, it is normal that the public broadcaster questions itself when societal debates occur, like the use of certain words such as the word n****,” (used in its entirety in the email) wrote Radio-Canada’s director general, Luce Julien, in a memo sent Oct. 20, translated here from French. 

“Exceptionally, it will be pertinent to use the word on our platforms to cite an excerpt, a book name or to give context through a cultural or historical reference. Every case must be evaluated with sensitivity, while taking into account that the word has a very strong negative connotation, and that it can hurt and humiliate,” she added. 

Later that day, producer and regional co-ordinator Marc-Olivier Laramée used the N-word on two occasions in an email he sent to roughly 200 regional reporters across the country indicating they could use the word. 

“Radio-Canada’s direction also authorizes the use of the word n**** in the analysis of this story,” wrote Laramée in French, who went on to name a Black journalist that staff can consult to discuss the subject. “There will be a plan.” 

A few hours later, he sent another message to apologize about his use of the N-word. Asked about the original email, Laramée said he was only following Radio-Canada’s instructions.

Like Radio-Canada, French-language news organizations that do have policies in place expressly allow its use. 

Asked about its internal policy, La Presse communications director Florence Turpault-Desroches said the word is permitted for stories in which they consider its use to be relevant. “We ask our reporters to use it with parsimony and in its context only. This is why you can find it in our stories, but rarely,” said Turpault-Desroches.

Le Devoir managing editor Florens Daudens said the issue is currently under discussion. 

“Recent events force us to adopt a policy about it,” said Journal Métro managing editor Oliver Robichaud, who did not state what that policy is or will be.

Québécor’s communications department did not respond to questions about its guidelines. 

The industry’s Québec-based professional organization does not offer a guideline for newsrooms to observe with regards to using the N-word in any capacity.

“The use of the word is an editorial choice of each media, who are free to make their own decisions,” said Michaël Nguyen, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec. “If someone deems that’s against journalistic principles they may address their complaints to Quebec’s press council.”

The president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Toronto-based national industry group, said otherwise. “I think we know what the best practices are on this matter. The question I ask is what is the added value to the story if we use the word? I think that we easily understand what we are referring to if we say the N-word,” said CAJ president Brent Jolly.

 “It’s a word that’s insensitive, poisoned, that carries a historic baggage that we haven’t faced enough and we have to listen and have empathy towards others. But I think we should have a dialogue about its use in our industry and help people understand why it’s hurtful.”

An employee who currently works at Radio-Canada and is speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal received both Julien’s and Laramée’s emails. He said he “almost fell off his chair” when he read them. 

“I think that people must know that Radio-Canada has a long road ahead to go to understand what non-whites think is appropriate,” he said. “We just authorized everyone to use it like a magic wand.”

“But this story is about people who are stating they don’t think the word should be used. Journalistically, we are saying we are on one side, we are on the side of the professor, on the side of those who say we should be allowed to use the word,” said the Radio-Canada reporter. 

A compilation of commentary assembled by media analyst and freelance journalist Steve Faguy posted on Oct. 29 shows that white pundits constitute the vast majority of opinions aired and columns filed on the issue.

“I’ve seen appalling things passing on our network in the name of freedom of speech.”

“Decisions should be explained with other arguments than what the professor used to defend herself. Because what I saw was three days of circus,” said the Radio-Canada reporter. “I’ve seen appalling things passing on our network in the name of freedom of speech.”

A Black reporter who previously worked for Radio-Canada said he wants to know if Julien consulted with Black staff or the diversity and inclusion office before making that statement. 

Julien was asked those questions via email. She hasn’t replied. The questions were also sent to Radio-Canada’s communications team. Radio-Canada’s communications director Marc Pichette did not respond to specific questions but provided a statement:

“The email the director general Luce Julien sent to the staff on Monday was written to incite staff to be very careful when potentially using the term. Defining such guidelines is a responsibility that falls under her role. She does that, in this note where she reiterates her trust in her team’s judgment.”

