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U of O law prof suing colleague over ‘house negro’ remark

|Written By Ravi Amarnath

A racial reference on a blog posting is at the centre of a lawsuit between two former University of Ottawa professors.

Joanne St. Lewis is suing a now-former University of Ottawa colleague for libel over inflammatory statements in a blog post.

Joanne St. Lewis, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, is suing former physics professor Denis Rancourt over statements he published about her on his blog.

Rancourt, who was a fully tenured professor at Ottawa before being fired in March 2009 and administered the blog “U of O Watch” since 2007, is being sued by St. Lewis for $1 million. At the heart of the dispute is a February 2011 blog post by Rancourt, “Did Professor Joanne St. Lewis act as Allan Rock’s house negro?”

The term “house negro” was used by civil rights activist Malcolm X in his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech to describe slaves who were subservient to their white masters, and received better living conditions than their peers who worked in the fields.

The origin of the dispute between St. Lewis and Rancourt dates back to November 2008, when the Student Appeal Centre of the Student Federation University of Ottawa released a report entitled “Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa.”

Among other findings, the report stated “Arab, Black, and Asian men and women — these are the students that most often get accused of academic fraud.”

In response to the report, University of Ottawa president Allan Rock had St. Lewis assess its findings. Her report, released Nov. 25, 2008, had 10 recommendations for the university’s administration and SAC to follow up.

Rancourt was critical of the report, stating in a December 2008 post, “rather than being an independent report, and far from being of professional caliber, the St. Lewis evaluation is prima facie intended to diffuse a media and public relations image management liability for the University.”

In February 2011, Rancourt released an update to the story, providing links to documents that SAC received from an access to information request, which showed correspondence between St. Lewis and members of U of O’s administration prior to the release of her 2008 report.

According to Rancourt’s post, the documents, “suggest[ed] that law professor Joanne St. Lewis acted like president Allan Rock’s house negro when she enthusiastically toiled to discredit a 2008 SAC report about systemic racial discrimination at the university.”

Rancourt stated in the post that “the term house negro was defined by Malcolm X in his famous ‘The House Negro and The Field Negro’ speech” — and provided a link to a video of him using the term.

In her statement of claim against Rancourt, dated June 23, 2011, St. Lewis — who has previously held positions with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Race Relations Directorate — is seeking $500,000 for general damages in defamation, $250,000 in aggravated damages, and $250,000 for punitive damages.

She is also seeking an order from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for Rancourt to remove the post from his site as well as an order that he publish a full and complete apology.

“The damages to professor St. Lewis increase and continue every day that the defamatory publications are available via the Internet — these defamatory statements must therefore be taken down,” stated St. Lewis’ counsel Richard Dearden, a lawyer with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP.

“The compensatory and punitive damages claimed relate to the injury to reputation caused by the defendant,” he added.

Rancourt defended his use of the term house negro in his blog post.

“Those who argue that the same point could have been made without using the term ‘house negro’ have the onus to explain why this racial socio-political term should not be used in circumstances where it applies,” Rancourt said in an e-mail to Law Times. “Public discourse is not served by those who, in this way, would censor accepted expressions which contain taboo words.

“Those who argue for this censorship in all media circumstances are saying ‘be polite’ and ‘be sensitive’ as a first requirement, thereby effectively drawing attention away from the actions which are being criticized. It is the institutional behaviour that needs examining, not the arguable benefits of censorship or self-censorship,” he added.

Rancourt issued an official statement of defence on July 22, requesting the action against him be dismissed. In the defence, Rancourt denied the allegations of racism and expressed his objection to the sentiment that it is “always unacceptable or improper for a white man to correctly use the term ‘house negro’ in referring to the actions of a black woman.”

He added this was particularly so in a “media context of critical commentary in a matter of public interest, namely systemic racism and improper professional and institutional behaviour at a university.”

Additionally, Rancourt offered a number of defences to his blog posts, including defence of truth, defence of fair comment, and defence of responsible reporting.

St. Lewis’ counsel filed a reply to Rancourt’s statement of defence on Aug. 5, and on Aug. 18 submitted a notice of motion for an order that mandatory mediation of the action take place in September and an order that either former Ontario Justice James Chadwick or lawyer Kevin Mullington be chosen as a mediator. Rancourt has until Aug. 29 to submit a reply factum to the notice.

