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Immigration and Citizenship

There’s no room for this word in Quebec’s schools

There’s no room for this word in Quebec’s schools

March 14th, 2018

There are moments living here in Quebec when you have to wonder if it’s really 2018 and not 1918.

One such moment occurred at the end of February, when the parents of two 11-year old students complained about the use of the French word “nègre” in a classroom assignment.

In English, “nègre” translates in one of two ways, either as the outdated term “Negro” or its more infamous, racist variation that also starts with the letter N.

Unless you’re teaching a course on black history, this word has no business in an elementary school classroom in 2018, in French or English. And yet there it was in a grammar exercise at Montreal’s Académie Saint-Clément just a few weeks ago.

Shocked, the girls, who are both black, asked their teacher why it was included in their assignment alongside words like wolf, bear, flea and axe. According to media reports, the teacher said there was nothing wrong with the word and justified its use by pointing to books like “TinTin Au Congo” and the French translation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” whose title in French is “Dix petits nègres.” If such books were offensive, he told the girls, you wouldn’t find them in libraries.

It’s true that you can find Christie’s classic thriller in libraries. A brief search of the internet shows that many libraries even carry copies bearing the offensive title under which it was originally published in the United Kingdom — “Ten Little N**gers.”

As to “TinTin au Congo,” the Brooklyn Public Library removed the comic book from public view in 2009 due to “illustrations that were racially offensive and inappropriate for children.”

The girls’ parents told The Gazette newspaper that the teacher has a history of making racial jokes in class and treating their daughters differently from the other students. They now want the girls taken out of the class.

One of the girls’ mothers told the CBC that children of her daughter’s age are still learning right from wrong and she worries that including such a word in a class exercise leaves them thinking it’s OK.

“It’s irresponsible for a teacher or a school to distribute such learning material to children in Grade 6,” she said. “These are children who are learning, who have to grow and develop. And this is a way to invite children who are not of African descent to normalize that term.”

Fo Niemi, the head of Montreal race relations organization CRARR, said the fact “nègre” was the only word in the exercise that referred to people left him wondering if a kind of objectification or “insidious form of racism” was at work.

The Montreal-based publisher of the exercise book has since removed the word from the electronic version of the book. A spokesman told The Gazette that the book was first published 22 years ago and he didn’t know how the word made it into print.

Yet one doesn’t have to look far to understand how this could happen in Quebec.

Up until three years ago, one could find 11 locations around the province where the word “nègre” and even its blatantly racist English variant were literally part of the local landscape.

One of the sites, situated along the Gatineau River 120 kilometres north of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, was called N**ger Rapids after a black couple who drowned there in the early 1900s.

Fifty kilometres south of Montreal, near the U.S. border, was a hill called N**ger Rock. According to the Quebec Typonomy Commission, the public body responsible for managing place names in the province, black slaves were buried on the hill from 1794 until the British abolished slavery in 1833.

In 2015, a campaign led by Montreal activist Rachel Zellars finally helped convince the commission to change the names of all 11 locations.

A black American, Zellars was studying for her PhD at McGill University here in Montreal, where she was looking at the history of anti-black public schooling practices in Quebec and the rest of Canada in the first half of the 19th century.

In an opinion piece in The Gazette written at the time, Zellars said an honest account of the black experience in Quebec over the last 200 years makes it impossible to deny the racist roots of the word “nègre.”

“Although some insist upon the benign etymology of the word “nègre,” Quebec’s history tells a different story,” Zellars wrote. “Given Quebec’s history of anti-black racism and slavery, it is clear that the sites containing the word “nègre” were intended as denigration… It is time to retire it for good from official provincial use. It is also absolutely time to insist on greater infrastructure (textbooks, secondary courses, university programs and degrees, etc.) that focus on black Quebec history and culture.”

Zellars wrote this in 2015. That we continue to see the word ‘nègre’ in use in Quebec classrooms in 2018 shows we still have a lot more educating to do on its deep, ugly roots in the province, beginning with at least one teacher.

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