Radio-Canada’s diversity and inclusion director Luc Simard said in an email that neither he or any people working at his office were consulted before the decision to allow the use of the N-word was made and communicated to staff. 

But the national broadcaster appears to lack a cohesive approach. While Radio-Canada’s director general uses the N-word in email correspondence to his staff to expressly permit its inclusion in content, CBC head of public affairs, Chuck Thompson, said the use of the word in the workplace is prohibited.

“There is zero tolerance for use of the N-word in our workplace and from an editorial perspective, our starting point with our journalists is to avoid using the N-word at all costs as we fully understand the harm it can cause,” said Thompson via email.

CBC does, however, leave room for editorial discretion: “That said, if the N-word is used in a different context and we want to report on it, our senior editorial team will evaluate on a case-by-case basis. In almost every circumstance, we feel substitutes such as the ‘N-word’ are more than adequate at conveying the meaning.” 

While some high profile CBC staff and teams have been scrutinized, faced consequences or received public backlash for using the word in editorial meetings, accountability measures have tended to follow Black employees blowing the whistle.  

In June, for instance, Wendy Mesley was suspended after being outed for using the word in an internal editorial meeting. But repercussions for the host, whose show The Weekly was ultimately cancelled, began with an internal investigation launched after Imani Walker, an associate producer who was present at that meeting, filed a complaint. 

Journalist and author Desmond Cole, who had been invited to participate as a guest on a panel about racism in Canadian media, shared an open letter addressed to Mesley explaining that they learned shortly before the segment that she would be absent for “personal reasons.” 

They only later learned that, in fact, she had been suspended for using “a word that should never be used” in the editorial meeting. Mesley claimed she was quoting a prospective panelist. She didn’t confirm which word she had used for another couple of weeks.   

“Black journalists are not responsible for Wendy Mesley’s racism, and we are outraged that she is trying to use us as a cover for her own choices. In the spirit of citing Black journalists, Mesley needs to tell us which Black journalist she claims she was quoting, and when and where the quote was given. This is the very least she owes us,” reads the letter, co-signed by me and a number of journalists, academics and writers including an open callout for support from media workers.

Mesley later said that the journalist she claimed she was quoting had not used the word in full. “I thought that by using the word in reference to journalism I was shining a light on anti-Black racism,” she wrote in a June 25 statement. “I now realize that I did the opposite and I am now one example of the problem.”

The broadcaster has weathered recent criticism for its editorial approaches to stories including Black Lives Matter protests and police aggression and its ombudsperson’s position that a children’s program erred by not offering transphobic viewpoints alongside repudiations of them. 

In Canada, “visible minorities” comprise 21 per cent of the workforce but 12 per cent of working journalists, wrote journalist and Kebec host Noémi Mercier in a Nov. 6 L’actualité column, citing longform census data compiled by Concordia journalism assistant professor Amélie Daoust-Boisvert.

In Québec, she wrote, “visible minorities” are 12 per cent  of the workforce, but only five per cent  of journalists. “There should therefore be two-and-a-half times more racialized journalists to reflect the makeup of the Quebec population.” There would need to be double the number of Black journalists, she wrote.

“There are a lot less racialized reporters in Francophone media and they are in more precarious positions than in English media, so it’s normal that speaking out is a bigger challenge,” said the former Radio-Canada reporter.

Radio-Canada’s vice-president Michel Bissonnette has not responded to our questions. 

Bissonnette referred me to his communications team, who pointed to a recent Radio-Canada ombudsperson review.

In his Oct. 26 analysis, ombudsperson Guy Gendron rejected the complaint made by Black social entrepreneur Ricardo Lamour who said he was shaken by the use of the term during a segment minutes before he appeared on a radio show in August. 

Gendron wrote in his review that the word doesn’t carry the same weight in the French language and that accuracy requires the full word to be used in cases such as titles, describing  “le mot en N” as “a bad copy of a formula used in English,” citing the “F-word” as another example.