None of the allegations set out in any of the pleadings or court documents have yet been proven in court.

Rancourt was a professor at the University of Ottawa for 23 years before his dismissal, which Ottawa’s administration stated in a 2009 press release was motivated in part by Rancourt awarding an A+ to the students in his fourth-year physics class and Masters class in 2008. The university said it would damage the institution’s reputation, but Rancourt said he was free to use any teaching method and stated this was an effort to get students to focus more on learning than on grades.

However, the case is still not wholly settled. The Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa, having Rancourt as its main witness, is currently engaged in a binding arbitration process with Ottawa administration over the status of his job.  The hearings began in May and are expected to go into 2012.

  • Tony K
    Dr. Rancourt, I am a person of color. I support you. If you are deemed to have been racist because you are a white man, and Lewis raises that as the issue, or even an aggravating factor it is legally irrelevant. The issue is defamation. If you were being racist, it would be a criminal offense. I see no criminal complaint here. As for Prof. Lewis. Shame on you.
  • Steven Noble
    Victor - the term is "house negro" - NOT "house nigger". The latter term is racist; the former is not. That ASSISTANT PROFESSOR St. Lewis stepped in to do the bidding of PRESIDENT Allan Rock to refute student claims of systemic racism is indeed problematic - most notably from the gross power differential (assistant professors are non-tenured and are at risk of losing their jobs if they don't follow administrative commands). Could St. Lewis refuse Rock's "request"? I doubt it. By having a "legal opinion" (heavy on the opinion part) to cover up student complaints is underhanded and has as its core purpose to dismiss student voices, minimize institutional liability, while playing to the media.
  • Anna
    As a black recent law graduate, I'm gonna be as blunt as Mr Rancourt: "Would he have used the term and qualified a non-black person of house negro?" Would he like in the name of the freedom of speech to be called by any derogatory term existing in the vocabulary of non-White people around the world and that would "rightfully" apply to him? It is and will always be unacceptable for anyone, especially, a white man to use the term "house negro" to address the actions of anyone, especially a black person. It is too late to rewrite history so love it or hate it, there are things that a white person is not allowed to say to a black person. This is the rightful consequences of heinous acts that were not the making of black people.
  • john
    you're missing the point....it's unacceptabel for anyone to use the term. There is no need to quantify based on race....either its wrong or its not. PERIOD.

    and if there are things that a white man can't say to a black person, then the inverse should also be upheld.

    It's about equality, not having the pendulum swing in the opposite, yet equally extreme direction.
  • Ron John
    I think this is a very nuanced situation. I understand that his choice of words will necessarily cause offence but perhaps what is more important is what he is saying. I think we are so quick to be caught up in whether or not we are offended by a word that we fail to consider the broader picture. According to Mr. Rancourt's SOD he is "married to a person of colour" and has two daughters "of colour". Does this give him standing to use such language? No, but it should provide some food for thought to those interested in simply branding him a racist. He is seeking to promote debate and discussion. Sometimes this can be uncomfortable. I find the suit as a whole, not to mention the tone taken by Mr. Deardon on the e-mail exhange- see Rancourt's blog for the link- quite distastful.
  • Jane Scharf
    I guess what I want to know is why would a black woman want to diminish the impact of a student report that found:

    "Out of the 48 students who consulted the Student Appeal Centre between November 1, 2007 and October 31, 2008 with cases of academic fraud, 71% were visible minorities.
    Arab, Black and Asian men and women – these are the students that most often get accused of academic fraud."
  • Read the Report...
    Probably cuz the report is garbage - if you read it, its nonsense. It makes wild claims without providing any substantive data to support them. It basically says "this many people came and saw us. we think its alot, so there must be a problem." It never says what the total population is or other baseline information from which you could assess if its actually systemic or not - anyone with a basic undergrad statistics course can tell you this. The 'black woman' pointed this out and got flamed for it.