Translated here from French, Gendron goes on to outline his characterization of the French use for this convention:

“We use it to designate a word that we do not want to hear or pronounce, it is so vulgar and offensive. By extension, when the economy is not doing well, the media will talk about the R-word, as in recession, a prospect that scares investors.”

He also compared a few terms that would be offensive in English and allowed in French, or vice versa. For example, Gendron says the word “race” in French is not recommended by Radio-Canada because “nothing allows us to scientifically define the notion of race,” adding that French conventions favour the notion of universalism (that all citizens are equal and part of the human race).

Adiaratou Diarrassouba, a Black journalist from France and co-founder of Paris-based online publication l’Afro, said the word is also used in French media to cite works or in expressions such “n**** littéraire”, travailler comme un n****, plan de n****.” But she doesn’t think it’s because the word has less weight in French as Radio-Canada suggests.  

“I think it’s because we don’t want to confront our colonialist history in the Francophone world,” said Diarrassouba, adding that the French constitution removed the word race to privilege the principle of universality. 

“I feel that Francophone countries try to avoid these conversations to not have to face their coloniality. The N-word is a very heavy word. By refusing to acknowledge that, it allows us to ignore current problems.”

The former Radio-Canada reporter thinks the broadcaster’s stance that the word has different meaning in French is very hypocritical. 

“I feel like we are forgetting our history when we say that. We are evacuating our responsibility,” said the journalist, who thinks the Francophone broadcaster ought to be more empathetic. “There were Black slaves in Quebec, there were Indigenous slaves in Quebec … people didn’t use that word to celebrate Blackness.” 

Gendron’s review includes the full word in English seven times and French 18 times, when quoting the original use of the word during the segment, Lamour’s complaint, referencing a book’s title and also in the body of his own analysis.

“We are tokenized on every level. We’re not just commas in that conversation.”

Lamour says he wants to know how Tait can explain what he called a double standard. CBC staff are disciplined when caught for using the word, but there are different interpretations of the journalistic standards and practices guidelines by the broadcaster’s English and French ombudspersons. Meanwhile, Tait meets with Black and racialized leaders to talk about diversity in the media, such as at the annual public meeting held in September.

Tait, who also did not respond to requests for comment, faced backlash in June after sending a message to CBC staff titled “Our stand in solidarity,” published on Twitter by Canadaland.

The statement, which was shared in the wake of mass protests against anti-Black violence and police brutality in the United States, was criticized by staff in an internal messaging portal for not citing anti-Black racism and never using the word Black. 

“We are tokenized on every level. We’re not just commas in that conversation,” Lamour said. 

The Montreal-based artist said he wasn’t satisfied with the answer provided by the ombudsperson, which he feels questions how Black people feel about the word. 

“At the University of Ottawa, we spoke about freedom of speech, but nothing was said about the Black students’ feelings in Francophone media. Here we are almost speaking about freedom of the press while nothing is said about how people who receive the word feel,” he said, adding that he is shaken every time he sees or hears Francophone reporters shamelessly use the word in their reporting. 

“It’s dehumanizing.”

A 2009 CRTC decision found that a program including the N-word, among other offences, aired by the CBC “violated section 5 (1) b ) of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987, which prohibits the broadcasting of offensive remarks and that it failed to meet the high quality standard set out in the Broadcasting Act.”

The ruling advised the broadcaster to apologize and put measures in place to prevent future violations of its regulatory obligations.

The industry has a short memory, said Lamour.

“People kneel for George Floyd but a few months later, when we say that certain practices must be changed, that this word shouldn’t be constantly repeated, there is enormous resistance, in a journalistic pool which is very homogenous,” he said. 

Lela Savić is a founding editor at La Converse, a Francophone community-powered newsletter launched in May by The Discourse, and the Quebec chapter lead of Canadian Journalists of Colour. She has worked at Journal Métro in Montreal, covering politics and human rights, CBC’s investigative show Enquête, La Presse and regularly presents lectures on biases and positionality in the media in Canada, the United States and Europe. The misrepresentation of her people in the media, the Roma, pushed her to become a journalist. To learn more about La Converse, read Lela’s piece from Word News Day.