    I think the bigger issue here is you have a fired white physics prof with a beef with UO claiming he knows the meaning of the term better than black people. Typical. And the report was written by one of his friends - how is he objective in any of this? The term is racist, but its also separately defamatory - that's the basis of the suit. From his FB page, it seems JS, Steve, and B are supporters of his too.
  • Steve
    The report has comments no more "wild" than Lewis's shameful attempts at smearing. To draw from the quote above "this many people came and saw us. we think it's a lot, so there must be a problem." And then the response goes into some pseudo statistical nonsense to attempt minimize the number of people complaining. In a university setting - that ANY student complains about racism should be one too many. This writer suggests that thre is a minimum number required before the complaint is taken seriously. That's like 10,000 people after 5 million vaccinations. What is too many? The prof is not suggesting that he knows the term better than black people - but that he's using the term in the way Malcolm X first used it... so he's drawing from black experience and expertise. As used by Malcolm X it is a derogatory term to highlight the abuses within a community. And (black) Lewis is a close ally of (white) Rock... but no critique made of that relationship.....
  • bob
    women are not a minority in the canadian society and certainly not at university...
  • Anna
    [quote name="Jane Scharf"]I guess what I want to know is why would a black woman want to diminish the impact of a student report that found:

    "[/quote]

    What are you saying? That because she's black, she has to cry wolf even if there is no need? Enough with the collective guilt, the collective responsibility, the collective victimization and above all the automatic ostracism of a "sister" or a "brother" who doesn't seem to stand by the group. As a black law student at U of O, I can tell you that Pr. Lewis has integrity, she has no problem telling it like it when it should be and no matter who is in front of her. She's very involved in helping students from visible minorities and isn't an Oreo either in case you were wondering.
  • barbaratodish
    Watch out, saying "Oreo" might be politically incorrect too! lol
  • Victor Fletcher
    I can't believe a professor would refer to another one as a "house nigger".

    Some people should have retired a long time ago.

    Again, this caste system should have expired years ago -- why are there no more condemnations here?
  • Stew Gatz
    It's one thing to be able prove the defamation but how is she going to prove that it may have caused her true monetary damages of $1mil if she's still gainfully employed by the university & her other income (if any) hasn't diminshed?
  • Louise James
    Um, Stew Gatz - she's seeking general, punitive and aggravated damages. She's not seeking anything for loss of income. You should probably know the law and language of civil proceedings before commenting on such.
  • David DIckinson
    She should have taken this claim to the Human Rights Tribunal. In British Columbia, the average award for damages to dignity is $4,000, not $4 million. At least when the claimants are dirt poor Natives...
  • Rajendra Persaud
    I commend Ms. St. Lewis for proceeding with such a claim. Mr. Rancourt, using the words of "Malcom X" in his blog is unacceptable for he is not Malcolm X and was never in a position as such. Especially as an educated professional, should understand and never have used such language. This is clear indication, no matter what, there will always be discrimination, in particular, to persons of colour. This has to end.

    Ms. St. Lewis, I was denied the opportunity of completing my law degree at an Ontario law school for failing to meet their 3.0 average although I passed all courses. My grad point average was 2.7.

    I am certinly pleased to see that you are taking a stand and wish you all the best.

    Cheers
    Raj


    96mq9
  • John
    @Raj...so by the rationale that you are stating, no one should be able to quote historically/politically important figures, because they are not them or in a similar position as such? How many people quote Malcolm X or MLK without having suffered any of the civil injustices that those men suffered. And simply being of the same ethnicity is not sufficient to justify the use of certain terms (no matter how you slice it, using racially charged words or terms is wrong whether you are white, black or asian - the "well i'm one so I can say it" argument is not a valid justification - if it's wrong then it's wrong for everyone, not just white people)
    I do not agree with Mr Rancourt's statements, because different language could be used.
    I am curious how someone can expect to be permitted to complete a degree when their grades do not meet the requirements put forth by the school?
  • Grace
    Why in our institutions people are denied their human/constitutional rights, something even British mercenaries had not done in their waning days. We never got independence in 1867 or 1982, we simply replaced the 'White Brits' with 'Ethnic Brits'.
    Look at the functioning of ethnic professors they get standing ovations only to oppose accommodations for ethnis students and ethnic benchers in Law Society(competing in finding favours with exploiters) ignoring injustices metted out to fellow citizens, over 620 homeless died in streets as no lawyer reached out to them in time.
    I think law society and Govt. are blissfully ignorant of the depth and intensity of people's wrath. If we don't wake up to the writing of the wall, one day youth may not turn the Nathan Philip Square and Osgoode Hall into Tahiri Square.
    The atmosphere is so charged that It needs a spark and no body knows what could happen, than? "Keep crusade non-violent" Mr. Dahiya stresses. Street guy, City Law Centre
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